Design of a Decade

Right now, I’m sitting in my window sill watching the first snow of the season cascade down from the sky. It’s gathering on the steps of my fire escape, forming little white landscapes with peaks and valleys big enough only for Whos and Grinches, and I’m as content as I’ve ever been. My dog is sound asleep against my leg, the apartment smells like pumpkin and vanilla and winter, and in the window glass I can see the reflection of the creamy lights from my Christmas tree. The timing of this first snowfall materializing on the first day of December also isn’t lost on me. It’s an idyllic way to start the final month of the decade; the sort of thing written into book plots and TV movies. But here it is, happening in real time to me today.

Ten years ago, this was the view I dreamt of; the view I went to bed pining and praying for. At the time, I spent most of my hours next to an apartment window in Texas, typing graduate school papers at my kitchen table. The view of Waco wasn’t much to look at but I spent a fair amount of time being distracted by who walked or drove by. Ten years later, to be witnessing the first snowfall outside my Harlem apartment window for my ninth winter in New York is the embodiment of every cliché about a dream fulfilled.

I’m the type who likes to look back, not because I want to remain stagnantly tethered to what was but as a way to remain present in my past. What I felt, what I learned, how my world was shifting or expanding or contracting, and how all of that led me here—I don’t want to forget the me I was in the same way I don’t want to not be present for the me I’ve become. I did some searching on the blog I kept the last time we entered a new decade and on January 1, 2010, I wrote a list of four hopes for the coming year.

The first was to be productive every day. I wrote, “I think that’s not only doable but it’s conducive to someone who’s looking his future in the eyes.” I had a lot riding on 2010. At the start, I was entering my final spring semester on campus at Baylor. After that, I had my eyes set on spending the summer in London studying. After that, I hoped to spend my final autumn semester interning in New York. Each step hinged on the success of the previous so being productive was as much about making those plans happen as it was about staying busy enough to not worry myself into a stupor over what came next.

The second hope was to become more comfortable in my own skin. “That’s something that continues through your life so I don’t find it to be such a resolution; more like an acknowledged attempt at becoming a better person.” As it was written, it was a cop out. What I really meant was I wanted to be free to be myself. I framed it as “becoming a better person” for reasons of fear and self-preservation but I knew where I wanted to go and I was determined to get there. While I do believe our relationship with ourselves is an ever-continuing process, I also knew the changes that specific year could bring just might also allow me to be more myself than I’d ever been.

The third and fourth hopes really went hand in hand. “By this time next year, I want to be able to say I’ve done something great. I don’t know what that thing is at this point, but I will know it when it happens,” and, “The final thing is I want to check something off of my life goals list.” I’m not all that certain what was on my life goals list at that point besides wanting to live in New York. In 1990, my life goal was to be a lion tamer in the circus and in 2000, it was to sing a duet with Britney Spears on the VMAs. By 2010, all I wanted was to live in New York.

Turns out, six months later, I did end up on the plane en route to spending the summer in London and two months after that, I took flight again, this time to spend my final semester of my graduate studies in New York. I spent the tail end of that internship hunting for a job that would allow me to remain in New York after graduation in December and on Christmas Eve, I landed my first real world job. Ever so close to the end of the year, I successfully checked “move to New York” off of my life goals list.

A few days later, I launched BLEEP Magazine, the independent online magazine that would go on to change my life over and over again for the next eight years. I wouldn’t have articulated it as such then, but by starting that magazine, I was fulfilling the hope I had for myself to do something great. All in all, 2010 became the year the trajectory of my life changed.

In the nine years since, I’ve interviewed Oscar, Grammy, Emmy and Tony winners, chatted with Olympic medalists and astronauts, visited Singapore, London and the Holy Land, and been to Disney World for the Easter Parade and Disneyland for Halloween. I’ve been to Opening Nights on Broadway, released three books of essays, and can say I had better seats than Paul McCartney at Hamilton (this was entirely happenstance but it’s nonetheless true). I’ve cheered on my friends and siblings as they’ve graduated, gotten married, had kids, written books, moved to new cities or countries, and started businesses. I even fell in love. Everyone says the years you spend in college are the best years of your life but they’re wrong. Since then, it’s only gotten better.

A few weeks ago, a 10 Year Photo challenge flew through the internet like the flu in a fourth grade classroom and it was fun to see people photographically bookend their decades so I decided to bandwagon. I found the two photos I’d post side by side but as I looked at the two Ryans staring back at me—two people in two different states and two different stages of life—all I could see were the things that remained the same.

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All the things that remained the same, except for one enormous difference: I know who I am. I couldn’t have said that ten years ago. I may have thought it, I may have had a vague concept I was able to articulate clearly and I certainly moved through life with an external sense of confidence despite how differently I may have felt internally, but I had no clue. Today, at 36 years old, I know who I am and what’s more, I like that person.

In revisiting the four hopes I had going into 2010, I realized they are the same hopes I have for myself going into 2020. I want to be productive and not rest on my laurels or my butt, I want to always become more comfortable in my own skin, I want to strive to do something great, and not only do I want to check off bullet points from my life goals list but I want that list to expand.

I don’t know if 2020 will be as trajectory-shifting as 2010 was for me, I’m certainly open to the possibility of it being so, but I’m hopeful for the newness it will inevitably bring. I’m profoundly thankful for all that’s happened over the past ten years, ten astonishing and challenging years, and I’m thankful I’m here to see what’s next. I’m also thankful that for the next year, whenever I see, say or write the date, I’ll hear Barbara Walters voice saying, “This is 20/20.” That’s something else that hasn’t changed. It’s still the little, seemingly insignificant things that thrill me the most.

Ryan’s book of essays, I Feel God in This Cab, is available here. 

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