Despite the fact that I put an X on my right hand before I went to bed last night, as a reminder to myself of today’s challenge –to eat only with my left hand all day– I failed again. At 6:45 a.m. I stood in my kitchen before the giant jar of peanut butter, bike helmet on head, picked up a spoon, dug into the jar and conveyed the spoonful of peanut butter to my mouth all with my right hand. Completely ignored the X.
Tomorrow is another day, as Scarlett would say (again).
As penance for a third day of lefthand-eating-only failure in a row, I decided to tackle a challenge I’ve been dreading, which is to write a letter to my 16 year old self. This is something that a bunch of my writer friends have been doing on some site somewhere; I’ve only read one of them out of fear that I’d be cowed by their fabulousness.
Because I so don’t want to write this letter, I’m giving myself only ten minutes to do it, the way I give my students ten minutes to write in class every time we meet. That takes the pressure off. Sort of.
Ten minutes. No editing. Here goes.
Dear Sixteen-year-old self,
This is the only photo I could find of you, and it’s weirdly similar to a photo taken of herself by my friend Julie S. Like her at the same age, you held an instamatic out in front of you, hoping somehow to capture your own face, and pressed the little black button. The weirder thing is that I remember exactly when you took that photo. You had just gotten out of the shower. You were wearing cut-offs and that blue workshirt you wore every day back then.
You wondered if maybe you could capture something in a photo that would tell you something you didn’t know about yourself.
Now, I look at that photo and I think: You were on the verge. Of so much. If I could go back in time and tell you some things, here are a few things I’d tell you:
You don’t think of yourself as unhappy right now. You go to high school out in the country, you have friends, you belong to a bunch of things.
But in retrospect, you were waiting and you didn’t even know it. You were waiting for the doors of your life to blow open, for the sky to lift high overhead.
What can I tell you now, from this long perspective of time?
You can let up some. You think you have to push yourself every day, that you have to maintain some high rigid standard, be ultra-disciplined, but you don’t. Why are you setting your alarm every morning for 4:45? So sleepy.
Then again, that discipline will come in handy years later, when you have three little kids –yes! you do end up with three kids, just like you wanted!– and you get up at four because it’s the only time you can write in silence.
So many things that you think matter so much right now do not, in the end, matter. That one night you’re thinking about, when they took off and left you there? That doesn’t matter. Then again, it does matter, because they hurt you. Then, you blamed yourself. Now, you just think wow, what jerks they were.
On second thought, maybe things like that night do still matter, but when you get to my age, instead of blaming yourself –too ugly, too boring, all your fault– it’s clear that whatever you were back then, you at least weren’t mean.
All those times on the schoolbus, in school, walking the dirt roads past broken-down trailers, when you feel helpless in the face of others’ pain, will eventually be transformed into art. Even if you feel right now as if you’ll break apart from it, it will be worth it.
Most everything that you are going to live through will, in the end, be worth it.
It’s too late to go back and re-do things, but if I could, I’d tell you a few things that you’re too young to know:
When your grandmother and your father and your mother tell you not to change your plans, that the tickets are nonrefundable, that he knew how much you loved him, don’t listen to them. Go to your grandfather’s funeral, because when you don’t, you will forever regret it.
You don’t need to wash your hair every day.
Don’t listen when people tell you that love fades, that it becomes humdrum, ordinary, that this is the way it is for everyone. It’s not.
You are not ugly the way you fear you are.
Don’t be so afraid, out of self-consciousness, of trying things that it seems as if everyone around you already knows how to do. Skiing, for example. You’re going to go to a college that has its own snow bowl; learn to ski.
Four years from now, when that boy you have the massive crush on comes to your room in Hepburn Hall with a bottle of wine and bunch of roses, invite him in. Do not stand there in dumb shyness, your heart beating like a hummingbird, and thank him politely and watch his face fall and say goodnight and shut the door. Because that’s something else you’re going to regret forever.
When you’re afraid of something, tell someone.
When you need help, ask for it.
When your insides are whirling around and you feel as if you’re drowning, panicking and desperate, don’t put a calm smile on your face and walk around as if you’re fine.
There are lots of people who would love to help you.
There are lots of people who love you. You don’t know that yet, but you will.
You are going to be so much happier when you’re older than you could believe possible, and most of that happiness will come when you let go of trying to come across a certain way, when you just let yourself be.
It’s weird, but you’re going to live your life in reverse of most people your age. Awful things are going to happen to you when you’re young, and you’re going to feel much older than your friends. For many years your interior will not match your exterior.
But guess what? Time will go by, and your friends will catch up to you. Life catches up to everyone. The older you get the happier you get, the more rebellious, the less willing to suffer fools, to put up with shit. You’re going to feel so free when you get older.
So many years from the day you held this camera out and hoped this photo would reveal something you couldn’t explain, something you wanted so badly to know about yourself, you will look at it and feel this big sweep of love for that young girl, her whole life stretching out before her, as if she isn’t you.
But she is.