It was 2:30 a.m. on a nice enough night, but there were not enough stars in the sky. Or maybe I didn’t try hard enough to look for Orion and the Big Dipper. It was a hot August in humid southern Indiana. Even at night the air was heavy and enveloping. There’s no retreat from the swelter of a small town, only a swift, silent exit in the dead of night.
That’s what I used to think.
It was a month after my 20th birthday and a week before I left home to start my sophomore year of college. I thumbed through the 4x6 prints I had selected to adorn the walls in my new room. The girl in the picture wore pigtails and a yellow jumper. The girl in the mirror wore her hair down and began to cry. It’s jolting, seeing yourself as that unrecognizable child in a photograph, then realizing it must have been you. It was you, before you were yourself.
I cried as I thought of the first time I sat alone in my dorm room freshman year when my roommate left for the weekend. It felt indigestible, too big, too much. I was alone and it was a Friday in September. I looked at the picture tacked adjacent to my bed of the girl in her yellow jumper in her Pop’s arms. She was small. I felt small in that moment, like the world was big and I was an ant.
I burned incense in my dorm room freshman year, one of the things they tell you explicitly not to do. Authority is perhaps meant to be subtly challenged, but only when the rules involve outlawing nag champa and ashtrays. I lit two sticks and watched the ashes crumble. The sweet smell was familiar and reminded me of my mother. I like incense because it gives you a hug and tells you everything will be alright. Ashes fell and I smiled. I didn’t cry but I wanted to. I put some music on, and I danced alone in my room. It was Friday in September, and I didn’t feel too alone anymore. I had myself.
I picked up another 4x6 of my parents on their wedding day. I brushed the lingering tears from my cheeks, ridding myself of existentialist thoughts. Life was bright and it was now 3 a.m. I don’t do well staying up late. I paused my thoughts and crashed into a dream.
This week, I sat and thought about that girl in the yellow jumper and looked at the girl in the mirror. She swung from jungle gyms, danced like no one was watching and played pretend. I thought about that girl in her dorm room. She broke some rules, was perhaps a fire hazard and savored independence like it was sweet wild-grown honeysuckle. I had to learn to dance alone. It’s not on a syllabus.
In college and in our early twenties, we all learn to dance alone. We learn who to burn incense with, and we learn when we’ve burnt too much of it. We change and grow. It’s painful and miraculous at the same time. It’s the victories of the highest highs, the depths of the lowest lows and the unpaved in-betweens where life occurs. It’s love and loss, independence and what to do with it all. In 2023, it’s navigating social media addiction and hook-up culture. We all navigate these life lessons in college, but in the moments that we learn the lessons, we feel isolated.
Everyone has growing pains, but we don’t talk about them enough. In future columns, I hope to bring these growing pains to light, sharing life lessons that we all experience.
Growing pains expand your heart wide and give you legs for dancing. There’s no retreat from the swelter of a small town, only the power of growth and change. That’s what I think now.
Audrey Vonderahe (she/her) is a sophomore studying journalism and criminal justice.