I didn’t relate to Meredith Grey until the 400th episode of Grey’s Anatomy. The season 18 finale ends with Dr Bailey handing Meredith the keys to the Chief of Surgery’s office, and the promise of the pinnacle of her career is fulfilled. The natural ending point from where she started as an intern in season 1. Meredith was destined to be Chief, she is the main character, after all. For 18 seasons, Meredith watched as her loved ones left, or died, until she was the last man standing. Later, in season 19, Meredith says “I have earned the right to leave”, after spending all her adult life working for the same institution.
I lied, in that opening sentence. There were other times I related to Meredith. Her relationship with Cristina mirrors that of me and my best friend (in that we, too, will have an entire conversation of talking at each other and not quite listening to what the other is saying). But I never quite warmed to Meredith as a character until I understood her. In the years since I graduated university, I’ve seen my friends, my nemeses, my acquaintances leave, one by one, moving on with their lives. There was a period last year where I could walk down Byres Road and not run into a single person I knew (if you have lived in the West End of Glasgow, you will know how rare such an occurrence is).
Like Meredith, I have spent all my adult life at one institution. Between 5 years of studying and a year of employment, I’ve barely spent 6 months away from Glasgow University in the 6.5 years I’ve lived in this city. I worry that this has stunted my growth. I’ve watched as my friends have moved to new cities, studied at other institutions, gotten jobs in fields tangentially related to their degrees. And here I am, an administrative assistant at the same institution I studied at. I go to the same gym I went to as a student, I walk down the same streets. My office is in the same building I sat my exams in, I buy my morning coffee from the café where I wrote half of my master’s dissertation. The world is too small. I loved Glasgow for a long time, and I don’t anymore. I don’t love the rain, I don’t love the feeling that I am somehow still in a small town, I don’t love that almost all my friends have left, I don’t love seeing the ugly side of the institution that gave me some of the best years of my life.
Last Thursday, I got to see one of my former lecturers, who I’ve always viewed as a mentor, in person for the first time in 4 years. I took the afternoon off work to go to a talk she was speaking at, and afterwards some of us went out for lunch. I have many memories of conversations I had with her back in 2018. One that resurfaces now and again is of sitting in her office in the basement of the Film Studies building, rambling about whatever my latest feminist crusade was. I remember telling her I wanted to make her proud of me, and she told me I would grow out of it. My diary confirms that what she actually said was something along the lines of “I remember what it’s like to feel that way, and it’s a great feeling when you grow out of it” but I’ve always remembered it as an academic version of the “I love you” “It will pass” exchange from Fleabag, because memory is fickle and I have a dramatic disposition.
On Thursday, I realised that after 5 years, I may have actually made her proud of me: by realising I’ve outgrown this place, by choosing more for myself. As we left the pub, I walked in the opposite direction of where I needed to go, so I could talk to her for as long as possible, and we talked about Glasgow, and all the layers of memories here. I didn’t realise it until I told her, that I always still feel like a student here. That as long as I’m in Glasgow, I won’t quite feel like I’ve grown up. And I have grown up, I’m an adult, I’m 25 for God’s sake! But I’m still wandering through the streets I walked when I was 19, haunted by too many ghosts to count, ghosts of people who left years ago, ghosts of versions of myself that don’t exist and never really did. I watch as the life I once had here degenerates at a speed quicker than Glasgow’s city centre. All my shop windows are empty, a To Let sign plastered on the door. Since the pandemic started, my life has felt vacant. Mentally, I never quite came out of lockdown. Because lockdown and Glasgow fused together, and I can’t quite separate them anymore.
This may be controversial amongst people my age, but I love growing up. I love being 25 and having a brain that is able to calm its impulsive instincts. I love outgrowing the whirlwind of petty drama I inhabited when I was 20. I love being able to make my own choices. I love dressing like an adult, I love reading books about 20-somethings instead of YA novels. I love the agency that comes with getting older.
Thursday was a special day for me, because I proved to myself that I am no longer 20 years old. (“But Eliza”, you may ask, “didn’t you prove that on 28th January 2019 when you turned 21?” Nope, because I have never gotten over anything in my life, including being 20). When I was 20, every time I saw my favourite lecturer, I would bound up to her with the energy of an excitable puppy. I would lose all filters and say whatever words entered my mind (usually along the lines of “I think you’re so amazing and I want to be you when I grow up!”). Any embarrassing thing you can think of, I have probably said to her at some point. I still think she’s amazing, but now I have learnt how to be normal around her, and it is so much more fulfilling. I did not think I would be normal. I was sick with nerves all of Thursday morning because I thought I would revert back to my 20-year-old self as soon as I was in her presence. Yet I spent 3 hours in the same room as her without saying anything embarrassing.
We all have parts of ourselves that we need time to fully grow into. I don’t think I’ve a hundred percent grown into my personality yet. When I speak in group settings, I feel the words bursting out of me like steam through the lid of a boiling pot. I haven’t learned to talk slowly, to articulate myself with control. There is still a part of me that yearns to be deeply seen, to be noticed by the people I look up to. (“But Eliza,” you may say, “true validation comes from within”. I know, and I have learnt that lesson.) On Thursday I received validation from a woman I have looked up to for 5 years, and I am still walking on air. I wouldn’t have gotten that validation when I was 20, not because I was annoying (even though I really, really was), but because I hadn’t done any of the things I was meant to do yet. I hadn’t grown into myself. As a former attention seeker, I spent 24ish years of my life craving validation simply for existing. The attention I got from my peers was usually negative, and I hated it. So I stopped looking outwards for attention, I disappeared into myself a little too much, and I found the quiet confidence that comes from knowing exactly who you are and what you care about. On Thursday I sat next to a woman who has changed my life more times that I can count, and talked animatedly to her about my research interests, and I could see on her face that she was proud of me.
Anyone can get attention, it’s not hard. But recognition? It goes so much deeper, and that’s the kind of validation I have craved for years.
I think back to January 2018, sitting in a lecture theatre with tears in my eyes because I had never felt so seen as a feminist film student. I was used to feeling like I didn’t quite belong there, that my interests were alien to the people around me. Having a lecturer who placed women’s stories and histories at the centre of her work changed my life. I remember turning to my friend and whispering “I want to be her when I grow up.” I have grown up considerably since that time, and thankfully the only person I became was myself. The woman I am is a citation of her influence, rather than plagiarism of it.
I think about Meredith Grey saying “I have earned the right to leave”, and that’s how I feel about Glasgow now. I’ve come full circle, I’ve completed the story arc I was meant to here. When I eventually do leave, I won’t be haunted by this place.
The other day I wrote a list of all the things that haunt me from the years I’ve lived here. I came up with 10; the list stands at 9 now. I looked at the ghosts sitting neatly by their bullet points in my Notes app, and it seemed so silly to me. Why do they get to haunt me now, after so many years? These are not events or people I am actively clinging onto, they’re just part of the furniture of this city. Every street is Memory Lane.
I want to know who I could be somewhere else. In a city where I haven’t been a student, where I haven’t spent years squishing myself neatly into a box I’ve outgrown. I like to think of myself as a master strategist; I relate to Taylor Swift’s song Mastermind on a deeply personal level. But despite my attempts to control my own life, I’m a big believer in fate. Looking back on how the past six months have played out, it’s hard not to believe everything is intricately connected, that each falling domino knocks another piece into place. I believe I will end up where I’m meant to, I believe the people who are destined to be in my life come back when they’re meant to. I have a deep level of trust in what life has in store for me. Every time I’ve tried to map my life out as a straight line, nothing has gone according to plan. I don’t do straight and narrow, I have been a zigzag from day one, dancing through life in looping lines. I look back on all the things I thought I wanted, and I am so fucking grateful I did not get them. I didn’t know what I needed when I was 18, or 23. Maybe I don’t know what I need now, but I know who I am, and I have a much deeper knowledge of myself than I did when I was younger. Amidst the crushing weight of the pandemic, and leaving university, I forgot my priorities, I forgot that above all I crave freedom and adventure.
Feeling claustrophobic in Glasgow isn’t new for me. It used to happen every year. As each academic year reached its end, I would feel hemmed in. So I’d run away to Estonia, and learn how to breathe again. I haven’t left the UK since September 2019. Between lockdowns and adult responsibilities, I buried my desire for freedom deep inside. I am the cliché of the caged animal that doesn’t leave its enclosure when the door is opened. I think on some level, I needed permission to leave.
Another woman I spoke with on Thursday said it’s good to study at more than one university, because if you spend all your academic life at the same institution, you won’t know what’s normal vs. what’s just normal for that place. I think it’s the same for cities. I grew up in a tiny village. Compared to that, Glasgow was a glimmering metropolis, ripe with possibility. I’ve spent the past few years living as a plant that’s ready to be re-potted. I’ve outgrown my surroundings, my leaves are beginning to wither; I want more from my life than Glasgow has to offer me.
I’ve been a late bloomer in most areas of my life. I used to resent it, the way each life stage seemed to come for everyone else before it came for me. This year I am falling in love with time, with aging. I have learned to make longevity my ally, safe in the knowledge that everything I have loved deeply was worth the wait. I was so bitter when I found out I’d have to wait another year to apply for a PhD, now that setback feels like freedom. Freedom to make a better choice, freedom to apply somewhere other than Glasgow. If I get in next year, I will be nearly 27 by the time I start my PhD. In January, that thought scared me. I’ve spent so much of my 20s waiting around for my life to mean something. I don’t want to wait another year-and-a-half to do something meaningful.
In the past couple of months, life has constantly surprised me. My bitterness gave way to fascination. For the first time in God knows how long, time is on my side. When I eventually do leave, this city won’t haunt me. I have earned the right to leave, and all the ghosts of Glasgow will stay right here.