Forgive me for the short break from the thankful project. Actually, I am just sitting down to write this and I can’t image this will at all be short. I’ve got feelings today, kiddos, and you are going to get all of them.
Starting Wednesday, something became off. I woke up in a deep state of worry that fogged all of my productivity. I tried to attribute the feelings to one thing or another, but then I saw the date. Ah, October 1. My 20s are marching to their deathbed.
When I turned 29 last year, a typical spring day in the Kingdom, I was eager for 30. At the time I was two months from returning to the U.S. and everything was up for my taking. I had no idea where my life would go or what it would be when this decade ended and a new one began, but the possibilities seemed great. A job, a cute apartment in the city and a handsome boyfriend were not only possible but likely. I would march into my 30s with the confidence and faith that often lacked in my 20s.
I’d like to think that I had an unusual 20s but, much to my dismay, I am not that special. My generation is one of flux and there is no standard way to live the years between 19 and 30. I know people who’ve hopped from continent to continent or people who spent ten years building a business or people who have three kids by 29. You are vulnerable, hopeful and terrified in your 20s and what you do with that energy sets the foundation for your next decade.
Except, I am not sure how to recall and assign my 20s that easily.
A few weeks ago I asked my mother if she ever thought that by the time I was 30 I would be living in Chicago, fresh off nearly three years in Africa.
“No, Heather, Africa was never what I envisioned for you.”
Nor was it for me.
I can’t remember how I spent my 20th birthday. I remember every other birthday for that decade, but not my 20th. I was a sophomore in college and my first love and I had just broke up. He had spent a good chunk of our relationship in Iraq, which was emotionally draining for me. I had invested a lot into him and our relationship because I thought he was it. I thought that I had lucked out and that the first man to capture my heart would be the one. We would marry and have lots of children. I would follow the path that had been set before me and that seemed practical and ideal to everyone else around me. Maybe, deep down, I wondered if I wanted something else from life and if I truly loved this man, but I wouldn’t dare express those ideas out loud. That would be to reject the blessings given to me, to be selfish. So, I played along and, when it ended, fell apart. He was my plan and now I didn’t have one. What if no one ever loved me again? What if I screwed this up because I wasn’t more appreciative of what I had?
The breakup opened the door slightly and, for the first time, I realized that I could make my own decisions and express my own thoughts. I remember finding such exhilarating independence in decorating my dorm room and specifically choosing posters and pillowcases because I liked them.
I started to dream bigger than I had ever done before. I threw life options into a search engine and built lives around all of these things that I could do now, now that I didn’t have to marry at age 21. The only website I remember visiting, though, is peacecorps.gov.
I graduated college at 22 and on the other side of the graduation stage was a reporting job in Idaho. Idaho was always meant to be a training ground, a place to cut my teeth before the next big offer. A few additional failed attempts at love and I’d given up on the idea that I would marry right out of college and turned my focus to being a great journalist. On the college scene, I was good and my readers and sources respected me. High classmates and former teachers approached me in bars and told me not to give up on the newspaper thing because I was good at it. Being a damn good journalist was my future.
One fall morning I was sent to cover a cross country meet in a nearby town. My then boyfriend and I were fighting over text message and I knew that it would be an entire day of work, because after the meet I would need to write the story and then start laying out pages for the Sunday edition. After the girls’ race, I tried to find the winner but every time she saw me she ran in the other direction. Her coach later told me that she doesn’t like the way I write about her. I was in tears.
On the drive home the situation plagued me. I didn’t have a life outside of work and I didn’t enjoy work. My colleagues wouldn’t have thought twice about some high school girl not liking them, but I couldn’t let it go. I thought about how every day I went into work and held my breath until I opened my email, always expecting a reader rant describing what an imbecile I am. I couldn’t sleep at night because I was terrified of having to talk to the basketball coach the next day. I am far too sensitive for journalism and it took awhile for me to admit that it wasn’t right for me. I am still not sure if I’ve fully accepted that, but I did have to resign to the fact I would never be a famous journalist.
Going home, having accepted a job in South Dakota, I developed a new life plan. I would now work 8 – 5 p.m., make a little more money, attend yoga classes, run, host dinner parties for my friends, and meet someone to settle down with. I returned to the life plan of building a life with a stable job and a family.
That wasn’t happening quickly enough. The only guys I was meeting were in fraternities and I felt like an enormous failure for giving up on my dreams. The whole kids, husband, career thing just didn’t seem to be in the cards for me and so I was going to defy it by wanting something else.
A few months before my 24th birthday, I applied to the Peace Corps.
After an uncommon amount of difficulties, my invitation to serve finally came. I was 25.
I was 26 when we were evacuated from Niger. Two days after my 27th birthday, I went to Lesotho.
And now here I am. My Peace Corps service, my big plan, a deviation from what I and everyone else expected for me, is over and I don’t know where to go from here. No matter how difficult those days in Lesotho and Niger were, I always knew that I was doing what I was meant to be doing. I was living with a purpose and that it wasn’t just for me but maybe for the benefit of others. I loved being a Peace Corps Volunteer.
But you can’t do it forever. I had to come and I had to be the “R” in front of PCV. When I turned 29, I was very much ready to move on and close this chapter but, at home, it’s taken a lot of time to accept that it is indeed over. It was my goal and my life for so, so long.
I have deep, deep fears that I peaked in Peace Corps, that nothing I do after will be as significant. I am scared that I am wasting my potential, that I am not living the life I should be.
I don’t have a life plan anymore, and the whole husband, kids, career thing just doesn’t seem that likely. At least not now. I know I should set goals and follow my dreams, because that’s what they tell us life is all about, but I just don’t know what they are.
Or maybe I do and the fear is too great.
Twenty-nine was kind of a mess. In this year of life, I have lived in two different countries and three different states. I’ve packed and unpacked more than anyone should in their lifetime. I’ve said goodbye and awkward hellos. I’ve kept running and running and running, which has sort of become my identity. Every time I’ve moved this year, my brother has said, “The nomad is moving again.” I love being the nomad, the person who finds home in searching and wondering.
But now I am in one place, and I will be here for awhile, awhile being defined as anything longer than three months. I don’t know why and I am not sure if I will like it, but I do need to stop in one place for a second to, if anything, breath
At 30, I thought that I would have husband, maybe a couple of kids. I thought I would have a career with objectives and destinations. I thought I would have written a book. I thought I would have more direction.
My 20s didn’t go according to plan and that turned out to be a great thing. I have done things I never thought I was capable of and I became a person I wasn’t sure I could be. Yes, I had plans and expectations and they hold disappointment, not life itself. For every unfilled plan came something greater and truer to who I am and the life I am meant to live.
Instead of wondering what I should have, I can be thankful for the many, many blessings that life provided.
I don’t go into my 30s with direction or big goals. I’ll find my next thing that I am meant to do. I will find happiness and tears. I will find love and pain. But I have no plans or expectations for how those things will come and go. As my 20s taught me, whatever does happen will be better than whatever I dream up.