Angela Abbott
April 04, 2015 6:00 am

When I was 22, I moved from my small town in Indiana to Wilmington, North Carolina, to attend graduate school. It was 12 hours away, and sure, I had options closer to home, but I had wanted to live there ever since visiting the quaint coastal town a few years earlier, and I found the ideal English teaching program for me. After I was accepted, I excitedly told my parents and within a few months, I was packing my belongings for the biggest change of my life.

You see, I had lived in the same house since I was born. When I went to college, I moved just three hours north to remain in the state, mostly for financial reasons, but also because many of my friends were staying in state, so it made sense. I went to New York City for an internship in my final year of college, but I only stayed for three months. I would be in Wilmington for a year or possibly more, which was an eternity at the time.

It was intimidating. I had to find a place to live without visiting the place in person again, which I couldn’t afford. I found my apartment online and signed up for a roommate I wouldn’t meet until my first day there. I didn’t know much about the city so I wasn’t sure if I chose a place in a good part of town or not. I wasn’t sure of anything! Yet the uncertainty gave me a rush, because it meant that I was doing something so different that, for the first time, I didn’t know what to expect.

On the other hand, I was also apprehensive about the fact that I wouldn’t be able to come home for a random weekend to visit my family whenever I pleased. At that point, I had never even missed a birthday party. I have a great relationship with my parents, I tell my mom absolutely everything, and not being able to see them regularly was sad.

I also didn’t know anyone in the city, or even close to the city. No more girl’s nights with Amanda, or singing “Don’t Stop Believin'” at karaoke bars with Donna. And who would be there to give me guy advice? Not Lee, who had pretty much been my wingman for years.

My parents helped me move in and stayed the weekend to ensure I was OK. And then they left. I felt completely alone, yet excited. I realized that I had a clean slate. Not that I was looking to escape some shady secretive past, but there was something incredibly powerful in knowing that no one in Wilmington knew anything about me. They didn’t know I had never been in a serious relationship or that I was a total choir geek in high school. I could be whoever I wanted to be.

I volunteered for Habitat for Humanity one weekend in an effort to meet new people. That day, we were putting the roof on a house, and as we were wrapping up the project, I met one of my best friends (who would later become a roommate). She invited me to go grab a (craft) beer and almost immediately introduced me to the people she knew. Suddenly, I had a large group of friends who also happened to be about 10 years older than me, which was reassuring. They had survived their 20s when I was just embracing mine.

I also became quite handy with tools. It might sound silly, but one of the turning points in my young adult life was when I used a table saw to remedy a coffee table, the legs of which had gone wobbly. Not only can things be fixed, I thought, but I can fix them. It was a revelation.

Coincidentally, two of the first friends I made in Wilmington were artists. As a little girl, I loved art, but somewhere along the way, I had forgotten about my passion for it. While hanging out with one of my friends at his house, I watched him paint a detailed portrait as though it were effortless. I thought to myself, Why not start painting now?  So I bought several canvases and all the brushes, paints, and pallets needed, and got to work on some (not-so-great) abstract paintings. But I loved the whole process, and within two years, a few of my pieces would be hung in a local art gallery. They didn’t sell, but still, they were there.

Another friend I met was a great cook and she introduced me to the glories of goat cheese. She taught me how to make gnocchi in a bacon and cheese sauce and stuffed mushrooms and beer chicken, which your mouth is now watering for. Later, as roommates, we even hosted a Friendsgiving, complete with turkey, stuffing, macaroni and cheese, mashed potatoes, and green bean casserole. This remains one of my favorite times in my life: cooking with her and feeding our friends.

I sang “Sitting on the Dock of the Bay” in a bar for the first time, under non-karaoke circumstances. Also, just about the entire cast of One Tree Hill was in attendance. I’ve since joined (and left) a band, and have been paid to perform locally. Biking, craft beer, the boy I met later who brews his own craft beer: It’s all because of Wilmington. It took moving far away from home for me to truly discover myself. I had life experiences I wouldn’t have had if I’d been going home to my parents every weekend, even though I missed them terribly.

I can still feel the water rushing to cover my feet, burying them deeper into the sand, and the sun beating down, bringing forth the freckles on my shoulder. I am looking out at infinity, where the ocean meets the sky, and anything is possible.

But I’m no longer in Wilmington. A great-paying job that I couldn’t turn down came my way and I had to move back to Indiana. But I returned a different person. Those memories are still with me, and it’s like I unlocked a truer version of myself. I feel like I can live anywhere now.

[Image via here]

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