Staples always smells the same, but it only gives me butterflies in late summer.
I was walking through the store one night this week, searching for new notebooks for work and breathing in the smell of paper and gel ink and plastic notebook dividers — the smell that always means summer is drawing to a close and another chapter of life is starting, with a new slate of classes and a new break for lunch and, of course, a new stack of notebooks.
In Staples in late July, there are bright, plastic signs shouting about back-to-school savings and back-to-school extras and back-to-school deals. It felt like the room was getting smaller and smaller as I realized I was not going back to school, that in August things would continue exactly as they had been, that the only change fall would bring was the arrival of student loan bills in my mailbox.
I have reacted predictably to the end of college, my reaction mirroring the ones I’ve seen from dozens of friends and acquaintances who, in the last handful of years, put on gowns and walked across stages and saw a 17-year constant of their lives end, just like that.
Like everyone else suddenly deprived of August beginnings, those sharp delineations between one part of life and the next, I have found myself both nostalgic for change and overwhelmed by it. Change, in the world of formal schooling, comes predictably and right on schedule. You’re nervous before the new semester starts, uncomfortable on the first day of class, and then you settle in. Just when you start to get sick of the sameness, the cycle starts again.
In this new world, though, change could stay away for days and weeks and years, then hit you all of a sudden when you’re least expecting it. I’m overwhelmed by how permanent everything seems. My bosses are not professors who, after I’ve failed to impress them, can be placed in a box of “better next time” while I skip off to the next semester to try again. My mistakes seem to stick in a way they never did when a whole new life — new friends, new colleagues, new living situation — was waiting just around the corner, a few months away at the most.
Everything seems so real and so serious and at 8 a.m. or so every day, the realities of the real world come crashing in again. I can’t pretend it’s what I thought it would be. Really, is it what any of us thought it would be?
The only way I can think of to get a handle on it — this world without reliable change and endless second chances, where we are “real” after all — is to find some way to stay in touch with the people we were when our worlds were divided by summers and Staples in August gave us butterflies.
Back then, I read and I wrote, so I’m picking up books and scrawling on memo pads. If you took walks outside or swam laps or played the piano, x out of your email and switch off your phone and do those things.
It is impossible to be 22 or 23 or 24 and meet anyone who doesn’t, within the first five minutes, ask what you “do.” And of course what they mean is who signs your paychecks, which desk do you sit at from 9 to 5.
But there is a you completely separate from the career you chose, entirely apart from what you “do.” Finding those people again, even in bits and pieces — maybe that’s what can get us through this strange part of life when there are no more seasons and no more summers.