When I think about my senior year of college, I can feel the weight of malaise hanging on my limbs like a caking of mud. I can feel the hours spent torn: my body writing a paper on the fourth floor of Hekman Library, my spirit doing literally anything else. My journal entries are fear and confidence, panic and impatience, all in a violent tug of war as I wrestled towards readiness for whatever it was that lay ahead.

I had the sense of being on a great precipice, one that had been a long time in coming. I dreamed of writing “free” in little white letters on my graduation cap, because that’s what I felt was about to happen. I was about to be free from the inane systems of academia and the tyranny of teachers who abused the time of a captive audience. While that feeling of captivity improved in college, I still felt owned by something other than myself. In the spring of 2016 I was about to gain the freedom to build any life I wanted, and while the breadth of possibility often tilted me towards panic, I couldn’t wait to get started. 

I imagined the life I might build for myself. I wrote about skiing (of course) and biking and hiking. I had a Pinterest board for apartment decorating ideas. I thought about the trips I might take and the books I might read and the person I might decide to become. The world felt wide and untouched and while I was scared to hope, I wanted to believe that this was the part where I would find the joy.

For most of my childhood I doubted that lasting joy was a real thing. School made me miserable and sucked the color and life from my world. Of course there were bright spots, but they were bright in large part because they weren’t school. My parents were committed to showing us the world in spite of our school schedules, and didn’t hesitate to pull us out for extended “educational trips” to ride horses, or fish for walleye, or see the mountains meet the ocean in Rio. The experiences that they worked so hard to give my siblings and I were, I think, the only things that kept me in the game.  

As a young teen, all I had experienced of the world was a complete lack of autonomy, authority figures who willfully misunderstood me, and a growing sense that systems and I weren’t going to get along. I used to become viscerally angry when in high school or college people would say “you are living the best days of your life” or “you have it so good now—just wait until you have real responsibility.” I refused to believe that tenth grade was the peak of my life experience, and I resented adults who in their arrogance abdicated the responsibility to encourage and inspire.  

In those days, my hope looked a lot like anger, and I can see now that I needed that fight and that fire to push through years of wondering if it really would get better. My outsized imagination kept me wondering if something magnificent might be around the next corner, and while those big visions for the future often left me disappointed, I can see now that the unusual scale of my desires has been the foundation for my fortitude. 

Seven years on from my college graduation, it’s fun to read those journal entries and feel that I kept those promises made to myself. I’ve lived in adorable apartments, and I’ve gone mountain biking and backpacking, and I’m an Assistant Patrol Director, and sail every week on the most amazing boat, and have so many wonderful friends. I followed the flashes of joy and committed to building a life I could be proud of, even when it was grueling, even when it felt like walking in the dark. 

If I could say anything to little Ansley, it would be “sweet girl, there is joy ahead far greater than anything you can imagine—keep going.” And these days, when I worry about finding a partner in all of this, or ache to be a mom, or wonder about buying a house, I remind myself that those young years of hoping weren’t a waste, and that I could never have imagined most of the beautiful things that have entered my life. I’m now just old enough to say with some measure of confidence: it gets better, and keeps getting better. Keep going.


  1. Dean D. Ziegler

    We had dinner with your folks and grandparents and Bria last night, Ansley – out on that beautiful outdoor deck and BBQ center. We remarked on the incredible blessing of having grown children who were mature, productive, courageous, and persevering, not to mention full of yearning and curiosity about the living yet to be accomplished. Your post here is encouraging and satisfying for us to read. You ave persevered more than just about anyone I know given your age and health struggles. Thanks for writing this!

    • Ansley Kelly

      I’m so glad you all got to be together in that beautiful space! I wish I could have joined. Thank you for your constant encouragement—I stand on the shoulders of giants ❤️

  2. Loran

    I relate to this so much. I don’t know if I’ve quite found the joy after graduation yet, but I think I’m getting there. It’s wonderful to be able to build your own life in adulthood.

    • Ansley Kelly

      It took a while…there were a few years of really lonely, hard life building but I’m so grateful I did the work. Our twenties are a powerful time and I’m glad I don’t feel like I wasted mine. Keep following the sparks of joy—the torrent will come ❤️


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