Advice From My Younger Self
This piece won’t finish itself. I was going to let it languish in the bottom of the “Things To Finish Later” folder on my laptop.
But then there were these signs that came my way, little bitty signs from the Universe that said: it’s okay to put this out into the world without a pretty ending. That endlessness is in the air right now, the Universe said. It’s the season of non-resolution.
Little bitty sign number one was this: I saw a friend perform at Seattle’s A Guide To Visitors, a storytelling event similar to the Moth. My friend is a masterful storyteller. He delivered his whole story with such emotion that he actually got choked up during parts (so did the rest of us in the audience). Afterward, he revealed to me and a few others that his ending was only 99% of what he wanted it to be. That 1% of extra oomph was missing. And yet he went through with it, carried the story to the end, and stepped off the stage to much applause. That’s fucking brave, I thought, walking away gracefully from maybe not your best work. This gave me a little push back to my desk.
Little bitty sign number two was from another writer friend. She sent out an email with links to her storytelling blog and she just full-on admitted that, nope, she didn’t really have an ending to either piece she’d written, and would anyone like to write them for her? Huh. Seek help from your community. That hadn’t occurred to me.
Little bitty sign number three came from writer friend Tina, whose blog you should read because she is amazing and holy cow, can she write. Her latest post was about seeking. And that’s where I’ve been lately, too: trying to get the naval-gazing gum off from the bottom of my shoes, so to speak, and move into a space where I can look behind me and make sense of where I’ve been.
I haven’t had much luck.
This piece has been a roadblock, something I just want to step around, because, ew, it stinks and I don’t want to get any of it on my shoes. I also want to finish it because I have a thing about finishing things. Terrible books, awful TV series… I just can’t put them down. It’s the darker side of my compulsive nature (wait, is there a lighter side? Ooo! Is it the side that collects yogurt cups for the coming Apocalypse when we’ll all have to grow our own vegetable starts from seeds on our windowsills in dairy tubs? Is it? Is it?)
I very painfully tried to extract some larger message from my writing, and after all this, I’m still not sure it’s the right one. It’s something, though. Maybe the theme to this piece is It Doesn’t Have to Make Sense To Be Out In The World. Or maybe this is a going-back-to-square-one practice piece awkwardly placed between two very polished pieces on the blog. Writers have that, right? Awkwardly placed flops? Like glossy celebrity gossip magazines wedged between two compendiums on quantum physics? In any case, I feel like once I get this thing out of the way, I can move on to bigger, better things. So I’m putting it out there, warts and all.
A writer friend invited me to an event where she, along with other writers, was to read from her 8thgrade journal. I entertained the thought of going for 2.2 seconds and then thought: Meh.
I thought: I’ve seen that act before. Lemme guess: you have a crush on a boy. He doesn’t notice you. You make elaborate plans to dress a certain way or say a certain thing to get him to notice you, but when the day comes, you break out in cold sores, or zits, or you trip over your own two awkward 13 year old feet and you go flying into the cafeteria line. Am I close?
Was I making all sorts of really dismissive judgments about the share-worthy quality of people’s writing? Yes. Was I, by turning down the offer, defeating the purpose of the intended goal of the night, which was to be nothing more than honest and brave? Yes, again. My inner critic sometimes leaves the confines of its own dark hidey-hole and starts getting nasty with the locals. Sorry, locals.
There was also this: I’d heard these sorts of stories before, and what I wanted in my writing life at the time of my friend’s invitation was something new and shiny, some mind-bending bit of writing that launched me forward into a new way of seeing the world. I don’t know what that would have looked like. But I had this idea that I wanted it to rip me to emotional shreds and then put me back together in a more ambitious, inspired-to-write way. In any event, I didn’t think bits from very old journals were going to do the trick.
I think it’s because I have a Tony Soprano aversion to rehashing too much of the past. Writers, though, seem to love revisiting their gangly wallflower former selves. It’s like we just want to shout from the rooftops that things have improved. Look how far we’ve come! we seem to be saying. Look how cool I am now! I found a boy to marry! And a boss to hire me! I’m thin now, and my face has cleared up, and people like me! And here is the proof, in my hands, that I was a nobody before all this! From nobody to moderately successful human being in less than two decades! What triumph! What achievement! What dedication to a prescription benzoyl peroxide regimen!
But I’m not particularly drawn in by the whole “I used to be a nerd and now I’m not” thing. The nerds have won, everyone. That news is, like, twenty years old by now. And EVERYONE has an awkward phase, so what’s the value, really, in reliving painful memories? My inner Tony just wants to punch a tabletop and point in your face and tell you that some shit just ain’t worth repeatin’, you knowwhatimean?
But, wait. I knew there was some grander purpose to these events. It was supposed to be cathartic, right? All that rehashing? Like, if we all took out our dirty laundry at once, we’d all have to see it and realize EVERYone has it. And doesn’t it feel great to not feel alone? Isn’t that the single most healing thing on earth? To see yourself in a stranger’s eyes? Doesn’t that sort of thing solve world conflicts and win Nobel Peace Prizes and stuff?
To do this, though, to expose one’s self like that to the rest of the world, that takes a certain amount of willingness, bravery, and chutzpah. None of which I had been able to summon about THAT particular part of my life. Wanna know about my intestinal problems? My fainting spells? That time I worked for that one jerk for eight years? No sweat. Want me to talk about feeling ugly AND feeling neglected AND feeling confused when I was thirteen? That will take some doing.
See, I feel like there’s this pretty substantial prerequisite to this sharing business. I figure that in order to put myself out there, I first have to have experienced something akin to triumph over those awkward years. The way I saw it, I needed to be able to look back at myself and gently Buddha-laugh at the ridiculousness of it all. Because, the theory goes, on the other side of shame is this incredible freedom, this thing that gives you the kind of bravery required to read about that crappy other time in front of a listening audience.
But that triumphant feeling has been hard to come by, honestly.
What comes up for me when I think back to those 13-year-old times is this deep, deep sadness. And here’s why the triumph has been so elusive: Some of that sadness still follows me around. It has a tendency to show up to parties and weddings and stuff and make me feel like it will never go away. In other words, it’s not something from my past; it’s something still in my present. I can’t crow about having overcome it because, well, it’s still here in varying forms. Would that they made a salicylic acid for this feeling, I would have bought it by the barrelful.
Instead of feeling sympathy for my awkward, lovelorn 13 year old self, when I think about her, I get angry. Then the anger turns to jealousy. I am jealous that other 13 year old lives revolved solely around which oversized pair of earrings they might wear to impress that kid at school, or braces, or the school dance. And I feel jealous because I have no memory of these things being awkward or over the top for myself. No, the memory I have of that time in my life is that it was difficult in a much more esoteric way.
Sure, I was “struggling” with which boy I liked (there were a whopping 12 to choose from in my tiny grammar school) and how short a skirt could be before it was considered risqué, but I was also wondering things like: Is God real? Will there be another World War? How will my family survive a nuclear attack? What if Ethiopia starves to death? Why can’t we do anything to stem the tide of violent crimes in New York? How will I pay for college? Will my parents die of nicotine-related diseases? When (not how) will I know I have cancer? Does not being able to solve for “x” make me stupid, dyslexic, or just better suited for the literary arts? Is the central theme to Steinbeck’s “The Red Pony” that each generation is doomed to misunderstand the one that precedes it, and how will I be able to turn this information into resume-worthiness if/when I get a job as a librarian/news reporter?
When I think back to my 8thgrade journals, I come up with one word: overwhelm. I distinctly remember writing the word “depression” over and over again in my bubble-shaped penmanship. I don’t remember any of the stuff in between, whether I was writing about boys or schoolwork or the upcoming oral presentation for history class. But I do remember using that word, depression, even though I had only the most vague idea of what it meant, to describe my emotional state. I often wrote that I was in a bad mood, but didn’t know why. I used it because I had no other word for what I was feeling.
So that’s what I was thinking about when my friend invited me to watch her read from her journal. I couldn’t bear another bubbly story about an overeager pre-teen. Not when I was seething about how “easy” everyone else’s life seemed.
But then, because lots of things in my life were falling under deeper scrutiny at the time, I got to wondering: was my life REALLY as hard as I was “remembering”? Was I perhaps conflating that period of my life with ANTOHER equally challenging time? Was thirteen REALLY that sad?
I still HAVE all my journals- something like 25 years’ worth- in boxes in my basement, so I figured I would actually SEE if what I was remembering was what I actually wrote.
I went down to the basement and smugly looked up from my piles of “stuff” like a victorious raccoon and proclaimed to no one in particular that my mild hoarding tendencies sometimes came in handy. Then I poured myself some tea and proceeded to read.
So. What did they reveal? That only a very small chunk of what was in those journals was as “hard” as I remembered it. In fact, a good chunk of it was downright funny. I would have even- drumroll, please– read some of it aloud in front of an audience.
There WERE some confusing, dark times for sure, moods I couldn’t explain, deep deep sadnesses I fell into for days, weeks. It seemed I only went to those journals when I was in those moods, so they feature prominently. I don’t want to dismiss them as typical teenage moodiness because there was an edge, an endlessness to them that I WISH I had been able to talk about when I was young. Maybe then I wouldn’t have felt so odd-man-out, so apart from my peppy high school brethren for whom life seemed an endless string of soccer games and major parts in school plays.
There is also this: memory is the faultiest wiring there is, and yes, some of this could have possibly been VERY typical teenage stuff. But there was also a much darker backdrop to this whole period of my life: my parents’ marriage was dissolving under the cloud of adultery, and alcoholism and drug abuse were slowly revealing themselves as intractable parts of our family dynamic. Is it any wonder I was wondering about nuclear holocaust and famine in Africa? I was dealing with my own private hell and the world’s issues seemed more in keeping with my own, than, say, what to wear to the semi-formal dance.
There were also these bright ribbons of optimism woven in to that sad writing. When I was able to put my head above that dark water, I experienced my own potential, and it was glorious to behold, even as a 13 year old.
Despite the circumstances, in just twenty pages or so, my 8th grade journal revealed that I was more typical than not in a lot of ways.
First the mortifying things:
-the most romantic Valentine’s Day I ever experienced was the one where not one but two boys sang “Every Rose Has Its Thorn” over the phone to me (I think a part of me just shriveled up and died of embarrassment).
-the most scandalous thing to my young mind was that one of my female classmates had kissed TWO different boys on ONE day. (my God, I was SO unprepared for the late 1990s).
-I firmly believed my mother and I would never see eye to eye on ANYTHING. My complaints are so average, they’re reminiscent of something you’d see on a Disney show put on for “young adults”.
And now the prescient things:
– I understood something about the power of positive thinking even though that was not an overt theme in our house and I have no memory of ever being taught that in school. I write: “whatever you think you can do, you can. Whatever you think you can’t do, you won’t.” I have NO idea how that little piece of Zen Buddhist wisdom made it into my tiny little brain, but there you have it. Eckart Fucking Tolle in jellyshoes and rubber bracelets.
-I write constantly about a friend, a boy who I realized much later was actually trying to flirt with me. I find his schtick irritating and his jokes dumb. I call him “sarcastic” in my journal, oblivious to the fact that I myself am sarcastic right back. The boy is constantly tearing people apart to get my attention. I surmise that he is “insecure” and that’s why he picks on people. Though I can’t stand him at first, we somehow forge a strained and strange friendship over the next few years. Fast forward: We each move away from our hometown, go to college, start our adult lives, and we maintain a thin but strong tie for the next 20 years. We are still good friends to this day. He lives abroad, and regularly shares pictures with me of his infant son and calls me “Auntie”.
-I am involved in a rollover car accident at age 13 and I describe it in great detail. I figure I have been knocked unconscious during the rollover. I find myself upside down in a car in the middle of an intersection, with the other car rammed into a front porch nearby. My best friend’s mom, who was always a nervous woman, had been driving. My best friend yanks her stunned mother from the car and I am moved by her quick thinking and super human strength. I write, “Hopefully this bruise on my head is the only reminder I’ll ever have that I faced death”. I will suffer with neck issues, on and off, for the rest of my life. Every chiropractor I will ever seen from then on, well up into my thirties, will ask me if I’ve ever had neck trauma and I will always be dismissive of the idea that something that happened to me at 13 would have a lasting impact on my body like that.
I even get a little Annie Dillard in the middle there. I say: “When I write, I feel as if I am talking to someone. I kind of get absorbed in what I’m writing and most of the time. I feel a little better (afterward). I’m not sure if I want to actually be a writer still. I gets hard to put your thoughts on paper and sometimes what you want to say isn’t exactly what you write”.
I also am a certifiable drama queen at times. “Hiking on” was 1990 New Jersey slang for “making fun” of someone. Every generation has idiot-speak for some cultural phenomenon. Ours was “hiking on”. And I used it QUITE a bit in those journals.
My mother was just on the descent into a 20 year battle with alcohol, but there was a tiny window there where she was telling me some good stuff, and though it pissed me off, and though we fought constantly, I saw the glimmer of something resembling concern for me. She was treading that shimmering line between wanting to protect her daughter and not wanting to crush her spirit. I know she had lived under the oppressive thumb of immigrant parents with traditional values, so her rulebook on how to deal with a child who wanted to dye her hair and listen to heavy metal had yet to be written. She was operating without a guide. She was doing the best she could.
There’s a bit in there where I was FURIOUS with her, because her behavior seemed to me “unpredictable and erratic”. Of course, I’d probably locked the other five members of my family out of our single bathroom in a huff so I could write the bit, so it’s questionable as to who is being more “erratic”. Between the hormones and the disintegration of my parents’ marriage, my mother and I were both at a loss for how to express ourselves constructively. We must have seemed like two equally unstable mental patients going at it over who got to control the channel on the TV in the common room.
I mention a fight in one of the entries. My mother has forbid me to go to a party because the kid’s parents won’t be home. I am under the impression she thinks we will be doing “something bad”, so I ask her (angrily, of course) what SHE did when she was my age and went to parties. My mom answers with the banal “eat and listen to music”. I scream back with “that’s ALL we were going to do, too!”. And that is no exaggeration. We might have played video games, but there was definitely no booze and no making out at those informal Catholic School gatherings. Hormones or no, we knew to keep our hands to our sides. My god, were we a YOUNG set of thirteen year olds. In re-reading it now, I understand my mother probably thought I was asking permission to go to a booze-fueled orgy. Y’know. We’re just gonna sit around, maybe listen to some music. Whatever. And, like, maybe get a pizza.
Oh, Mom. If only you could have known then that I was ACTUALLY asking permission to go eat and listen to music, that your daughter was too scared, too tomboyish, and too guilted by a Catholic upbringing to even know that booze could have been purchased or that sex was available to anyone under the age of 45.
There is this theme of constantly falling short in those journals. Like, I know I have potential, but there seems to be something in the way. Maybe I was echoing the sentiment of all my teachers, who were watching a smart little kid morph into a lumpy, angry, foofy-haired recluse who listened to angry foofy-haired men play guitar all day. My mother tells me that the teachers told her that the girl I was hanging around with was a bad influence. All these years later, I get it. They could see something I could not. And they were just trying to extract me before I went down with her. That friend eventually found her way into the world of heroin. Our last interaction was about a year into high school when, unannounced, she showed up to my house, the bruised insides of her elbows smeared with foundation, asking me for money because she needed to “replace a vase she’d broken at a friend’s party”. My friend was not the party going type. I squinted at her, at her combat boots over her slashed fishnets, at her shifty eyes, her emaciated frame, and I told her I didn’t have any money.
And there, somewhere in between thirteen and fourteen years old, I am suddenly aware that my parents and I have things in common. On the dizzying precipice of adulthood, I see the faintest glimpses of myself in them. This comes to me when I mention, finally, after wanting to keep this very radical idea to myself, that I want to learn to play the drums. My mother responds that she, too, wanted to play the drums when she was my age. My head explodes with this revelation. We are one. I feel a rare five second bit of camaraderie with her.
There’s also this unbelievable bit: We’d read an excerpt from the Diary of Anne Frank. Anne runs to her father when she is afraid. Incredulous, I ask the teacher why a girl would run to her father instead of her mother. My teacher says very matter of factly (in immigrant-heavy New Jersey, in Catholic School) that all girls are closer to their fathers than their mothers. I write “this came as a shock to me. Now I realize how much my mother and I fight and how, even though I’m forever being reprimanded and lectured, my father and I are probably very close. For instance, if I ever told him that I wanted to play the drums, I don’t think he would condemn me like I know my mother would”.
There was this meme going around a few years ago, this thing where you wrote a letter to your 20 year old self and you dispensed advice and told her to buck up and that things would get better. I never partook because, honestly, the only thing I could manage at the time was: don’t drink so much, kid. After a little thought, I might have added: You understand nothing about the world, and the Universe has just handed you a license to get a job, drink, and have irresponsible sex with strangers. Good luck out there. You’ll have no idea what you’re doing for the next ten years. Call me when you’re thirty and we’ll talk about getting a handle on who you really are.
Now that I’ve re-read my journals, I want to write a letter to my 12 year old self instead of my 20 year old self. I want to tell her to hold on to that tiny hopeful thread. I want to tell her that people are mostly kind and honest and you should believe them when they say they love you.
You know what? It’s not my current self that should be writing to my 20 year old self OR my 12 year old self. My 12 year old self should be writing to my 20 year old self. HEY! She would say. Forget all the self help books you are about to read. Put your checkbook away. That therapist isn’t going to help you as much as this little nugget: whatever you think you can do, you CAN do.
Or maybe the letter would go like this:
Dear 20 Year Old Lolo,
I am referring you to 12 year old Lolo, who is very wise indeed and has much to say on your getting in the way of your own success. I, late-thirties-something Lolo, on the other hand, have nothing to offer you but an uncomfortable grimace and the half promise that you’ll eventually figure some shit out. You know what? I can’t even give you that. You think you’re invincible, and that everyone is dumber than you. That will get you through some rough times (like when that meth-addled boss of yours will fire you and you’ll realize, after you’ve cried about it, that it’s HIS loss, not yours). That invincibility will be your lineage, your heirloom; it’s that, plus a whole lot of smarts, that got your ancestors through war and famine and transcontinental boatrides to new lands. So, lean on it. Take advantage, if you can, without making anyone wrong in the process, okay? All any of us knows is what we’ve been willing to learn. Here’s the one thing I do know: your highs are really high and your lows are really low. So, when you hit those lows, and there will be a few, crack open that floral print journal and look back there at that bit about not letting anything stop you. Have a good laugh about letting Guns N Roses design the soundtrack to your lovelife. See that some situations in life don’t resolve themselves, maybe, ever. Some things do. Some things clean up real fast and you can clap the dust from your hands and call it a day. But some things stick around. Don’t let that stop you from hitting “publish” on a half-finished piece.
Let’s all of us, 20 year old Lolo, and 37 year old Lolo, let’s all listen to 12 year old LoLo. She has dreams. She thinks learning to play the drums is not a waste of time. She thinks a positive mental attitude is the key to getting shit done. She recognizes glimpses of herself in the enemy. She knows that a boy’s dark humor comes from a place of pain and she identifies with that pain and she learns to heal from it. She doesn’t understand where this sudden onset of sadness and anger comes from, but she knows it is a foreign object in her body. And she wants it gone. Listen to her. She has questionable taste in music and hairstyles, but she’s one helluva philosopher. There are shiny glints of light around any darkness. You just have to catch those rays when you can and hold on to them. It’s all you really can do in this life.