For the last 11 years, I have lived in Tallahassee, Florida.
I never meant to. It was never one of those cities I set my sights on as a young girl pondering what my life would be like when I turned 21, 25, 30. It just sort of happened. I did my undergrad degree in south eastern Tennessee, a place I chose because it was 10 hours by car away from home. It might as well have been on the other side of the world.
My undergraduate experience didn’t force me to grow up. I had planned from the day I entered high school to attend graduate school and go work for the FBI. When a series of unfortunate events forced me to reconsider that career path, I was left without a Plan A. And because I never really considered the possibility that I would not achieve Plan A, I didn’t have a feasible Plan B. So, I went home to Ft. Myers, Florida after a tear-stained night spent awake and sad at the prospect of leaving the only real boyfriend I had ever had.
I was in Ft. Myers for 8 months, spinning my wheels. Trying to figure out what to do with my life. Trying to figure out why I felt like a failure, why at 22 going on 23, I felt like I hadn’t gotten very far. My sister had transfered from the University of Tennessee to Florida State University that year, and I joined her in Tallahassee. My plan was simple: bang out a PhD in public health or epidemiology and jaunt around the world doing interesting things and seeing interesting places.
Of course, this is before I knew that doing a PhD in anything isn’t a good backup plan. And it was before I realized that my perception of what people did with a PhD in public health or epidemiology was mostly a fantasy, based on movies and television shows. It was also before a professor had a “come to jesus” talk with me about how if I wanted to do infectious disease epi, I was in the wrong program at the wrong school.
I remember the drive into Tallahassee wondering how in the hell I would figure out where everything was. I secured a crappy apartment next to campus and waited for my life to start. In that first year, I said good bye for the last time to that first boyfriend, my sister got married and moved away, and I was in love with the man I would eventually marry. I had begun course work for a PhD in Sociology while working a fulltime job.
In the 11 years I was there (and the 7 years it took me to get the degree), I would become a wife, a mother, and a coach. I would find each of these roles to be life changing, soul defining events. So much so, that I don’t recognize the girl I was when I moved to Tallahassee. She was timid, fearful. She wasn’t sure of her place in the world, and she cared far too much about the opinions of others. The girl that sobbed on I-75 south from Cleveland, Tennessee to Atlanta in 2001 has been replaced by this woman who stopped waiting for her life to start. This woman is moving her family to Chicago (fulfilling her life long dream of living in one of the great American cities). This woman drove I-24W from Chattanooga en route to I-65 in Louisville will pull into Chicago tomorrow to start a career that she is sure to love, utilizing a PhD that she earned in Tallahassee.
As much as I have changed, there are some things that remain the same. Southeast Tennessee remains one of the most beautiful places in the world, particularly in the spring. I remember those overblown, late afternoons coming back from Chattanooga in April or May. The interstate cuts through the foothills of the Smoky Mountains, along side jagged rock and stone that is shiny from water dripping down from on high and you’re forced to marvel at the manpower it took to create such an interstate. There are lakes and ponds with water so still and mirror-like that you’re sure you’ve arrived at the place where the earth touches heaven.
Ducking into the shadows cast by the sun dipping west of the foothills of the Cumberland Plateau, in between big rigs and long haul trailers, I looked in the rearview mirror and saw that girl. The one I used to be. Her face is thinner. She doesn’t carry the extra pounds that came with the birth of my son. She doesn’t have the crows feet that crinkle my eyes or the laugh lines that frame my mouth. In that fleeting moment, with her thick eyebrows and peroxide blonde hair, she was almost unrecognizable. But I smiled at her, pulled my sunglasses down to shade my eyes from the sun and turned the radio up. When I looked in the rearview mirror, she was gone.