life | turning twenty

Sunday, June 9, 2019


Silence in an auditorium. A spotlight clanks open, a glowing circle lands on the stage. It's blinding my eyes, but I guess this is it. Becoming twenty. Start of a show. Beginning of a first act.

What now? I think to myself. Do I move my feet at all? Do I sing, belt out a chorus? Do I stay still, and simply speak? 

The light is still blinding. Murmurs from the audience. They're wondering about what I'll do. I'm wondering the same thing. The silence gradually returns. My first act begins with a lesson. 

Is it a lesson to make the right move? To successfully mesmerise a room full of audience? Or is it that there is no audience at all? That the only person looking – that matters – is me?



---

I am on a 7 PM tram ride. It is the night of my 20th birthday. In my head, I'm dancing to a Mariah Carey song. In reality, I'm staring at distant, passing cars.

On the day, I was wearing a blue dress under a black winter jacket. The jacket because the air was chilly. The dress because I liked it.

It was around noon when my mother called me. She sends her love on my first birthday without her. Around that time, I also saw my best friend, who gave me a gift of two scented candles. They smelled like cake. She hugged me tight. Outside, the rain started to pour.

My birthday fell on a rainy Monday, but receiving so much love from people around me made the air feel warm and fuzzy. That afternoon, I watched a rom-com while waiting for the rain to stop. My brain rabidly switches from reading one message to the next. I reply with rows of "thank you"s and heart emojis in return.

The evening of, I sat with in campus with my best friends, and we spent an hour talking about nothing, yet laughing our hearts out until my cheeks hurt. Some other friends surprised me with a box of cupcakes at my door. Even people at work went out of their way to end my meeting with a birthday song, impromptu balloons, and three candles on a pack of doughnuts.

I'm still on the tram. What now? The question still stands. Cars swiftly pass. I think of the way my life does, too.

---

I also celebrated in less glamorous ways – spending a day in one of my favourite libraries smashing assignments in productivity mode. But showered with gifts, kind words, and affection, I felt blessed within the few days of the birthday euphoria.

It all unfolded – and ended – rather quickly. Before I knew it, the welcome gates of 20 was well behind me. And something happens when you enter your 20s. It isn't just because of the different age digit.

I feel like I've landed on a tightrope, and it's a tricky circumstance. Many things I should've already done, I haven't really done yet. Many things I thought I'd never do, I have somehow already done.

There were many firsts this year, too many for me to completely list off the bat. Voted in the elections. Started a passion project. Wrote screenplay for a church musical. Tried out spin class (and enjoyed it?? Thanks Clara!) Played with film photography. Interviewed strangers. Hit a peak in my mental health.

Throughout these little moments over the year, my overall life has changed dramatically. I don't know what exactly triggered it. I don't know if turning 20 has anything to do with it.

Bear with me if I start sounding like an overrated self-help book, but recently, I learned something the hard way: You can be in love with absolutely everything in your life – your friends, family, job, and dreams – and absolutely hate the way you are living it.

It might be the way you love your family but barely have time to reply to their texts. It might be the way you love your job but are always second-guessing your own abilities. You can be in love with what's in your life, and get completely sick of how you're living it.

When I realised this, I didn't think twice. I set out to change everything there was to change.

It's funny that changing your life doesn't happen through changing a college major, a job, or any major life aspect. Changing your life, I've found, is simply changing the narratives you keep feeding yourself. The voices you engage with throughout the day. The ideas you wake up – and go to sleep – believing. 

Do I sound like that self-help book already? Well, too bad. I'm not finished.

The hard thing about "changing your life" is facing the lies you grew up believing. One of those lies prior to my ~big day~ is that who you are in 20 will define who you are the rest of your life. Back then, I thought high school was going to define me. Or college. Or my first few friends at 18. But what great news that none of it was true.

It's not that I've found answers. It's that I've learned to live in question. It's not that I'm somehow perfect. It's that I'm flawed, but embracing it shamelessly.

Change doesn't come when the spotlight hits you. It doesn't just happen when you take centre stage. It happens before – when your hands begin to shake. Your knees buckle, you're scared for your life. Your heart is racing behind the curtain. But you step out anyway. And you realise you're ready.

---

There are two key lessons I've claimed and lived by this year. I received them from the words of two of my classmates. The first is through a conversation I had with Lisa, 51 and Canadian. She's enrolled as a student in the Creative Writing program.

"What do you want to be when you grow up?" is a question I grew up complying with, but now consider silly. What did they mean, "when I grow up"? At what point do we successfully "grow up"? Is it 20? Is it 35? Is there a moment where you receive a medal for reaching peak maturity? 

I talked about this with Lisa the other day over breakfast (hah, look at me adulting.) The conversation progressed to what I wanted to do once I graduate. 

As with any questions regarding my future plans, I felt myself regressing into a shell of self-deprecation – a continuous slur of "I don't know"s and "I'm not sure"s. I don't remember my exact words, but it was along the lines of I know I love writing but I still don't know what to do with it nor do I know what to do with my life so I'm just I don't know maybe I can write I'm not sure...?

She looked at me, smiled, and reached across the table. "Joanne, I'm 51," she said, "and I still don't know what I'm supposed to do with my life."

Being raised the youngest child taught me this as well: when a circumstance feels monumental, it wouldn't be so once you look back on it later on. Compared to my siblings' entrance to adulthood, my ups and downs of high school life seemed far more trivial. Compared to wrestling in the job market, struggles in college seem less catastrophic.

Over the course of time, I eventually find that nothing is ever as life-threatening as I thought it would be. Turning 20 is one of those "monumental" things. Know what you want in life, then go out and party, launch your career, rent your own place, find love, and graduate, and do it all at the same time. Ha-ha-ha.

But hey, I tell myself, it's going to be another big deal to turn, say, 21. Then 25, then 30, then all the years forward (if our planet lasts that long.) It feels massive now, but a day will come where I look back and think, Huh. That was it. 

So if I were to explain what turning 20 feels like, this is it. Like nothing matters. And like everything matters.

---


The second lesson I received from my classmate is through a friend named Kodi. Kodi wears chunky sweaters, has short chestnut hair, and was relatively new to our program. Kodi aced charisma – she was friendly, bubbly, and carries ease into every room. One day in class, nearing the end of the semester, our table started chatting about our past few months of progress.

Some successes, some considerable failures. But what Kodi said next was what stuck to me that day. "I feel that failing, from time to time, is actually good to keep my ego in check," she giggled, "so these days when I fail, it's like, 'Okay, well I probably needed this!'"

This new approach towards ego helped affect the way I see failures – as stepping stones in the journey, rather than some "hell destination" I should never end up in.

So I go and try new things. I say yes to chances that scare me. I chopped my own bangs, because I've always wanted to. My new life motto is "The worst that can happen is nothing happens."

Stripping away that "all or nothing" mentality is one of my most liberating feats. It is the idea – or rather, the lie – that not being the best is the same as being nothing.

It couldn't be more wrong. Not being the best feels absolutely fantastic.

That fear only came with being a perfectionist – another part of me I'm willing to separate from. Rather, I'm revelling this year in the art of doing things poorly. Not a gold star performance. Just about getting out of my own head, and at least doing, just so I experience it firsthand.

In order to do this, you also need a healthy ego. Because hi perfectionists, it might hurt your pride to not be the over-achiever. Establishing a healthy ego, though, is a game-changer for growth. I want to have enough self appreciation to pat myself on the back for achieving something. But I also want to have enough self awareness to slap myself when I start getting prideful.

See, supportive people are a gem – they're an uplifting circle, and it's good to reassure yourself of your worth. But you enter dangerous territory once their words get into your head rather than your heart.

It's easy this day and age to feel like the world revolves around you. Through a lot of self-reflection, I've learned to keep my mindset at bay – to use social media as self-expression, and not as tools to gratify some sort of self-obsession. In conclusion, I'm suffocating my ego to the point of no return. By exposing that yes – I have it. A large chunk of it. And I'm finally letting it go.

---

Lastly, a word on the beliefs I'm simply never willing to let go of. Remaining an idealist when it comes to the world. Remaining to believe there's more we can do for it.

At 16, I wanted to be an artist. At 19, I wanted to be a journalist. At 20, I've turned into a messy hybrid and a tiny bit of both. It happens. I don't mind. There are worse things to be than confused.

I will say this about myself, though: Uncertainty shouldn't limit potential. Being unsure of a solid career path now doesn't mean I'm limited from potentially making an impact someday. No better way to handle this than keeping my head up, and my hopes strong. (And jeez, my 18-year-old self would never dream of saying something like this.)

I'm more open about being a "political nerd" this year – implying that I'm still young, and still learning about it as I go. I do this to keep my idealism in check – to balance my "flowers-and-sunshine" ideals with what is real, happening, and can actually be done.

So I like to say I'm "politically curious", but I take small steps each day to be better informed. I've decided I'd rather be an idealist naïveté who offers droplets of change than a realist who doesn't see the point.

I'll continue to believe compassion can change the world. I'll continue to believe our planet can make it (right, AOC?) I'll continue to believe that, in the words of Anne Frank, "people are really good at heart." And I'll continue to believe that I'll make it too.

---

The spotlight is still in my eyes. Tension fills the room. They're waiting to see what I do next. I'm waiting to see it myself.

I put on my best face, arriving on the verge of unafraid. 

What now? I once timidly asked. 

What now? I now curiously wonder.

I can play the violin – I couldn't, but I sure can try. I can pull a mediocre magic trick. I can write bad poetry, and read it like a bedtime story. 

I can do anything in the world. Anything at all, with no telling of what comes next. In fact, I'll finally dance to that Mariah Carey song. Friends, come out and dance to it with me.

We will spin, laugh, and sing off-key. The poorest performance, best delivered.

The audience will stare. I won't even worry. 

 It's nobody's show but mine.

---

Cheers to you, for sticking around,




3 comments

  1. Nothing is ever certain in life, even our view of our5elves.
    Our desire and passion can change.

    Most people don't know what they want, but we all know what everyone do NOT want, that is regret.
    As you mentioned, "keep your head up, and my hopes strong." There is no better way to live life and seize moments than that.

    Happy birthday.
    God bless.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Really really love this <3

    ReplyDelete
  3. This is so beautiful. Happy birthday x

    ReplyDelete

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