Editor’s note – this was an essay which was originally published in Athens Magazine (Vol. 20, No. 4 September-October 2008) with “G-O-D-A-W-G-S-! printed on the binding of the issue. In this edition, an almost-23-year old me writing from the perspective of “A recent grad learns about life beyond Athens.”
“Swampwise” is the first long-form nonfiction narrative I was ever paid to write, and it was all thanks to my pal, Margaret Blanchard. I first met her when I was 16, attending the Georgia Journalism Academy. Each summer, for one week, the Grady College of Journalism & Mass Communication is home to high school students aspiring to major in the field once they get to the University of Georgia. This week I spent in Athens changed my life forever, and a big part of it is because of Margaret.
So we present to you Swampwise: A UGA grad learns about life beyond Athens
One year-and-some-odd months ago, President Michael Adams stood in Sanford Stadium and officially released me from the University of Georgia into the real world. This certainly has been an interesting ride.
At a past performance in Athens, comedian Patton Oswalt said of our fair town: “This city is like Willy Wonka’s factory. You (Athens residents) are living in a weird bubble, dream city of goodness.”Oswalt’s words have definitely rung true. My first year out has been drastically different from the comfort of pseudo-adulthood I enjoyed for four years. This has been the hardest year of my young life – including three different jobs, two car wrecks, and one major break up with my college boyfriend.
Growing up and moving on are just part of this game called life. But when life gets hardest, I find myself longing to be back in Athens. I believe that many folks in the Bulldog Nation may feel the same. Athens has a magnetic force that keeps an invisible power over its former residents: a wistfulness for times gone by, and the unifying factor that we can always daydream of better days at UGA, and hope to return to Athens soon.
For me, the best days as a student started by getting off the Milledge Avenue Bus in the morning, grabbing a coffee at Walker’s Pub, then venturing across North Campus to class listening to my iPod. I fondly remember waking up on Game Day, putting a temporary Georgia “G” tattoo on my cheek, donning a red and black dress, hiding a bottle of So-Co in the bottom of the largest purse I own and venturing off to tailgate.
While I was fortunate enough during my tenure at UGA to trot across the Western Hemisphere – including studying abroad at Oxford University – ultimately, for four glorious years, Athens was my home.
Who would have thought, that I would leave it for Gainesville, Fla., the home of the mighty University of Florida, Gator Country, and The Swamp?
When I arrived in Gainesville, I felt a bit like Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz. It wasn’t the Emerald City, but the land of Orange and Blue. Just like Dorothy, I made great friends along the road, encountered my own version of the Wicked Witch of the West, Glenda the Good Witch (my two closest Gator girlfriends), and even acquired a Toto. But Gainesville was never Athens or Atlanta: I just wanted to click my heels and go home.
There’s a reason they call Gainesville “The Swamp.” The first six weeks of living there were like living in a rain forest. My hair, typically straight as a board, for the first time began to frizz. And the fauna of this town was enough to give anyone pause. Warning signs to “Beware of Alligators” as you walk your pooch in the dog park are common, as are armadillos strolling alongside joggers out for a morning run. Lizards lay in packs sunbathing (or mating) on the side of buildings.
My favorite critters of all had to be the silverfish, these skinny little silver bugs that will nest in closets. Mother always said they liked paper, but it turns out they also have a penchant for Polo shirts. And in the year-round swampy heat, fleas and mosquitos never really die.
Even though my heart still belonged to the Bulldog Nation, I discovered the land of Orange and Blue was actually a unique and fun city. Once the weather turned cooler (and football season ended) I began to feel a sense of belonging. I discovered a few good restaurants, made friends, and even joined a bowling league at work.
But try as I might, returning to Gainesville after a trip home to Georgia never gave me the same surge of happiness I felt driving back to Athens or Atlanta. It was a sense of obligation, for work, and a sense of dread, knowing it would never feel as comforting and welcoming as the cities in Georgia I love so much.
Last February (2008), my lease was ending on my apartment in Gainesville, and the homesickness because too much to bare. This was before the economic slump became so steep, and job opportunities were plentiful back in Atlanta, so I returned to my home state. I’m now back in familiar territory, but it’s not as if I crawled back into the womb.
Being a 23-year-old since Atlantan has more treats, trials and tribulations than I ever expected. When I first moved back from Florida, I thought life would be perfect: I landed a new job within two weeks of arriving, found a great apartment in the city, and rediscovered old friends from both high school and college. Life, I thought, would never get any better than this.
But within a week, the bottom fell out. I was suddenly broke (who knew fender benders would be so expensive?) and broken up with my college boyfriend. Although, hitting rock bottom only meant there was room to rebuild. I sought solace in my friends and family, and worked even harder at my new job.
Living in Atlanta, especially near the ever-growing Buckhead, I find myself longing for the simpler days in a less congested city. I miss the times worrying about newspaper deadlines, finding a dress for sorority date night, and where to meet up Downtown (The Grill or Pita Pit?) for our sober driver. Now there are nights when I come home from work and plop on the couch with a glass of the latest Kroger bargain wine and wonder, “is this really what life after college is like?” [Editor’s note: for the record, when I submitted this draft to Margaret Blanchard, she wrote back “Yup, pretty much.”]
Where do we go from here? Keep moving up in the professional world, get married, buy a house, have kids and eventually retire? Recently, at an event in downtown Atlanta with my new mentor, he predicted my future: Married with my first baby (a son) by the time I’m 30, living in an $850,000 house in Chastain Park, and being a stay-at-home mom…at least for that present time. This future sounded great (albeit we had a few cocktails) and I found myself enamored with the idea of marrying well and not having to work. Then again, many folks dream of being a “kept” spouse, but that’s definitely not why I attended the University of Georgia. This time (in 2007) I was prepared to take the world by storm. I was willing to move to London, for the right job.
Somewhere along the way between posing in my cap and gown and job hunting, it became clear that I needed to have a few small adventures before committing to move overseas. The future shouldn’t be predestined for the 20-somethings of the world. This is my official declaration that I will refuse to settle for a job, significant other, or life in general simply because it seems safe or comfortable.
The University and the town of Athens itself are both always growing and changing, and in a few years, my favorite restaurants, coffee houses, and shops will probably be renamed or nonexistent. Just the same, there are pieces in my life I always want to improve upon: I dream of going back to grad school, finding that special someone, and, yes, living overseas.
Despite all the stress of being an adult, I want to savor every moment the same way I cherish the best times from Athens. If there’s one lesson being a college graduate – above everything I learned in the classroom – it’s to always keep dreaming. No matter how old we are, we should always be looking for the next big adventure. Just because we leave the “weird, bubble, dream city of goodness” for the “real world” doesn’t mean we have to stop dreaming or settle for mediocrity. Athens will always be in my head and in my heart, wherever the road leads me.
— Lauren Morgan is a freelance writer living in Atlanta. She graduated from the University of Georgia in May 2007 where she served as Editor-in-Chief of The Red & Black. She has been featured in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, The Gwinnett Daily Post, and a variety of publications. Lauren lives in Atlanta with her dog, Indiana Jones, and is searching for her next big adventure.