Never Go Back to the 20s.

It's the twenties. Really.

My students are often dismayed when I announced that the worst is still in front of them. The teens, even with High School, adolescence, and hell of Jr. High (considered by many the worst time ever), is not the worst decade: it’s the 20s.

This comes as somewhat of a shock. By the early 20s, many students have a bit of distain for themselves back when they entered the university just a few years ago. They cringe at their naïveté, shake their head at their former expectations, and wonder at how far they have come. Nevertheless, even then, at twenty-one or twenty-two, there’s been enough growth and change to elicit a bit of nostalgia for the raw promise and possibilities of themselves at eighteen.

I, too, can remember it fondly.

Stood there boldly sweatin’ in the sun.
Felt like a million; felt like number one.
The height of summer, I’d never felt that strong.
Like a rock.

I was eighteen; didn’t have a care.
Working for peanuts, not a dime to spare.
But I was lean and solid everywhere.
Like a rock.

But now, of course, they think things are different. They don’t necessarily know where they’re going, but they know that it’s time to go. They have left their naïveté behind. They’ve grown up, become savvy, and are ready—finally ready—for “real” life. Some of them have already mistaken cynicism for maturity, but most have good intentions and an abundance of optimism. All you gotta do is just, finally, turn them loose and get out of their way, because they are tired of sitting, tired of nuances, tired of discussion, and tired of listening.

My hands were steady, my eyes were clear and bright
My walk had purpose, my steps were quick and light.
And I held firmly to what I felt was right.
Like a rock.

Wish we could see these signs early on. But we mostly can't.

I can still remember that fondly, too.


And the thing is, we feel so charged, so ripe, so full of juice, so…ready in our twenties. We feel boundless. And we are. Through my twenties I worked full- and part-time graveyard picking, eight to twelve tons of groceries a night, and still went to school (even graduate school), and built rock walls and did landscape on weekends. Sure, I nearly killed myself a few times falling asleep at the wheel. Once right into the telephone pole at the end of Locker Road. Once into a guard rail just on the Harbor side of the Narrows bridge. Once almost head-on into a truck. But I survived. I finished my Ph.D. while teaching at two universities, running a landscape business, building my dream home with my father, and caring for two kids. Sure, my body now groans with the effects of my jobs, those accidents, and working on the house, piled on top of earlier athletic injuries and wear. Now, I live continually in some kind of pain and with a bottle of Ibuprofin never far from my side. Now, I have a chronic autoimmune condition, my body attacks itself, continually eating away at the strength I used to take for granted. Now, I have to pick and choose my battles carefully, and rest and recover between them. Now. But then, and all the way through my thirties, I could just keep going, and going, and going.

Like a rock, I was strong as I could be.
Like a rock, nothin’ ever got to me.
Like a rock, I was something to see.
Like a rock.

And I was somethin’ to see. But for all that, the twenties are the decade when we often start out strong, and then keep going, in the wrong direction. In our twenties we’re still in transition, still negotiating the realities that we have inherited, still growing up with the realities of what we find. And while young adults relish their ability to make their own choices over things like their time, career, or marital status, we tend to exercise those choices under the illusion that we are responsible for getting them all together, and getting them all right, right now, the first time. How wrong we are.

And I stood arrow straight, unencumbered by the weight.
Of all these hustlers and their schemes.
I stood proud, I stood tall; high above it all.
I still believed in my dreams.

All graduates should receive this shirt.

And so, many of us choose the wrong careers, embrace the wrong identities, marry the wrong peopleand have children with themin our twenties. The conveyor-belt of education dumps us onto the world stage and we think that we should start performing lifetime roles that most of us, at the time, just aren’t ready for. In some cases, the roles don’t yet exist. In some cases, the person whom we need to become, or the other person we need, in order to play those roles successfully does not yet exist, or never will. Our personalities, our goals, and our ideals are like freshly pressed wine — sharp, strong, full of acrid tannin, but overly simple and without much depth. We need a bit of aging, or even distilling, before we become ourselves. And then, many of us must make harrowing choices in our thirties, fourties, or even fifties, to either abandon most, if not all, of what we have built up, or come to terms with the fact that the rest of our life will primarily be made up of learning to live with, and limited by, the choices we made when we didn’t know better.

Twenty years now; where’d they go?
Twenty years; I don’t know.
I sit and wonder sometimes where they’ve gone.
And sometimes late at night when I’m bathed in the firelight
The moon comes callin’ a ghostly white, and I recall.

I recall …

I wish we all knew what we were doing in our twenties. I really do. But the truth is, most of us really don’t. And I try to warn my students that the next decade is going to bring a lot of mistakes, and a lot of sifting out of who they think they want—or have—to be from who they actually are and eventually become. And I plead, in my own way, for them not to be too eager to dig into the mistakes that they will make in the next 10-15 years, not to feel like they have to get it all together too soon, and not to be too discouraged when the whole next decade seems to turn into one giant cluster-fuck. No one should have to carry that weight.

Like a rock. standin’ arrow straight.
Like a rock, chargin’ from the gate.
Like a rock, carryin’ the weight.
Like a rock.

I want them to know that, even in your forties and fifties, it’s not over. Not by a long shot.

Yes, I still have nostalgia for the raw power and unfiltered clarity I had in my twenties. But even if I could, I would never go back. We should never go back to the twenties. But we can regain something of what we admired in our youth, tempered by trial, deepened by wisdom, and focused by experience when we learn to live authentically. And learning to live authentically takes time. More than twenty-something years.

Like a rock, the sun upon my skin.
Like a rock, hard against the wind.
Like a rock, I see myself again.
Like a rock.

–Bob Seger, Like a Rock


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5 Responses

  1. Josephine says:

    I agree with Whitney. Though I, personally, needed this reminder. Really I needed it a few years ago. But hey, that’s what I get for not keeping my notes from Latin class.

    • Cecilia says:

      Ugh I kept ALL my Latin notes and somehow lost them in my last move. Super bummed.

  2. Whitney says:

    “And so, many of us choose the wrong careers, embrace the wrong identities, marry the wrong people and have children with them in our twenties.”

    I’m glad to see that this phrase has gone through a beautiful revision but maintained its umph.

    Thanks so much for this article. I’ve been needing this so that I could pass it on. I’m totally bookmarking this because you have such a great way of putting it and my expression has just been less than is necessary. Of all your pearls of understanding, this is the one I pass on the most.

  3. Having just finished my twenties, I have to say I disagree. My twenties were a time of exploration, adventure and love. I certainly haven’t accomplished my high-falutin’ goals that I had when I started college, but I had a good time along the way. I worked for a newspaper, I was in the Peace Corps, and I lived and worked at a homeless shelter. And then I got married.

    I was a very cynical 16-year-old, and then I mellowed out with education, travel, adventure and love, and my opinions of most people have improved. So 😛 THHHBBBBBT!

    The only near-death experience I had in my 20s was on the PLU campus, you know, that sheltered place where you tell your students things are going to get worse.