Happy twentieth! This is me, Abi . . . or rather, this is you, Abi, at age thirty. So, yes, this is one of those letters from the future-self to the past-self, and I know you think that’s kind of barfy, but get over it, because I have things to say to you.
The first and most important thing is this: Everything just keeps getting better.
Bam. There you go. Happy birthday.
Of course, I don’t mean everything is a little better every day. Twenty-two is going to kick. Your. Ass. And that will be nothing compared to twenty-five. Twenty-three will be loaded with uncertainty, and twenty-eight is going to start out rough and turn into a glory-fest by the end. You know how life is. It comes in waves. But everything you go through is always building toward a greater Awesome.
So keep that in mind as I say other things in this letter to suggest that the life you have at thirty is not the life you currently think you want.
I caught that. Yes, I did. I saw that flicker of a smile and that tiny, barely-perceptible exhale of relief. Don’t play with me, Wurdeman. I know you’re still intrigued by alternatives. I know the thing you need most in your life right now is permission to be unsure, and I know how unwilling you are to offer yourself that.
You want to know exactly what you want. You want to be the kind of sexy-ass, powerful goddess who heel-clicks her way through life without ever indicating doubt . . . about who she is, about what she deserves, about the correctness of her own understanding.
You have to let that unattainable ideal go. Actually, “ideal” isn’t even the word, because this image doesn’t fit who you are, even the ideal version of who you are. You have it in your head that strength is a matter of what you feel, when actually, it’s a matter of how you handle what you feel. You think you’d be more influential if you were more authoritative and less into relationships. Wrong again. You’ll be surprised how much you can accomplish through empathy and connection. You worry that your introverted nature makes other people perceive you as insecure and weak. Yep. Sure does. But that has less to do with your introversion, and more to do with the way you carry it right now.
The point is, you weren’t built to be a heel-clicker, drawing envy from those around her with her perfect manicure, powerful presence, and sarcastic smiles. No, my dear, you are as soft-hearted, affectionate, and over-thinking as you fear you are, and every minute you spend worrying that those things make you weak is a minute you lose figuring out how to be effective because of those things. By the time you are thirty, you will be a sexy, self-possessed, flat-wearing, non-goddess who knows her own mind, gets things done, and doesn’t let moments of self-doubt defeat her, because she’s totally cool with the fact that she’s human. Does that sound awesome? It should, because it is. Stop wasting time.
Learn to use the phrase “I want.” Don’t cringe like that. I’m not telling you to whine or make demands. I’m suggesting that you state your un-hedged preferences out loud from time to time. “I want to go hiking today.” “I want this job.” “I want to date you.” You won’t always get these things, but you’ll be a lot closer than you are when you try to hide your ambitions.
Same deal with “no.” Just a pure, direct “no” without any “maybe later” or “let me think about it.” Seriously with this. No one will be as bothered by hearing your “no” as you are by the idea of saying it. That should tell you something.
And for the love of Nancy, stop thinking about yourself. That is almost always the problem. You feel insecure? Stop thinking about yourself. You feel stuck in a rut? Stop thinking about yourself. You’re inexplicably sad out of nowhere? Stop thinking about yourself. Or go on a Facebook fast. (You’ll know what that means later.) Excessive thinking will bring you down. Doing things will pick you up. Always.
Love your friends. Make an effort to connect with relatives you don’t know that well. Assume strangers are interested in knowing you better, even when the instinct for self-preservation makes you want to assume otherwise. And when you discover that someone doesn’t like you or doesn’t respect you or misunderstands you? Give it time. Some people never come around, and that’s fine, but most people will.
By the way, when you graduate, you’ll wish you spent a little less time studying, a little less time with Nick, and a little more time with your girlfriends. Obviously, the time you spend with Nick is really important, but the time you spend having a life of your own is important, too. Also—so sorry—Nick is going to be a Facebook friend in a few years. He’s going to be living in Seattle with a beautiful woman who isn’t you, and you are going to think it’s wonderful. You will. So go ahead and take a break from this letter to go put on his blue sweater and cry in a corner, because I know that’s where you are right now. When you’re done, though, I’ll be here, waiting to tell you again that it’s going to be fine. It’s going to be good, actually. It’s going to be wonderful.
You’ll be single at thirty. And you’ll be happy. Not happy because you’re single, but happy because you’re a well-rounded human being who has amazing friends, a supportive family, a career you’re passionate about, a strong grip on your identity, and no maternal longings whatsoever. You’ll have moments of loneliness, but you’ll also have glimpses into painful mother/daughter relationships and discord among siblings and rocky marriages. You’ll see that most people don’t get to have the whole perfect picture, and despite what you usually lack in romance, the amount of love you have in your life is insane.
Now, I know you’ve never really been “out there” in the dating world, so here’s what you can expect:
As I previously mentioned, it turns out you’re sexy. Granted, this is not an opinion held by men the whole world over, but you’ll find that you don’t care, because you’re not interested in men the whole world over. You care first and foremost about the way you feel in your own body, and you care secondly about the opinion of the one man who holds your interest in a given moment. Some men will be into you, some won’t, and you’ll be perfectly happy with the balance you’ve struck.
Over the course of your twenties, you’ll have plenty of bad dates, and that’s okay, because bad dates are hilarious.
On rare occasions, you’ll fall hard. You’ll get a glimmer of a feeling that you’re on to something real. You’ll hit road blocks, you’ll be forced to examine and question what you really want, you’ll resist letting go like you think your entire life will implode if you can’t make this work, and when it ends, you’ll know that everything is going to be fine, and you’ll feel like everything is broken forever and ever and ever and for all time, world without end, amen.
Then you’ll discover that everybody in your life has your back. You’ll remember how much love you have, how many relationships in your life do work, and you’ll realize you want something like that. Not something perfect, because you’re not an idiot and you know perfection’s not a thing. But you’ll want something that doesn’t require so much fear and uncertainty and breath-holding.
Your taste in men will change, just slightly. You’ll still value kindness and intelligence and humor, but by your late twenties, you’ll know which compromises are possible, and which are not. You’ll understand the difference between a “nice guy” and a kind one. You won’t just search for someone you admire; you’ll also look for a man who expects to learn from you. And one day you’ll wake up and realize that an even temper and a well-adjusted personality aren’t just admirable; they’re also hot. They’re the things that make a heart-thumping, tongue-tied mess of you.
Yes, you’re still single at thirty. But, Little Miss Frustrated-By-Constant-Uncertainty, you know what you want. And because of everything you’ve already been through and the mistakes you’ve already made, you have a fighting chance at being a really good partner for the man you want once the man you want shows up.
In the meantime, keep reading constantly because it fills your soul and makes you a better person. Work your ass off. I say that with some degree of caution, because you shouldn’t work to the detriment of your personal life—you still have to be human at the end of the day, after all. Just never underestimate how much the work you love can fulfill you.
Call your grandma. Write letters to your great aunts. Give blood more often.
Don’t obsess over other people’s progress. Some people are ahead of you. Some people are behind you. This is how everything is always, so stop looking around at everybody else. You did that on the sidewalk once and you ran into a parking sign. It hurt and you looked like an idiot, which is why you should just watch where you’re going.
When someone says something about you and that thing has two possible interpretations, choose the positive one. It’s the scarier choice, but it’s 1) likelier and 2) the only choice you stand to gain anything from. Even if you’re wrong, the joke’s not on you; it’s on the person who tried to insult you and failed.
Keep in mind that the way people treat you has as much to do with them as it has to do with you. More, in some cases.
Also keep in mind that this same exact truth applies to the way you treat others.
Love this time in your life. Love it. Don’t try to outrun it, and don’t shame yourself for not being above the mistakes you’re about to make.
I know you. I know this advice is annoying the hell out of you, because you think I forgot what it was to be twenty. You think I’m underestimating you, that I don’t see that you already know all this. You pride yourself on being “wise beyond your years,” because that’s the generous compliment people give you. But here’s the thing:
“Wise beyond your years” is, in some sense, an impossibility. Wisdom is different from knowledge. It’s a form of understanding that lives under your skin. It’s something we speak of earning because it can only really be attained through experience.
You’re smart, Abigail. You’re going to make mostly good choices. You’re going to make good use of the “pre-wisdom” you currently have. But you’ll also be surprised by some of the stupid decisions you make. You’ll be surprised by your cowardice at times, then by your courage at others. You’ll think you’ve found reasons to second-guess your strength, and then you’ll turn around and prove yourself wrong. Then right again. Then wrong.
You’ll spend late evenings in Due Gatti, drinking coffee and discussing professors and papers and women’s rights with your girlfriends, because that, my dear, is who you are. You’ll say your final goodbye to the supposed love-of-your-life in a gazebo after a wedding, with your hair all up and your long, floral dress on, thinking of how terribly romantic this tearful goodbye would seem if it was a Jane Austen novel and not, you know, the heart-stabbing events of your actual life. You’ll spend a year in a van with strangers, you’ll move to a city that overwhelms you, and you’ll sell your soul for rent money in a seedy casino. You’ll be kissed on rooftops and in libraries. You’ll laugh in wineries and at your best friend’s kitchen table. You’ll cry on the floor of your closet. Oh! At some point, you’ll have a walk-in closet.
You’ll win awards and not win awards. You’ll find your calling and move your furniture and live with strangers you found on the Internet. You’ll belly dance on the Queen Mary and wander bookstores in Solvang and form friendships with your relatives. You’ll host parties and cook turkeys and sing karaoke in your living room, which is crazy, because last you checked, you hated karaoke. You’ll break hearts and have your own heart broken and you’ll feel like the failure is yours in both cases. You’ll realize that’s how everyone feels.
You’ll get wiser, Abi. Because as much as you hate to admit it, there’s plenty of room to get wiser. You’ll get stronger and braver and kinder. And by thirty, you won’t have completely nailed being a person, but you’ll be closer. You’ll also be grateful for the messy decade that came before, and in rare moments, you’ll kind of miss it.
I wouldn’t trade positions with you for anything, because as I said, everything gets better, which means I’m on the good end. But the road here is remarkable and precious and you only get to travel it once.
So happy birthday to you, Abi Wurdeman. And happy twenties.
P.S. The pimples are because of the dairy. Everything else is because of the gluten.