I spent the latter half of my teens desperately waiting for my twenties. I was still working out exactly who I was, and couldn’t wait until I became an established person. I pictured I’d be residing in a city, entirely sure of myself as a person and living out a life of constant and satisfying mental stimulation; like the last shot of a coming-of-age movie.
Then 20 hit, and it hit like a genuine metal bat directly to my face. When I turned 20, the concept of “time” became a very real and present thing. To add to this, I have the lovely displeasure of closing out the second decade of my life as the rest of the world is entering a new one, so talks of 10-year periods are really in right now, and practically inescapable.
When I turned 10 I was, of course, 10, and didn’t know what virtually anything in life was. 20 is different, and no one warns you how hard the realization that “oh my God I just went through another decade of life” slams into your consciousness.
Since that day last December, I’ve spent a lot of time feeling a lot of things. It started out as fear, constantly ruminating on time, and how I only have so much of it. For lack of a better term, I felt like a hag. Fear turned to excitement, as I wished away this disappointing age for those that lay ahead. Sure, I wasn’t the established adult I thought I would be at this point, but 20 doesn’t really count as your 20s, right?
In a little over a month, I’ll turn 21, which is a much more relevant and exciting age than 20. As it approaches, though, I don’t feel much different. Physically, I still live out most of my weeks in New Paltz, which is genuinely— genuinely —one of the most suffocating experiences of my life. I don’t hate New Paltz, though anyone who speaks to me for more than two minutes may get that impression. If anyone who hasn’t lived in this quite literal one-road town tries to come for it, I immediately become defensive.
But as someone who struggled to get into the whole “college experience” thing, New Paltz is far from a home to me. I grew up in a suburb of New York City, where nearly everything I could possibly desire was within reach. A 45-minute train ride south, and I was in the city; a 20-minute drive north, and I was on a farm. I never felt trapped, because if I needed a change of pace, it was easily attainable.
New Paltz, however, has been a little less than kind to me. Not the people, who are lovely, or the school, which I’m fine with. It’s more like, the geography of New Paltz. Without a car, it’s far too easy to feel like there’s no escape. There are plenty of things within walking distance (and by plenty of things, I mostly mean New Paltz Cinema, where I am a regular), but they get old after a while.
So as my mental health slowly deteriorates, I spend a lot of time, much like my aforementioned teenage years, yearning for the future. During a particularly inescapable episode, I couldn’t stop thinking about how I was wasting my life away. If I didn’t want to be here, then why was I here? When would things get better? Is there a God? The usual Thursday night.
Then, like a scripture sent to me from that same God I was just internally debating, a song came my way that truly rocked my world: “Vienna” by Billy Joel. I understand that such a build-up amounting to a Billy Joel song is the single whitest thing I could have just done, but bear with me.
Growing up with a father who was born and raised just outside of Hoboken, Billy Joel was the soundtrack to basically every car ride of my childhood. Me being myself, I often just tuned it out. But this song—which I had probably unknowingly heard hundreds of times—genuinely left me shook, causing me to hit repeat until I decided that I had gone fully manic.
The lyrics are written from the perspective of Billy Joel’s dad, lecturing his son on his big ambitions and attempting to ground him. From the first line, “Slow down, you crazy child,” I felt heard, as I was feverishly speed-walking down Main Street for no reason, with absolutely nowhere to be.
From there, literally everything the song said felt like it was speaking directly to me. “If you’re so smart, tell me why are you still so afraid?” basically called me out for every time I decide that I will never make it as a writer and will become a middle school English teacher (no shade to middle school English teachers—such formative figures for gay tweens).
As I approached the freshly renovated New Paltz Walgreens, on about my fifth listen of the song and already vibrating on a different level, I realized (thanks to Genius) that the “Vienna” referenced in the song (“Vienna waits for you”) is your LIFE! Not to be dramatic, but as I entered the store with literal tears falling from my eyes, I gained an entirely new perspective on life.
Billy Joel is white people music, but “Vienna” should be required listening for everyone entering their 20s. At this formative stage of life, it’s so easy to get ahead of yourself. The future seems so close yet so out of reach at the same time, and you both fear and crave it. With every thought of success comes one of failure, and before long you find yourself in a constant state of not living in the moment.
The song reminds you, in the simplest terms, to slow down… take it easy. Whether you like it or not, life is gonna happen. Any feelings you have surrounding your future are truly meaningless in the end. There is no use trying to outrun your own life.
Eventually (well, hopefully) I’ll be in my 40s, wishing that I was 20 again. So why waste 20? In these last few weeks, I’m working on grounding myself. Admittedly, I haven’t done so well, but I still have time. If not, I’ll figure it out at 21.