Historically, my birthday makes me sentimental. About the people I’m lucky enough to love, relationships lost, and about life - its magical, incomprehensible beauty. And its terrors. This birthday is no exception. My cup runneth over, and over, and over.
I thought yesterday about what life looked like last year at this time. I thought about the significance of this particular birthday, coming into my thirty fifth year. I am squarely, very officially out of the sophmoric freedom of my twenties and have passed the rewarding sense of arrival, peace and acceptance of my early thirties. I am perfectly content to be where I am today, at this age, in this skin, in this life. Have I become starkly, sometimes achingly more aware of the passage of time? Yes. Do I feel the need to grasp time and beg it to slow, to stop, because I don’t want to move past this one moment with my daughter, or that amazing sunset, or this swim in the perfectly freezing ocean. All the time. Do I have newfound worries about my health, my body, the potential for disease, the potential for death? Yes (constantly).
Do all these new things isntill in me an even greater sense of gratitude for this day? YES.
Although this year is one for the records, so to speak, and a recap would likely be cathartic and interesting to look back on some years from now, I’ve decided instead to write a letter to my younger self. To myself as a little girl, and then as a teenager. I have so much I want that girl to know. And as I write this I am sure they’re also things I want my daughter to know, too.
(To my seven year old self)
You’re afraid and nervous a lot of the time, trying to make sure both your mom and your dad — particularly your dad — are ok. Happy. Taken care of. Not angry with you or your brother. Your dad seems incredibly sad in his new place, following their divorce, and it’s uncomfortable to sit there in his small apartment with minimal furniture and all his big feelings bouncing all over you. You try to absorb them, you try to please him by smiling, and bouncing back, and pretending that you don’t mind this at all.
But little girl, you cannot fix your dad. You cannot keep him from being incredibly sad and desperately angry, as he often is. You cannot cheer him from the couch where he’s spent most of the day and the day before. It is not your responsibility, nor is it your fault. They’re experiencing things you cannot yet comprehend or even name and although your instinct is to take care of them and your brother, you can’t. And that is ok. Sometimes people need to feel things, go through grief, sadness, and other emotions that are uncomfortable to sit with, and it doesn’t mean you’ve done anything wrong. Also, they love you. Even when they’re bad at showing it.
You’ve discovered books, and you love reading more than almost anything. Stay with this, keep reading, read as much as you possibly can. Good stories can transport you to another place and teach you things you need to know. Great stories can save you from anything that hurts you right now. Keep reading. Books will be your best friend for a long time to come.
Boys terrify you, but you still wish they noticed. This is hard, and it won’t change for a long while, but remember always that you’re a beautiful girl, a smart girl, and many, many people love you. You’ll want your dads attention more than anything in the world. Sometimes he’s able to give it, sometimes he’s not. When he’s not able, it’s not because he doesn’t love you. He loves you and does the best he can. You’ll be disappointed but that is ok. Look to your mother, your grandma, your brother. Especially your brother.
Speaking of your brother, stop being so mean to him! He’s your greatest ally and your best friend. You need each other. Stop being mean to him.
You’ve started to explore your dad’s giant music collection with amazement and wonder and excitement. Keep going. Like books, music has the capacity to change your life, to transport you, help you understand you’re not alone, to lift you up. Put on those giant headphones and play every single record he has. Stick with your instincts; they’ll serve you right.
And lastly, being brave doesn’t mean grinning and bearing it. Being brave means you cry when you need to, that you tell people when you are scared and hurt and confused. Being brave doesn’t mean you are not scared. It means you’re very scared but you do whatever you need to do anyway. Your idea of brave will only put walls in between you and the people who love you. They may praise you for your constant smiles. But the smiles when your insides are achy, those smiles will just hurt you.
Have fun. Be a kid. Be silly. Don’t take your dad so seriously. He’s a smart man but he doesn’t know everything. And be gentle with your mom; she’s doing the best she can.
(to my seventeen year-old self)
I’m gonna keep this one brief. But please, listen.
You’ve spent the majority of the past four years trying to please everyone, keep up, terrified that if someone disliked you or thought badly of you, that you’d just cease to exist. Vaporize. You had your heart broken by the first boy you ever loved. It hurt, the way first heartaches do. And since then, none of the boys you liked returned that affection, and so you wonder about yourself, whether you’re pretty enough, smart enough, whatever enough, and you often wish you were someone else.
Know this: you are far prettier, smarter, and more everything than you can possibly know right now. And some day you will know — really know — your gifts, and how precious they are. You will go through a lot to arrive at that place, and it will be worth it.
Love your body. Respect your body. You will be challenged to do this, and because you are afraid of saying no, of rejection, of not being loved, you will say yes to things you don’t want to do. Love, and sex, and affection and care and respect and trust and patience are all things you deserve. There are men out there who are not your father. Begin to question the things you’ve learned from him early on. Question them and be willing to change your mind about them.
You know the people you secretely want to hang out with? The guys in drama and in bands that have tattoos and smoke outside in the parking lot? Yeah, hang out with them. They’re way more interesting, smarter and cooler than the dumbasses you spend your time trying to impress.
Be willing to open your heart and let someone in. Your greatest gift is your capacity to love, to be compassionate, to share. Let someone deserving in and they will create a space for you to grow, to grow up, to learn and to be nourished. You’ll know this one day when you meet the boy you marry. It’s worth waiting for.
Then, and most importantly, listen to your gut. Everything you need to know is already inside of you. It’s not out there. Nobody else has the answers. But you do. And when it comes to yourself: tell the truth, tell the truth, tell the truth. It won’t be the easy way, but it’ll save you and the people around you from a lot of pain.
Don’t spend any more time or energy hating your body or willing it to be different, smaller, anything other than what it is. It’s the greatest gift you’ll ever own. As soon as you’re willing to drop it, you’ll get more than you ever expected in return. This goes not just for your body woes, but for almost everything in else, too.
Your life is about to become amazing.