I was in line, walking past a sea of families, distant relatives, and close friends with the shuffling of cameras, flashes, and catcalling splicing every ounce of excitement hanging in the gym’s atmosphere. I handed my card over to the provost and walked across stage with the gargantuan Winona State symbol to my left, the dean of the college of liberal arts and president of the university in front of me. For a moment as my name was called and my family cheered, everything mentally went blank as I accepted my diploma and sat back down in my row after a regimen of handshakes. Graduation had finally shined down on myself and 369 others on a balmy December morning after years of dedication. After the ceremony, meeting professors, congratulating friends, and lunch, I went home thinking about how those few seconds were going to feel for months before. I pictured it, put everyone there in the scene I knew would be present, and tried to preemptively capture the feeling of it all ending. It didn’t work. Because for me, there was nothing like it. Four and a half years of capital built up in academic audits, friends made, things learned, and capital lost in sickness and the sacrifices made in pursuit of the former amalgamated into a few hours of something I hadn’t really felt before. I crawled across the finish line of an academic ultra marathon of final exams, papers, and projects with the course behind me stained with cheap coffee, clothes that hadn’t been washed in a dog’s age, and Slim Jims bought at Kiwk Trip across from campus. By far the most stressful finals week I ever had in my academic career (thus far). In fact, I remember the line from an old song by Lazlo Bane replaying in my head after the dust settled where Chad Fischer sings…
“You’ve crossed the finish line, won the race but lost your mind… was it worth it after all?”
I’ve been through a lot of transitions in nearly 23 years between moving homes, friends coming and leaving, changing schools, moving to another city for college, jobs, and family leaving Minnesota. Being the introspective person I am, I’ve spent time thinking back to all of those things and sifting through costs counted from relationships and time wasted at the feet of addiction and among other things. Part of reaching the finish line came with costs that amounted to mistakes made in leadership positions, with friends, and roommates. I’d normally say that the latter is a collection of minority reports in the shadow of the bigger picture that I’d rather forget about . The truth is that there may be some regret in decisions made within those contexts, but would I have really lived if I hadn’t experienced those? No. It made my journey through college feel more organic and worth telling about. Graduating is the first time that I’ve been able to look back on a period of life without regretting anything, good or bad. Everything caught in the nooks and crannies of every triumph and defeat was worth every cent spent in tuition, victory Chipotle runs, coffee from Mugby Junction, late night conversations, study groups, and toil. So yeah, there were points where I lost my mind, but the grace of God led me back to sanity through a system of social support and family. It was worth it after all. Then I asked myself a question that simultaneously terrified, excited, and bewildered me…
When I was a sophomore in college, I came up with this plan that would get me out of my hometown after 20 years. Working part time at a fifties restaurant and keeping up with the Jones’ of my life in the Twin Cities was getting me nowhere – especially because it fueled the growing fire of an addiction that burned my personal life and galvanized my issues with severe anxiety. I guess you could say I was planning an escape route down highway 52. I had a rough outline of what would happen in Winona. Take my classes, find a group of friends, get involved in a ministry, and maybe meet a girl. Whatever else happened was “up to God.” I left my hometown in search of healing, meaning, and belonging and I found those here. The blueprints never went into the tenor of what happens when it’s all over. But it is. I had done what I set out to do.
Anyone reading this who has gone to college and tried to go back to your hometown probably understands what Thomas Wolfe wrote when he penned, “You can’t go home again.” Being in the Twin Cities for a time of rest and relaxation never proved that phrase to ring more true. Don’t get me wrong, I love my family and have amazing friends back home… but a lot has changed. Hardly any of it seems familiar to me now. I go back to church and don’t recognize many people there anymore outside of my good friends and acquaintances that I’ve known for years. Some of my family has moved across the country. Friends of mine are now engaged, married, having children, beginning careers, getting jobs, traveling for internships, getting involved in full time ministries and embarking on their own journeys that take us away from what we once had. Though those friendships continue to be strong, there’s still a sense of loss after nearly three years of intermittent separation. Maybe, I expected the good parts of my life to be on pause ‘til I came home. It’s like I was watching a DVD, pressed the remote and walked out of the room, figuring I could sit down, and pick it up where I left off when I transferred. I’m figuring out that I can’t. As I have been told by so many before me whom have gone through something similar, there is no escaping the changes in the tides of friendships (or family for that matter) after college. Despite the mystique of sorting through the changes back home, I find myself in a unique position of staying in the city I went to college in post graduation. I’m surrounded by so many good people that I have known throughout my time here so far and will have the chance to maintain some of them, begin knew ones, and root myself further into the church that I have called home for two and a half years. It means that I don’t have to scrap every blueprint I originally drew, start from scratch, and try to cobble something together in a new city or job environment. This time, I’m deciding to let God be the architect, take the pencil, and sketch out a new plan. The layout may seem unfamiliar to me at points, I may become puzzled or even frustrated about what I begin to see on paper, but I know in time that what the Lord has for me in the next year of life will be memorable, worthwhile, and better than anything that I could imagine on paper.
While I was home, my buddy Andrew and I came to the conclusion that there’s a Relient K song/playlist for every emotion and situation. I wish I could have found one for this post, but I found more resonance through Switchfoot in this case. In their live performances during the previous two album cycles, they have ended with the ending track from 2011’s Vice Verses, Where I Belong. Inspired by the writings of C.S. Lewis, lead singer, John Foreman, wrote this song about arriving in heaven after a life of meaning lived on Earth. The song bids an emotionally tailored farewell at the bridge when Jon Foreman sings, “On the final day I die, I want to hold my head up high, and tell you that I tried to live it like a song. And when I reach the other side, I want to look you in the eye and know that I’ve arrived in a world where I belong.” I find that part to be poignant, especially when he sings, “I tried to live it like a song.” In the context of a guy like Foreman, music is his form of worship, his way of grappling with the tribulations of life, ask the difficult questions, and express the emotional spectrum in whole. In essence, the line brings the deepest sense of meaning to Foreman. I’m beginning a new chapter of life that will be a few pages in the book that (hopefully) God writes the epilogue of when I reach the other side. Though eternity holds what is promised as paradise, I’m still finding where I belong in a time of transition and change. Right now, that’s Winona.
So, am I where I belong? I’d like to think so, and I’m sure that answer will change in the years to come, but for the time being, it will do.
And I’m quite content with that.