Stepping Into the Past by Sharon O’Donnell

Walking around one’s college campus thirty years after graduation prompts much reflection. I only live 20 minutes from the campus of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and I’ve been to Chapel Hill many times for medical appointments on the edge of town, but it’s been a long time since I went back on the heart of the campus. I’ve met friends before and had lunch on Franklin Street, I’ve been to field trips to the Morehead Planetarium with my kids when they were young, but the only time I’d been in the heart of the campus was in 2008 when my oldest son took a campus tour when trying to decide where to attend college.  This past week, however, I finally got the opportunity to walk between the buildings again, to stroll along the beautiful tree-lined sidewalks that meander through the campus, and it felt good. As I walked along, I could easily envision myself taking this same walk thirty years ago; I could even recall specific instances and remember the thoughts I was thinking back then at that moment. I could remember tests I’d taken and the emotions (good and bad) after them. I could remember hurrying back to the dorm to watch General Hospital at 3 where a group of us girls met to follow the adventures of Luke and Laura. I remembered the times I walked back to get ready for a big date and how excited I was at the prospect of this being Mr. Right (even though it never was).  Mostly, I remembered the friendships, the late night talks, the pizza ordering from Domino’s.

I went back to campus this past week to hear a lecture by the founder and CEO of Garden and Gun magazine (a UNC alum). Other journalism school graduates were in attendance also, and it was invigorating to be in the midst of people who have such similar interests as I do, who enjoyed discussing writing and reaching audiences. I almost felt as if it was 1984 again. For a few seconds here and there, I saw glimpses of myself as that idealistic 22-year-old who felt she could make a difference in the world. I was inspired by it, but I felt at the same time that perhaps I had let that 22-year-old down. I never moved to LA or New York to pursue writing as I once thought I would, as I once dreamed about. I never chose the road to go to New York like this magazine CEO did. My first job was in radio promotions right in my hometown of Raleigh, and soon afterwards, I met the man who would become my husband. We stayed in Raleigh and have been there or its suburbs ever since.

Along the way we had three sons. I love them dearly and can’t imagine my life without them. But my idealism and my writing dreams disappeared over that time too. My role as “mom” defined me for the past 23 years, and it is that role that I savor the most. Yet, I am still a writer with dreams, and I couldn’t help but feel on campus the other night that maybe I didn’t do all I could to pursue those dreams. Walking along campus at nighttime, I overheard the conversations of students as they headed toward Franklin Street for a night of fun and relaxation. I heard three students talking about an oral presentation one of them had done in class that day; the student who had done the presentation was saying that she didn’t think she had done a good job with a certain point, and the other two were complimenting her, assuaging her worries. I envied them, how they were working together, discussing ideas, and supporting each other. College is such a microcosm of the world. It’s a part of the big picture, yet set aside in its own environment, its own community.  It’s a time like no other. I had been so ready to graduate and move on, but looking back, I never appreciated that time in my life. 

I’d like to think that the 22-year-old me would be okay with the person I am today, but I don’t think she would be. Maybe she’d be okay with the 35 -year-old me or even the 45-year-old me, but not the 52-year-old me. Over the years, I’ve grown tired and gotten rather complacent. I’ve had some professional successes in my life, including writing an award-winning newspaper column for 12 years, having a major publisher publish my book, being published by Good Housekeeping and Better Homes & Gardens, teaching narrative writing in the schools. I’ve also been a driving force in volunteer group that put over 7,000 people on the registry of bone marrow donors and even won a national award for it. I’ve done tons of volunteer work from the PTA and church to the March of Dimes and the Concord Coalition.  But I’ve lost that idealism, and lately even the desire to continue to pursue my dream of having second and third books published and to finish a screenplay I’ve been working on.  Life has kind of gotten to me lately. I’m tired of trying, I’m tired of marketing, I’m tired of politics, I’m tired of Twitter, I’m tired of anxiety, I’m tired of what suffices for entertainment these days, I’m tired of news 24/7, I’m tired of insurance costs, I’m tired of countries hating America, I’m tired of break-downs in the educational system, I’m tired of dry-eye syndrome, and I’m tired of menopause. Thanks for letting me rant.

That night in Chapel Hill I became more in touch with who I used to be. And I miss her. I’m going to try to get her back.

Sharon Johnson O’Donnell, mom of 3 sons, is a published author and award-winning columnist. Her humor book, House of Testosterone – One Mom’s Survival in a Household of Males, was named a BookSense notable book selection in 2007 and was then published in paperback by Houghton Mifflin. From 1998-2010, she wrote a regular column for The Cary News that won several statewide awards in North Carolina. Sharon’s also written for Good Housekeeping and Better Homes & Gardens, as well as greeting cards for Blue Mountain Arts. She teaches writing workshops in schools through a United Arts Council program. Sharon and her agent are currently pitching her latest manuscript to publishers; the book is tentatively titled, “Please Don’t Let Me Be the Oldest Mom in the PTA!” More info about her can be found at



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