Another year, another birthday.
I turn 20 tomorrow, which feels oh-so strange. After all, what does it really mean to turn 20 — to celebrate two decades of this life that I am living? Each year around my birthday I try to take some time to reflect on both the past year and the one going forward. This year, I’ve been rather inspired by the lyrics to Billy Joel’s “Vienna” and have gleaned a few pearls of wisdom from the song to take with me into my early twenties.
If 19 has taught me anything, it is that when life happens, it happens all at once. Some of the chaos is of my own doing — the parties and formals, the homework and classes and all of the rest of the activities that constitute perfectly scheduled student lives. Where things get interesting, however, is when these rigorously organized aspects of life meet those that are simply out of our control. This is where those great forces — those of love, loss, power and liberty — come into play and the dynamic between you and the world gets all the more overwhelming. And these things happen all the time: Earthquakes reduce cities to rubble, two of your friends fall in love, wars and uprisings erupt around the world and someone you love dearly passes away.
These are the things that constitute our days, the ones that give our lives their context. And there are times when it is all just too much. Much of my time this past year was spent reacting and adapting to these things that just seemed to be happening to me. And as I navigated change and loss, I couldn’t help but feel frustrated — frustrated that I had to be so deeply impacted by what is so outside of my control. It seemed like everything was an impediment on the course of the life I had already planned.
One of my favorite lyrics in “Vienna” is as follows: “Slow down, you’re doing fine / You can’t be everything you want to be before your time.” Life is just funny in that it feels like the more we try to plan, the more the universe only seems to laugh. I get the sense that maybe that’s what it is all about — that maybe there’s very little in this world that we can actually control — and yet we live our entire lives with the illusion that we do.
The notion that things will happen only when the world is ready is so fascinating. I think some of the existential dread that makes birthdays so bittersweet is the sense of running out of time — I know I’m only turning 20, but it still feels like being one year closer to the grave. At 19, I’m guilty of thinking this way myself. But I try to remember that getting older is mainly about new experiences and not necessarily getting my life “figured out.” Maybe it’s because I’m turning 20, but this notion that I’ll ever have things figured out completely feels childish to me now.
At one point in “Vienna” Joel laments, “Where’s the fire? / What’s the hurry about?” I also can’t help but wonder what the hurry is about. What’s the worst that could happen if we just let that all go? If we tried living for the sake of living? I know that’s especially hard to do at a place like Dartmouth, but perhaps the key lies in trusting that things will happen when they are meant to. Perhaps it lies in taking life as it comes — usually in ever-so tumultuous waves.
“Vienna” starts with Billy Joel advising us to, “Slow down you crazy child. . .” Maybe there is some truth to be found in his words. As I say goodbye to my teenage years and embark on the journey that is my early twenties, I take with me the knowledge that being here is a privilege — albeit a chaotic one. I may not know what is in store for me, but I hope that I’ll be able to welcome the good and bad in all of its glory. I hope I can savor the moments that lie ahead, appreciate experiences for what they are and learn that taking it slow may be what is best. Life goes by so quickly as it is. What is the hurry about, Billy Joel?
So here’s to 20 and everything it will bring. I can only hope that it will be a year of laughter, of slow mornings and cups of tea with friends. I hope it’ll be one of positivity, health and healing. Perhaps it’ll be a year of wonder and adventure, and of the lessons that come with these. But if I can ask for one thing for my 20th birthday, it is for a year spent with those that I love. When all is said and done, all that truly remains are the moments we’ve spent loving one another. May this next year be one of loving and loving slowly and loving unconditionally. May this next year be one of peace — one in which we can “take the phone off the hook and disappear for a while.”