A week or so ago Parade magazine ran a feature by Jeanne Wolf called Advice to the Young Me, in which a handful of celebrities pondered what it is they wished they’d known sooner. In a fluffy and taboid-y way, it reminded me of the excellent book, I Wish I’d Known Then: Women in Their 20’s and 30’s Write Letters to Their Younger Selves by Ellen Spragins. Wise and charming and often powerfully moving, this collection of 35 essays by women in diverse fields – including stars, writers, activists, and athletes – is a revealing peek at the hopes and wishes, fears and doubts, that all of us share. I was particularly touched by Atoosa Rubenstein, the founder of CosmoGirl magazine, writing about an agonizing adolescence marked by bullying and ostracism. Of her adoring and handsome husband, the once-awkward, tormented girl, now a successful businesswoman and entrepreneur writes, “had I known you were waiting for me, I wouldn’t have worried so much.” It’s a sweet moment, and a validation that love is as worthy an ambition as any other.
It got me to thinking about what I might say to my younger self, today, at this very moment. Because of course the advice changes as you go, life being a continually unwinding spool and not a static portrait. And at what age would I like to grab myself for a good talking-to? I settled on 14, one year after my parents’ catastrophic divorce, one year into what would become nearly a decade and a half of grieving for my absent mother. Age 14, the age at which I decided that if I did everything exactly right, then everything would turn out okay. Age 14: the birth of my perfectionism and co-dependency. That was the year I erected my own personal Berlin Wall, not understanding that when you try so hard to protect yourself from the bad things, you unwittingly lock out the good things as well.
It’s okay to cry, you know. You may be 14 now, but you’re a little girl, so young for your age – you were still playing with dolls not so very long ago. You miss your mom. That’s normal. You’re supposed to miss your mom. Missing her doesn’t mean you don’t love your brothers or your grandmother, or even your father, though that relationship is one you’ll have to fight to keep from being poisoned by. It’s not disloyal to grieve. And it’s okay to be angry. You should be angry. You are angry. Here’s the good news: this anger is going to do wonderful things for you for a long time. It’s going to motivate you, drive you to push yourself far past what you’ll be told is permitted. This anger is like a rocket booster, and it’s going to propel you into an amazing life. But a time will come when all of the good fuel in that anger is spent, and you’ll need to jettison the weight. Try not to wait as long as I did, okay? Let it fall away, and trust you’ll fly higher without it.
Hate to tell you this next thing, but you might as well hear it from me. You’re not going to be lucky in love – at least, not for a long time. Oh, don’t feel sorry for yourself! You’re going to learn an awful lot along the way, and the biggest lesson for you is: don’t merely allow yourself to be chosen. Do the choosing. Here’s a riddle for you to puzzle over for the next several decades: the unbreakable heart is the one most broken. Doesn’t make sense right now, does it? It will, and at a high cost. But not so high you can’t pay it. And I promise, while there’s both more and less time than you think to figure it out, you will figure it out. And when you do, wow. You are going to have so much fun. You – fun! Imagine that. I can’t wait for you to get there.
From what I can see here in 2008, you’re going to live what amounts to two lives. And I’m not talking about job changes or relationship changes or moving to new places, either. Confusing, huh? It will be, until the month of August, in the year 2007. (Freaky to even think about that far-off future isn’t it?) In August 2007, something spectacular and amazing is going to happen to you. It will radically and completely change you. I want to tell you more, tell you everything, but I love you too much to let you peek under the wrapping of what is going to be the most glorious gift you will ever receive. In fact, forget I even mentioned it, okay?
Speaking of gifts, don’t fret over having children. You will. They’ll be everything you wish for, everything. No, I will not tell you how many! They’re waiting for you somewhere right now, waiting for their moment to come. Trust that it will, and don’t waste time with questions or regrets. That probably sounds impossible, I know. I know how you are. Such the little planner! Always living in the future! You’ll get over that, believe it or not. Your babies have a lot to teach you. And stop worrying about whether or not you can ever be a good mother. What happened to you is just something happened to you; it’s not who you are. Start telling yourself that now, today. Practice saying it over and over until you believe it. It’s the truth.
The last important thing I want to tell you is that what you’re learning right now is going to be the very thing that gives your life wings. It may feel now that you are all alone, that it all depends on you, and that where others seem to have shortcuts or cheats, you have only a steep uphill path to climb. That’s true for you, but it’s also your classic blessing in disguise, Sher. You’re learning now that it takes work to move forward, and belief in yourself, and a refusal to quit. Wait till you sit down to write your first book – oops! I gave that one away, didn’t I? You do grow up to be a writer, among other things, and that’s got precious little to do with talent, and lots to do with just sitting down and doing the work, one word, one sentence, one paragraph at a time. No shortcuts. Having this knowledge now is the single luckiest thing that’s ever come your way, believe it or not.
Just for fun: you’re allergic to milk. You were born allergic, you stay allergic, and no matter what anyone in your crazy family thinks, do yourself a favor and stop eating dairy. Also, you have curly hair. Accept that now and save yourself aggravation and time. And you are going to be totally right about stirrup pants, by the way – they’re horrid on everyone but pro jockeys. Try to have more first kisses, even if it seems kind of gross to you right now. (Oh my gosh, you are so innocent at 14!) Kissing is something you are going to absolutely love and one of the sad truths of being a grown-up is this: you don’t always get all the kisses you want in this world. Why not? Who knows? People are so weird and walled-off. You will be too, but not for always.
I’ll leave you with this last message from your future, knowing it will seem as vague and as cryptic as the horoscopes you will always be so fond of reading: trust that wherever you are, you are exactly where you are meant to be.
Sheri - June, 2008