It’s a little past midnight on my 23rd birthday. And I’m feeling both empty and filled all at once, and smiling from the irony of it. After the past few roller coaster weeks my heart is an emotional wreck, but I’m also quite content. Sitting in the quiet dark of my room after a pretty random, wonderful surprise dinner with some of the realest homies I’ve met over the years. Best friends and loved ones that I never expected to get close to, each of them with their own unique memories. And somehow everyone got together and showed up, for me, and I am feeling small and warm and grateful and imperfect and loved, all at once. Is this what 23 feels like?
In honor of my turning 23, here are 23 things I’ve learned in the past year:
1. Expect the unexpected.
I’m not going to say “don’t have expectations,” but be careful with those. Rather, have goals and a general game plan for each day and be prepared for things to go haywire. When the unexpected things happen, accept the critiques and the bumps in the road, and learn to handle them with grace. (Food also helps.)
2. “The only woman you need to compare yourself to is who you were yesterday.”
Actually, I’ve realized this quite recently, through women’s conferences and close conversations with other girls who feel practically worthless in comparison to the Instagram famous, the photogenic crowd, and especially between one another. Focus on yourself, not living up to a standard. You can’t please everyone, so rather than trying, just be. I don’t like saying “do you” or “be you” beause what do those cliches even mean? Just be… a good person, a good daughter/student/employee/friend, etc., and the right people will come into your life and stay. Also as a female, it’s completely possible to be friends with other females, without the malicious judgments, without having to keep your guard up. I didn’t think it was possible to make and keep female friends, but they’re there. The right ones will be honest and open about who they are, and they will allow you to be yourself, and they will love you just the same.
3. It’s okay to feel *all the feels.*
If you’re overjoyed, express it. If you’re in love, show it. If you’re angry or stressed or sad, first understand why, feel it for a time, and then move on. There is nothing quite like the next morning after a healthy vent session and a good, long cry. Allow yourself to truly feel, and don’t close off those emotions. (We’ve all seen Inside Out, yes?) Sometimes things happen, people walk out when you least expect it & most need them. It’s okay. It hurts. Allow yourself to feel that. Then realize your worth, move on, and prove them wrong. If a chapter is reaching it’s end, close it. The book still isn’t over, and you never know who you might find on the next page.
4. Public transportation is your friend.
It is not scary. Well, here in Los Angeles, it isn’t the most reliable and will sometimes cause you to pull your hair out. But it’s also time spent waiting on platforms, catching transfers, figuring out the very complicated system of time-tables and colorful maps to get you to your final destination, finding a routine through the crazy mix of buses and trains and rail lines over miles and miles. And soon you learn to appreciate it: the convenience of getting (fairly) quickly from point A to B, the healthy habit of being early rather than on time, not always having to sit in draining traffic or tediously look for parking, and what I think is the best part- the diverse people you encounter, the friends you make sitting in the same train car every day, and getting to explore and appreciate your city in a new way with complete strangers. It’s a weird kind of magic, and it isn’t perfect. In LA, it’s like a foreign, forbidden language- but don’t knock it till you try it.
5. Sometimes, the greatest ideas can happen in coffee shops.
Last year, my friends and I brainstormed an idea for a women’s fellowship group, realizing the lack of sustainable female relationships within our church ministry. We also had come across a life-changing book. We put two & two together… the rest is history. Now, Beloved has grown tremendously in ways we never expected, and has kept a dedicated group of open-hearted, strong and courageous women every other Sunday for a little over half a year, and going. What started as a passing idea has become a community of hope, healing, and inspiration for many young adult women from different parishes who are looking for a home. And it all started with that need, and a conversation at a coffee shop.
6. Spend valuable time with yourself.
Don’t be afraid to wander and to travel alone. This is something I am still learning and struggling with, but I’m also learning to appreciate the solitude when going off an adventure, because going solo helps you to understand so many things. Trust your gut. Last year, when I was in Italy, I had a whole full day to myself in Rome, which I was more than a little nervous about. Somehow I navigated a complicated-looking map in Italian, walked around the different winding neighborhoods and plazas, and ended up visiting the number one gelato spot in the country + an Andy Warhol exhibit at an art museum; the same thing a few days later in Florence, I spent an afternoon exploring the rich and beautiful history of the city, ending my day watching the European sunset, journaling, and eating a delicious heart-shaped pizza by the Arno River. Some people would say this seems terribly lonely. There’s a strong difference between being lonely and being alone… You have a choice, and you don’t have to be either. Going solo (at least for the day) allows you to face your fears and learn to trust your whole self.
7. All lives matter.
Yup, even Black lives and Asian lives and Caucasian lives and mentally-ill lives and the lives of hundreds of school girls who are being stripped of their basic dignity and forced into ____ trafficking, the lives of thousands of displaced war refugees and senior citizens and young children simply looking for home; the real faces of HUMANITY. No matter the color or whiteness of your skin or your beliefs, all lives matter. Also, take time to appreciate/greet the everyday people–the bus drivers, train conductors who help you get to where you’re going, those same people you pass every day on the commute home. Offer them a genuine smile and “hey, how’s it going?” You never know what people are going through, how they could help in the future, or the noticeable power of a smile. Don’t forget basic humanKINDness.
8. Be here.
Travel. Take mini-vacations. Go on mini weekend getaways. (For me this year, it was Vegas- 5 times in one year!) And then, at random, and when you know you can at least afford (most of) it, really go somewhere. Wander a new city and take street photography. Try to leave the country if you can, even if it’s just for a day. See the world from a different perspective. Or find your nearest beach or national park, and spend a day out just breathing in the fresh air and sunshine. Take a boat to the Niagara Falls. Explore the artwork of the airport on a long layover. Watch the sunset and moonrise under a blanket of bright stars. Let all of that sink in, and quit worrying about posting it to Snapchat. You are here, on this little speck of earth. Be here.
9. Find people who inspire you.
Since I started working as a full-time journalist, I made it a personal goal to find people who are passionately pursuing purpose, whose goal is to change the world in their own unique way, and tell their stories. When you find these people, sit down for lunch or coffee (or over the phone, if need be), and really pick their brains. In my experience I have sat down with a reputable Broadway actress, a hard-working father-son judge duo, an openly-undocumented student working to increase opportunities for immigrants, one of a handful of Asian-American actors blazing a trail in mainstream TV, an aspiring fashion designer & creative who is her own boss, a group of “masterminds” who are committed to professionalism in their community, an empowered transgender Filipina who wants to change misconceptions, and an award-winning/goal-oriented entrepreneur who has created one of the most successful planner-organizers to date. And those are just to name a few. What I love most about meeting these people is seeing their eyes light up when they talk about what they’re passionate about, what makes them tick. You can see it in their face, like clockwork. It’s amazing what a person can accomplish if he or she is willing to go out there and give it their all.
10. You are more than your past.
You are not (you were never) anyone’s “PROPERTY.” In June I was struck by a tweet posted by Ariana Grande that talks about the “double standard” between men and women, misogyny and all that. She makes valid points (misogynist culture and how taboo it is for a woman to talk about sex, but a man can do it and be praised – which is a whooole new subject, kay), but what I want to point out is her vulnerability saying, “I am tired of living in a world where women are mostly referred to as a man’s PAST, present, or future property/possession.” We live in a world where people will openly judge you and think you’re crazy for loving someone. Get over it. Don’t let the number of people you’ve loved hold you back, or allow you to live in fear of ever being loved again. Actually, love harder because of it. Repeat: I am more than my past, more than the mistakes I’ve made, more than who I’ve been with and who I’m with now. Nobody owns me, because I belong to myself. My heart belongs to my Maker. Admitting that has been the most freeing thing I’ve ever experienced.
11. Find joy in the unpredictability; take comfort in the daily routine.
Work has been exhausting lately, what with the hour (and a half) -long public transportation commute and feeling mind-numbed/brain-locked. But I’ve been learning to face my fears, enjoying more solo time (as well as unexpected company), and inching slowly away from my comfort zone (hence, this blog). I’m getting used to life’s random-ness and unpredictabilities, and learning to trust God’s plan above my human worry. (I’ve been escaping to the chapel a lot on my lunch breaks.) I usually do this through gratitude and in small, daily reminders; the little things that make me happy or put a smile to my face. Why waste my energy worrying? When I appreciate even the tiniest things–like a hot chai tea latte, feeling community, bus drivers remembering my name, the pretty oceanside drive down the 5 to San Diego–I am instantly reassured. Life will have twists and turns, and people will throw punches. Hard. But finding that familiar, comforting joy in the smallest of things, that’s finding meaning and having faith. And that, I promise, will see you through.
12. Life’s not a contest of likes; live it.
No, really. Social media can be a DRUG, all-consuming and literally an energy-sucking/time-wasting machine that runs on human impressions & posting about all the pretty parts of our fabulous, not-so-ordinary lives. How do you quit a drug? Little by little, until you no longer depend on it to temporarily make you happy. Do a social media fast! If you can’t fully commit, try it at least for a week, see how you like it. No seriously, I did it for Lent this year for 40 days. I learned to be present, intentional, and unafraid of being face to face with people and really look them in the eye. When you’re not focused on what’s on the screen, or posting the next big epic moment to Snapchat/Instagram, life happens. And who knows? Life just might surprise you.
13. Cut your hair short.
Do something crazy unexpected with it, like and dislike it for a few months, and then grow it all out again. At least you can say you tried and felt kind of cool, lighter and free, watching all that hair fall off your shoulder. It was something you eventually had to embrace. Dress up pretty. Allow yourself to feel beautiful and confident, inside and out. Learn to WERK IT on a runway, take a pole-dancing class with your friends (yes, it IS a workout), go day-clubbing with models in Vegas, and have fun with it. Don’t mind if people stare. You’re as beautiful as you allow yourself to be, and that goes beyond makeup or nice clothes. Be confident, beautiful inside, and you will radiate.
It’s not just a John Cusack movie or a frozen hot chocolate place in New York; it’s a very real thing. Finding something (or someone) good without looking for it. Sometimes the best things in life will happen, the right people will walk into your life at just the right moment, when you least expect them. Be patient, appreciative, and embrace change. Sometimes the unexpected decision to fall ends up being the one most worth it.
15. On that note, FEED A GIRAFFE.
(See photos here.) Oh my god yes it is so worth it and not disgusting at all and giraffes will stretch their necks to meet you even if you’re 5 feet tall like me and they will smile at you with their long tongues and it will be the best. thing. ever.
16. Have a best friend.
Someone you can legitimately call past midnight to rant about anything from your greatest fears to One Direction’s sudden breakup. Someone who will make you laugh and smile but also tell it like it is. Have “BFFLZ” date nights where and sleepovers where you can take off your makeup, and cuddle under warm fuzzy blankets. Love the boybands you love, don’t be embarrassed about looking silly or being the oldest ones there. Watch embarrassing videos of each other, have a secret language, and then laugh about it all night long. Go to concerts that break your bank account but are SO worth it. (Actually go to concerts all the time. Personally I think they make the best gifts, especially when you can experience them with your best friend.) Having a best friend doesn’t mean someone you see all of the time and can brag about on social media because it’s been years and all that. It’s having someone who will be there for you through the long nights, drunken phone calls, the good and bad, and especially the distance. Someone who will be there to weather the changes and celebrate all the little moments. Have a best friend, you’ll have a partner for life.
17. Find out your personality type.
Discovering your Myers-Briggs Indicator personality type (for a simple, informative quiz see here) is SO enlightening! I’m an ENFP (Extraversion, Intuition, Feeling, Perception – among the likes of Robin Williams, Drew Barrymore and Robert Downey Jr.), and I’ve been reading a bunch of web articles and studies on what that exactly means. Well, I’m an ENFP, meaning I love my social time, but I also appreciate the wee hours of the morning when no one’s talking, I have a jazz album playing, and drinking hot tea by myself when I’m stressed and need to unwind and process things. That’s the biggest part–processing. I’m naturally extroverted, love being surrounded by people and finding community, but I have to be on my own to understand things too. It’s why I get cranky during the middle of the day when too many people are talking and I just want a moment to myself, but people can’t be too far away. It’s why I need to write and journal my thoughts and prayers, because I figure things out that way, and then discuss/dissect ideas over dinner with my boyfriend right after. When you discover your personality type, you can better understand why you do some of the things you do–and when you find others who are the exact same way, you feel a little less crazy. (I’m not crazy, I swear. I’m ENFP!)
18. People will surprise you. Let them.
Honestly, people at their core are good. One of my coworkers and I (whom I have become very close with) were joking with a photographer at work about getting us boxing gloves from the Philippine champion Manny Pacquiao, since he has the connections, and like a week later he showed up with a glove each for both of us. It was incredible. No, people are the most complex of creatures, and they will hide things from you. Some people will hurt other people–these people aren’t easy to understand. But we walk with them, we are present, we remove the hatred in our hearts for them anyway because there is still that human nature inside of them. Sometimes, people will surprise you. Let them. You don’t have to feel guilty about it. Oh, and quit apologizing for being human, ya human.
19. Lead by example.
Find someone you absolutely adore, idolize, etc. What is it about them, their story, that makes you love them? Follow their example and then lead by it. Mine is currently (and forever) Pope Francis. He said something in a speech this year that absolutely blew me away- “To be Christian isn’t about appearances or social conduct, it isn’t putting a bit of makeup on the soul so that it’s a little more beautiful. A Christian serves others and should ask themselves, ‘Do I have others serve me, do I take advantage of others, the community, the parish, my family, my friends, or do I serve? Am I at the service of others’?” I absolutely love this man so much, I even named my new car purchase (Francis the Sentra) after him. I want to follow his example of leadership because it is both brave and genuine, and I want to be as loving and service-oriented as he is. Pope Francis is a leading example of Love here on Earth–isn’t that something we all need a little more of?
20. Treat yourself.
Honestly do it. You work hard. You deserve it. Don’t be so hard on yourself. Make sure you’re being generous to others as well, and then take yourself out to coffee. Treat yourself like a queen (but don’t overspoil). Go to that special women’s empowerment conference you’ve been eyeing. Take a little solo trip. Buy that shirt you feel absolutely confident in. If the tablet you’ve been using for years isn’t doing the job as well, buy a new one. But make sure you can afford it first. The point is, you’ve got to be kind to yourself too, because when you’re kind to yourself, you learn to be kind to others, and it becomes a natural cycle.
21. Be aware.
So much is happening in this world. Earthquakes, plane crashes, racial tensions, historic Supreme Court decisions, presidential debates, immigrant/refugee crises, terrorism, and what seems to be endless war. (I’m not just saying this because I write about these things daily.) Whatever your opinion, be aware of what’s going on around you. Don’t be stuck in your own bubble. Be present to the earth you are a part of, the country you are blessed to freely live in, and do your part simply by not being ignorant.
22. Allow yourself to be romanced, to be chased, to be pursued.
You are hereby given an assignment. Go on a few dates- with yourself, your favorite boyband, your best friends, or the boy you like you never knew you did. Come home past midnight, grinning from ear to ear, and sink happily into those bed sheets with the simple and life-changing knowledge that somebody loves you. Trust me, it’s worth taking the leap.
& 23. Smile.
Life is full of twists and turns, people will walk out and enter as fast as they came in. Smile anyway. (Tori Kelly said so.) The train is cancelled? Accept it, request your Uber, move on and smile when you finally get home. That friend talked crap about you? Smile about it; happiness is the best revenge. That boy left? Cry, cry it all out, let yourself breathe, and then, when you find the strength, smile. Accept the bumps in the road and just keep smiling; that smile will radiate and be remembered and it will get you through the longest work days, the toughest unknowns, and the worst of heartbreaks. When you smile, even if it feels half-hearted or forced, that habit stays: you learn to make the best of what’s been given to you. Challenge accepted. Smile and wave, boys. Sometimes the end is just the beginning.