The strange nostalgia of 20

A few days from now, I will turn 20. It’s hard to believe. I know it’s become normalized to let the tears flow on birthdays, but I’ve never really been one to cry on this special occasion. After all, it’s a day I get to make all about myself! This year though, I do feel a certain melancholy or dread about turning 20. We all “officially” become adults when we turn 18, but for some reason, 20 feels more significant.

There are so many ideas of what our twenties should look like. We enter the “real world,” get our life together, and hopefully settle down. As a sophomore in college, I don’t feel like I am nearly there at all. I still think of myself as a kid in a lot of ways. I’m most comfortable at home and in my bed with my stuffed animals. I make poor decisions from time to time. I still ask my mom to call the doctor to make my appointments (this should never have to end, by the way). The list goes on. For the most part, I wouldn’t say I function like a full adult in my day to day life. 

I’ve also become more aware of a subtle sadness about birthdays in college. Don’t get me wrong, I had a great birthday last year, but it was certainly different from any year before. This year again, I won’t be surrounded by my family, and I won’t be able to fully reproduce the birthday traditions I had growing up: the banana chocolate cake, the cards my cats would give me (read: the cards my father wrote and signed as my cats) or the cupcakes I’d bring to my homeroom class. There’s something quite different about coming home to wrapped presents on the kitchen table versus heading into the basement of Bryan Center to pick up some packages. Birthdays in college — however fun and crazy they can be — feel more independent and more difficult to share with everyone you love. 

As is probably clear by now, I’ve been feeling quite reflective as the big day approaches. I find myself resisting the idea of being twenty pretty often. The truth is, I love being a teenager and I love feeling like I’m still a kid. It’s more complicated than not wanting to deal with adult responsibility or problems; there are some things I am just not willing to give up or grow out of. So, dear reader, here is a list of a few values I will carry into my 20s:

1. Awe and appreciation for the world around me 

As a kid, I reveled in nature almost every day. I found everything beautiful, and I got excited about the smallest of occurrences. I want to hold onto the excitement I feel when it snows and nourish my hyper desire to run around on gorgeous spring days or jump into piles of fall leaves. I just finished reading Ralph Waldo Emerson’s essay on Nature, and I loved his argument that we should all seek to return to a childlike state of mystic oneness with nature. I think a lot of this boils down to the idea of wonder. As I grow up, I don’t ever want to lose my wonder at the miraculous gift of life on earth. I am grateful to be at a place like Duke where I can practice this in so many ways. In fact, I think I may kick off my birthday with a morning walk on the Al Buehler Trail. 

2. Honest expression of my emotions 

Children are some of the most genuine, transparent characters I’ve ever encountered. Someone upsets them? A kid will tell them to their face. Something excites them? A kid will loudly rejoice. Something makes them sad? A kid will cry without hesitation. Sure, there’s a certain amount of emotional regulation that is probably healthy and necessary. I do believe, however, that the world would likely be a better place with richer relationships if we were as transparent as kids are about their feelings. Just because I’ll soon be in my twenties doesn’t mean I should relinquish the natural expressions of my emotions — no matter how irrational they may be.

3. Dramatizing my life 

I felt like such a main character as a child. Some of it probably bordered on arrogance from time to time, but I think the consciousness of myself as a unique individual is something I should pay more attention to as I enter this next stage. It’s the feeling I’d get every time I sang a solo in choir and theater, won a soccer game or had a middle school best friend confide in me. I felt really special on a day to day basis — which can be hard to replicate in college and as you get older. The transition from high school to college where suddenly your talents and skills may not stand out as much has been difficult for a lot of us. I hope that I can begin my 20s with a hefty dose of self-love and appreciation and feel a sense of importance with each day. 

4. A continuing process of self-discovery and change 

When we think about periods of change and growth in our lives, we tend to put a lot of emphasis on puberty and the teenage years. It’s true that from ages 12 to 19 we undergo huge transitions in our lives that force us to adapt and develop — but I don’t feel as though things will settle anytime soon. I resist the idea that we should “have it all together” in our twenties and that our days of mistakes and lessons learned are largely behind us. Sure, there are some mistakes I should probably leave in my teenage years, but I am so proud of the person I became because of them. My sophomore year of high school, for example, was one of the most difficult and unstable periods of my life, but I wouldn’t be nearly as comfortable with myself and confident in my identity today without it. I am excited to see what lessons my 20s hold in store for me, and I secretly hope that they’re a bit of a rollercoaster. 

At the end of the day, I try to remind myself that birthdays simply mark our linear journey through time. Ideas of “benchmarks” or standardized stages of life are largely made up and don’t always look the same for every person. I’ll grow no more on my birthday than I will the day after, and there’s some comfort in that. For now, I’ll just look forward to waking up on my birthday surrounded by my stuffed animals and celebrating another year in the books. 

Anna Sorensen is a Trinity sophomore. Her column typically runs on alternate Tuesdays.


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