Dear 20 year old me,
When someone told me to write a letter to you, I decided I wouldn’t because I hardly know you. I barely recognize you. This, I later realized, is a good thing. If you resembled the current you, you would probably be doing very little learning right now, so get ready for the bumps and bruises that self-help books prescribe for toughening up.
Your college experience is still brand spanking new in many ways. You’re still flushed with gratitude for the financial aid you’re getting, the opportunities to take amazing classes, your meetings with exciting new people. Hold on to that. There will be a day when you sit on a parking lot curb and cry your eyes out because you think you are dropping out of school, you’re exhausted trying to juggle work and classes, you can’t believe the unfairness of a system that would give you hope one year and crush it the next and above all, you feel stupid for not being more prepared and wiser about managing finances. You’re going to realize it’s okay to ask for (and accept) help. Your gratitude will come back when you learn how beautifully people and even institutions can come through for you. You will work even harder next year to make sure you deserve the wonderful things the universe keeps giving you and you will never make the mistake of mixing up your debit and credit cards, or miscalculating your phone bill, or leaving your paycheck in the laundry room, or signing off on unsubsidized loans, or agreeing to work for less than 8 dollars an hour again. You will spend every six months after graduation converting rupees to dollars to figure out how much you can afford to donate to the financial aid fund as a marker of your gratitude. Sometimes, you will have to say no thank you to friends who want to go to bars and restaurants and Mexico and save money to pay back your One Card debt at the bookstore and feel shitty about it. Don’t feel shitty about it. When you buy yourself a winter jacket, a new laundry hamper, groceries for spring break and the books you really just want to own and not rent, you will feel really, really good. By the time you’re done, you’ll have saved up a few hundred dollars; enough to get a ticket to New York to pick up your parents from the airport when they come for graduation, enough to treat your siblings to pizza and ice cream for a few days, even enough to buy a pretty dress and heels and lipstick for commencement. You’ll feel like a millionaire and don’t worry, you won’t realize how delusional you are until you get your first loan repayment notice, which is far away yet.
You will learn that heartbreak happens when people are right about the world being as broken and cruel as it really is. You know who you want to marry and you think you’re over heartache, but you haven’t considered the possibility of being hurt by random things you learn about the world rather than by another person. Consider that possibility. Consider that right now, you are filled with a sense of anythingcanhappen, a sense of wanting to change the world (In a year! In a month! IN A DAY!) and snottily feel sorry for those who claim they are “realists.” In two years time, you will passionately defend your choices in life and angrily explain to people that what you are doing is, in fact, changing the world, a little a time. In three years time, you will be disillusioned by the people who the world applauds for making a difference and start questioning everything about why you chose your field at all. You’ll spend at least a year trying to figure out if it’s worth making a difference, occasionally admitting the realists were right and then making plans to leave (later you’ll call it running away) so you can start over in a shiny new place where you can make a different difference. At some point, you will look around and be inspired by people who don’t set out to win the Nobel Prize, people who transform everything around them by doing what they love and you will want to be one of them.
You will almost go to graduate school and then struggle when you realize that the things you want to accomplish require Being Here, getting your hands dirty and dealing with many more years of dirty bureaucracy and irritating hurdles. You will decide you’re not brave enough to stick around for a vague plan you haven’t shared with anyone but your partner and then you will decide you are. I don’t know how it goes from there, but it will be hard and you will hope it is worth it.
You will fight with your parents a lot. Don’t. In a couple of years you’ll be embarrassed to admit to yourself that they, especially your mother, are Always Right. You will find yourself calling your parents to ask how to make the perfect salad and whether to renew your employment contract because after four years of independence, suddenly you can’t function without their advice. You will eventually quit being such a baby, but you’ll never get rid of the tiny mom-voice in your head that shouts “Bismillah!” whenever somebody drives too fast and reproachfully tells you that if you had bothered trying on that churidar pyjama when it was first stitched you wouldn’t be sitting here with polythene bags on your feet, grunting to pull it on.
You will go from being unsure of yourself to bouncing with confidence. You will be commencement speaker. You will be proud of yourself. When you are handed your degree, you will sit back down in your seat and laugh and cry at the same time because you worked so hard to get it. Other people will look at you like so what, we all eventually graduate, but you won’t care. You’ll feel wounded in a couple of years when people ask why you don’t get “more education” and why you’re satisfied with “just a BA” because you’ll never forget how far you came to get the first degree.
You will be obsessed with your thesis. You will take classes which blow your mind. Four years later, you will write to professors about how you are using those classes to plan your own classes and they’ll say you made their day. Don’t skip class.
Your thesis defense will be canceled the day before it is supposed to happen due to a series of unfortunate events that the department will apologize for one month after you graduate. You will curl up on your rug and cry like a baby and feel as if you have lost everything you have thrown your entire self into for two years. You will pick yourself off the rug and go to work because you need the $20 and one of the kids there will give you a flower and a goodbye card and they will all hug you and make you promise to be a teacher again in Pakistan. You’ll cry for the second time, but this time in a good way and tell your friend over dinner that you see the bigger picture. You don’t really see it, but it helps to say it. Later, you’ll see the bigger picture and realize you can’t unlearn your thesis and not defending it doesn’t make it any less important to you.
You will be disgusted by people and disappointed by people and driven mad by people. You will beat yourself up about being a bad person when you decide to distance people who haven’t deliberately hurt you, but who you don’t want to be around for reasons you won’t want to articulate. You will make and lose friends and make friends again and when something terrible happens and you find yourself dialing one number and not another, suddenly realize who it is you can really count on. You’ll waste a lot of tears and a perfectly good Nokia 1100 which you hurl at the wall, but it’ll get better.
In five years, you’ll realize you are at your happiest ever. You will be sitting in Pigeon or Mermaid pose on your yoga mat and it will hit you that you absolutely love where you are and what you are doing and who you are with. You should give credit to your husband and family in that moment, but you won’t. You’ll think it’s a product of your disciplined asana practice and be cocky for a few days, but the happiness won’t fade.
Soon, you will be unrecognizable in many ways. You will be 20 pounds heavier and people will be cruel about it. You’ll briefly consider being anorexic or something and then choose a more sensible option and lose some (but not all) of it. You’ll wish you had joined the positive body image club in college just for practice. You’ll come home from random gatherings with a cryingish feeling in your throat because three people were rude enough to ask if your thyroid condition is to blame for making your heavier and how their friend’s sister’s daughter was also on thyroxine and she dropped her excess weight like a hot potato and when do you plan on doing the same? For a while, you will tie your worth to a number on a scale, the way you promise yourself now you never will. You’ll wonder why you care so much and then you will stop caring. Don’t freak out too much. In five years you will be able to run faster, train harder, lift heavier and stretch further than you ever imagined possible and feel smug in front of skinny minnies struggling at the gym.
You will be bored by regular employment and think all employers are insane until you find the right job (and you will) and then you will actively look forward to Mondays. That day will come. Meanwhile, gear up for some of the world’s most psychotic bosses. They will make some funny stories later on, so deal with them as they come and use them to learn about what you don’t want to become.
Gear up for a lot of things. In five years you’ll go from anxiously awaiting your first flight to college, to supporting yourself, changing your entire belief system about three times, reading hundreds of books, meeting fascinating people, graduating, getting married, making all your important decisions about career and grad school and having kids and working your way through four jobs. And you will feel stupider at the end of it for having been cocky at 20, but don’t worry. Your cockiness is about to be destroyed. Enjoy the ride.