To Rachel, on her 20th Birthday

The big 2-0 already, can you believe it? It feels nice not to be a teenager anymore. You know, your twenties will bring so many changes. But through a series of twists and turns you wouldn’t believe right now, you will find yourself looking at 30. 

First, let me make sure you understand that I’m not going to give you any advice that you won’t eventually take anyway, because if you had changed anything, then I wouldn’t be here today. 

Trust yourself. You have a good heart and good sense when you let yourself believe it. 

Be patient and forgiving with friends; you’re in a bit of a tiff with one right now but she’s a good apple and you’ll need her on your team. The returns from this investment can’t be overstated–she’s happy to be with you whether the circumstances are good or bad. Some of our family we know from birth, and some we find along the way. Use this as a baseline when looking for quality, long-term friends in the future.

On the other hand, not every friend will be around forever. Appreciate them while they’re there, and try not to hold a grudge for too long if things don’t work out. Some relationships are only meant for a certain time and place. It won’t matter so much after a bit of time and distance; better to spend energy on the positive relationships you find (and you will find more than you’ll know what to do with). 

While we’re talking about appreciation and acceptance, remember to appreciate your family. You will move far away and won’t get to see them as much as you want, and they will go through their own changes. Be grateful that they will still be there when you’re ready to visit or need to talk, and remember to be there for them, too.  The days of being simply the child and not having to offer support will not last forever; but with their decline is an opportunity to know your parents and family as real people, as adults. Along the way, you’ll get new family members too, through birth and marriage (more on that later), and they will fill out this wonderful, worldwide network of people who care about you.

Please take care of your body. You won’t believe how soon you start needing eight hours of sleep to function, get sore from sleeping on the wrong mattress, and see an unsmoothable crinkle between your eyes. Wear sunscreen, drink lots of water and, though I said I wouldn’t give you any advice you won’t take, I highly recommend avoiding tequila sunrises. (Oh well, I tried.)

Try to follow along in your studies. You’d be amazed how much more interesting your International Studies major will be when you’re not sitting through classes. But I commend you on all the listening and critical thinking skills you took away. It may not seem like it, but you really will use most of that information again one day. Especially in DC, where everyone is (or at least likes to think they are) worldly. 

Oh, and yes, you’ll wind up in Washington, DC, our nation’s capital. You just went there a few months ago for the first time and thought how cool it would be to live in the place where history is created and the future is determined. By the time you hit your next milestone birthday, though, those streets won’t just be the cobblestones where George Washington walked. That movie theater is where you went on an ill-fated date; that restaurant is where you shared a birthday dinner with the lovely friends you finally made after that first lonely year away from Texas; that sidewalk is where you first kissed your husband; that house up the street is yours. This city morphed from a mystery and a marvel to a canvas filled with the colors of a full life. You’ve made it your own.

You are probably wondering about this husband business. Yes, you will “settle down.” But first you will be unsettled. You’ll have your first real date this decade–no more of that “hanging out” without knowing it’s a date stuff. You’ll meet some real frogs, and you’ll kiss them anyway. You will cry and gasp for air at the pain of rejection. And then you will stand up and realize that they never really rejected you, because you weren’t being authentic–how could you, when you didn’t really know who you were? And only then–when you accept who you are now and who you still want to become–will you find love. 

And what a love it is! You didn’t dream of a big, white wedding as a little girl, and you won’t in your 20s either. You dreamed of finding a best friend to love, someone who would hold your hand and your secrets with equal gusto. If I asked you to describe your future husband, you’d probably say he’s a combination of the class clown and a Peace-Corps-volunteer-hippie-type. He’s not (although he has elements of both of those people). But it’s okay that he isn’t what you imagined because he will be so much more. He won’t be a stereotype–he’s a real human, with hopes and dreams – hopes and dreams he will let you share. You will sometimes feel emotional and near tears from happiness. (And because you are you, you will just laugh instead.)

But back to your path. I can’t make any great promises about your career. It will have some unfortunate downs, but some good ups as well. You won’t be where you want to be. Truthfully though, at 30, most people aren’t where they thought they’d be as the mortar boards rained down on graduation day. Your university told you that five years after graduation, you’d be called “boss.” Do remember that they said this after you gave them a lot of money.

But through your jobs, you will learn and travel, and you will become so incredibly self-reliant. You’ve always had an independent streak, but you will take a risk and follow your dreams and move to DC with only a few days’ notice. You will struggle with money, you will miss your friends and family, and you will be very lonely sometimes. You will want to move home, but something–divine intervention? stubbornness? determination?–will keep you here. You will learn the beauty of traveling alone and the great joy of not having to. You’ll have these special memories that no one else will ever share: the two nuns in a hot tub in Santa Fe; dragging those two enormous suitcases through London; climbing the gorge in Oregon. You’ll make some memories that a select few will have, too: singing “Country Roads” in Munich, the humbling experience of helping rebuild post-Katrina New Orleans, seeing the coast of Africa for the first time. Enjoy it all–or don’t. Just let yourself experience it, whatever mental state you’re in.

Rachel, we’re not perfect. Your tendency to expect too much of people, your bossiness, your habit of biting of more than you can chew, your procrastination, and your anxiety will all come into play this decade. I deal with them today. But they make us real, and they keep us humble.

I know what you struggle for and so desperately want at this point in your life: to feel sure of yourself, of anything. So let me tell you–I am proud of you and what you have accomplished. Some of it was absurd, some unnecessarily painful, some unbelievably incredible and exciting. But your 20s will shape up to be exactly what you need and want. 

I look forward to traveling with you as we head into this next decade of our lives, guaranteed to be filled with more changes, perhaps less risky and less spontaneous, but potentially big nonetheless. We will learn more about ourself, strengthen some friendships, and see others fade. And through it all, we’ll have each other–one unique person, made of decades of combined genetics, experiences, and memories.

Happy birthday, my friend.

From Rachel, age 30

(P.S. Your last name doesn’t get any easier. Sorry.)

Rachel Buczynski (née Higginbotham) is a non-profit program manager and former twenty-something who lives in Alexandria.