(The title of this post is adapated from the book by John Holt, because that kind of learning is what I want to have for myself.)

May is a special month for several reasons.

1) I like May.
2) I like spring.
3) I like melting snow in New England (although it's pretty warm this year).

May also marks the end of my self-imposed year-off constraints. On May 21, 2008, one year after graduation, I will be free of my vow to not settle down, and allowed to think of things like grad school, permanent jobs, and long-term leases. Not that I don't think of them now - but really think of them - instead of idle musing and daydreaming, I'll be allowed to actually move towards things that I might settle down into.

To give some background context: Last year around this time, I was simultaneously in a wonderful and terrible state. I was 20 years old, graduating from a fanatstic engineering college, had many doors and possibilities open to me, was incredibly excited about what I was doing, was swimming in the intersection of a great many things that I loved, had a large number of people I admired and respected exhorting me to do this and that - and I was wrecked, exhausted, burnt-out and confused, had lots of things going on with family, was being pulled in all sorts of different directions and was generally just completely overwhelmed.

Long story short, I realized (this was long before last April) that I wasn't in any place where I could responsibly decide what I should do next - at least not in the midst of all that chaos. I needed some time to breathe, and to learn how to listen to myself, and to learn how to be a little selfish and take time to figure out what Mel wanted Mel to do. Not what Mel should do to make other people happy, but what Mel actually wanted to make Mel happy (something I hadn't really thought of all that much before).

I would not have felt responsible entering a full-time job or graduate program at that point. I knew I lacked the clarity and the maturity to handle it, and that I'd be rushing towards something that I... hadn't really thought about, and possibly towards a direction I'd find out later was not really the right way for me to go, and I wouldn't be nearly as effective doing whatever I was doing as I should be. That wouldn't be fair to me, and it would not be fair to the people I worked for or with, or studied with or under.

I had also lived a fairly cloistered life. I come from a wonderful, loving, conservative, protective Chinese Catholic family. Although I'd started living away from home at 14, I'd carried some of that upbringing with me to school, and didn't color outside the lines or do too many random adventurous things - or in any case, adventurous by the metrics of the friends who surrounded me.

You have to understand that things like taking public transportation were whoa, holy cow! moments for me. Things like going out into the city without a clear-cut schedule or a plan - and riding in a friend's car - and not asking permission from my parents before I left - those were gigantic steps. Deciding not to go to church on Sundays brought up gigantic guilt feelings and a "oh man, am I going to burn in hell for this?" flip-out, but it made me far happier to not go in the end, and so I did (not go, that is). Heck, going up to random people at a conference and striking up a conversation - the thought that you could do that with somebody a family member or close friend had not introduced you to - even that just blew my mind.

Clearly, I had much to learn about the world. When I heard from friends that they had gone and backpacked across Europe, or hiked the Appalachian trail, or flew off to Japan, or something else of the sort, I wondered how they did that. Y'know, all by themselves. (I mean, I'd been to Japan, but that was with a high degree of parental supervision, we basically visited my uncle, and we saw... a lot of his family's house. I'd been to lots of places. Just not really travelled - if you get my meaning.) Was there some secret procedural knowledge I was missing? Did they just... improvise? Could I perhaps someday do that, too? (As it turns out, I can. And knowing this is wonderful.)

So I decided (slowly, over many years, without a clear defining moment when I promised I would do this to myself) that I was going to take a year off. I had saved up for such a thing throughout my college years - ironically, the "saving for a rainy day" mentality my parents raised me with ended up enabling me to be less stable for a while. I figured I should go and Do Things and have some sort of Adventurous Journey of Self-Discovery and Growth, Hurrah.

And so I did. I graduated (barely) and set forth...

This isn't the heroic trumpet theme of boldness that you think it is. I didn't know what I was doing. I didn't know how I would eat or where I'd sleep and caved in to terror and took the safe route of staying with family, subletting, and so on for most of it. I was scared and timid and fell back into old habits almost always - I took the road more taken, obeyed what other people told me without understanding why, or even agreeing with it sometimes - I played it safe. I pushed my comfort zone much less than I'd envisioned. It still scares me just about every day that I have no idea what I'm doing. I've gotten angry and depressed about this, and frustrated at myself, and gotten convinced at least once a week (if not more frequently) that I was an idiot who had made a huge mistake and should go back and get into a proper" life (and simultaneously, "you coward! why are you so scared of everything? stop! just do things!") (Yeah, I love my brain sometimes.)

But on the other hand, I did it.

And that's something, right? And I have learned a lot, and pushed my comfort zones, and grown in ways I hadn't even known existed, and learned so many things. And I can say completely, without hesitation, that this has been one of the most amazing years I've ever had, and that I'm glad I did it, and that it Changed My Life (TM) and I would do it all over again.

Ironically, I've probably thought about where I want to go next even more this year than I would have otherwise, specifically because I'm "not allowed" to think about it, and can therefore take flights of mental fancy without the pressure of having the things I think about necessarily influence what I'm going to do.

This year-off vow has let me take a meta-step back and think about the kinds of things I need to learn more about before I can make that kind of decision - what do I need to know about myself before I can pretend to know where I am headed? It's also reminded me that I always have the freedom to choose to do something else, no matter what I'm doing at that moment. Knowing that I am free to leave something makes me much more likely to stay with it, so the previous sentence is not quite as "jump around from place to place!" as it might sound.

What do I do in May?

I need to make sure that I take some time to think. I'll probably write a lot. And letters - I'll write letters. I'll see if I can get some stationary, 21 sheets worth, and mail at least one letter out per day. I'll read and tinker, and continue to work on projects that I care about. I'd like to take some time to draw, and walk around the city taking photographs one day.

I want to take very good care of physical-Mel between next week when I leave NYC and - well, May 21 (but hopefully longer), and eat well, and spend time cooking and appreciating food instead of intermittently wolfing it down when I remember I need calories. I want to dance. Yes, I will work - but I will also spend an unusual amount of time just taking care of me. (I think that I can do this for 3 weeks. I think I can not pull an 80 hour workweek for 3 weeks. Maybe 60. Maybe less.)

I'll want to talk to people quite a bit. I want to have a lot of quiet, long talks with good friends and mentors, family, and random folks I haven't met yet, and people I've admired from afar but haven't gotten the courage to say hello to.

I want to quietly turn 22, and cease referring to my present self with the word "girl," and switch (most likely with great difficulty) to "young woman." (I've meant to do this for a while, but it's hard - I think of myself as a child still, and act accordingly sometimes.)

I want to walk the city without a map or schedule or game plan quite a bit. I want to find the quiet peace I get from abstract math again. I want to run around inside a rainstorm if there is one while I'm there. I want to learn to bike on city streets (I need a bike). I want to not feel obligated to do any of the things above - or indeed, most anything at all - but use it as a guiding list for things that I could do, if I felt like it, at the moment.

Anything else? What should I do in May?