Dear 21 year old Me

This advice is useless to you, I know that. For starters, time travel to the physical past is still solidly in the realm of science fiction. But more importantly, I know you well enough to recognize that you wouldn’t take advice if it came wrapped in money and smelling like chocolate. I like that about you, maddening as it was. That’s not an indictment, by the way. You’re 23 weeks pregnant, cranky, broke, and beyond done with people trying to dole out “advice” about your situation.

Okay, so let’s begin again. Let’s not call this advice. Let’s call it a directive; a call to action that will take 20 more years to fulfill. And that’s okay, because the lessons you’re engaged in now will play a critical role in the action that comes later.

You are alone. Besides the squirmy little hitchhiker in your uterus, you live alone, you cry alone, and you worry alone. You celebrate alone. For the most part, you find this comfortable. At least, way more comfortable than the alternative, which is to submit to all that unsolicited “advice”, listen to other people worry, and – worst case scenario – awkwardly celebrate triumphs that feel intensely private.

Life is so fucking uncertain for you right now. But in addition to being alone, you are also introspective, stubborn, and determined. You are, to use an overworked and underwhelming phrase, finding your own way. That’s important. Discovering what works for you through trial and error will give you a rock-solid confidence that many people will label “strong”.

For a while it will seem like they’re calling being alone strong, and maybe some are. But what they’re really saying – and you’re just going to have to trust me on this, because it isn’t readily apparent – is that learning to trust yourself is strong. Failing spectacularly and trying again is strong. You could probably do without horse-whipping yourself into a semblance of discipline, but maybe that’s an essential part of your process. To this day, I don’t really know. The message is clear, though – you are the only researcher in your laboratory of life and you’ll find your own answers even if it blows up in your face. (It will.)

You are a badass, but for reasons you don’t fully appreciate yet.

You don’t want to hear that, I know. Just keep taking your vitamins, and don’t let anyone make you feel guilty for how many hours you’re sleeping every day.

I’m here to thank you, actually. That freaks you out. You don’t like people giving you credit when you don’t ask for it, it makes you feel like a fraud. That particular attitude never goes away, FYI. But your understanding of what you earned will expand considerably. Confidence will become a way of life instead of an act of defiance.

But back to the thank you. You are teaching me – right now, in your tiny apartment, all alone, lashing out at everything that looks at you sideways – that safety is an illusion.

Something will change in about 10 years or so – I don’t want to give anything away, but you’ll try an experiment that you never thought you’d try. It’s a bold, intriguing move that requires a methodology you’ve never used before. I don’t want to tell you how the experiment ends, because I’m not even sure yet, but I can tell you that about 10 more years after that, you will reach a theory that will be revolutionary in its simplicity. Certainly it will be groundbreaking in your personal quest for knowledge.

You will come to the realization that simple kindnesses translate to life-rafts. You fill find your tribe.

I know. Let me give you a minute while you recover from the eyestrain of rolling your irises to the back of your head. Try not to gag – okay, now you’re just being insulting. I’ll wait.

Recovered? Great. I’ll continue, then.

The lessons you are processing right now will lead me to take risks I never thought possible, and – sadly – how to recover when I crash and burn so spectacularly it should be directed by Michael Bay. (That joke will be a lot funnier in 20 years, trust me.)

Listen to me. I know what you dream of. You get it.

You get it. 

And then you lose it. And it’s not your fault.

I know how guilty you feel. Like you are 100% in charge of your life and you’ve fucked it up beyond repair. That’s not true. You are 100% in charge of your choices, but as a good friend will point out a long time from now, you can only make those choices based on the information you have. And darling, you don’t have all the information. People will lie to you. They will betray you. As badly as you have already been betrayed. Worse, actually. The pain and anguish that you feel right now for not having seen that helps me. It really does. Because when it happens again in twenty years, instead of hating yourself, you will love yourself. You will hold yourself gently with the arms of people you trust, you will call out for help, and you will get it. You will absolutely love yourself through it.

I wish you could feel this now. I wish I could give you the gift of feeling that resiliency deep down, trusting it, relying on it. But that’s not how this works. Instead, you give the gift to me. You are a fighter, but that’s not all you are. You are also a thinker, a resolver, and you learn things by doing. Do all the things, love.  Think about them, resolve to understand them, fight when you have to and meet me here in 20 years. I will be waiting for you with so much gratitude. You saved me then and you’re saving me now.

Thank you.

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Friends

I’d like to say it’s strange how a topic can seem to dominate your reality for a short time – that feeling like the universe is trying to “tell” you something by repeatedly throwing it up in your path. I’d like to say that because then it would absolve me of having to admit that I’m just thinking about it a lot lately. Once I know that I am then I have to start asking why and once the “whys” start it’s like my brain turns into the three year old in the backseat who won’t shut up.

And now you know why I write.

I’m not a particularly social person, but on rare occasions I find myself in an instant rapport with someone. Usually it’s someone smart and funny and for some reason they think I’m smart and funny, too, and we trade social commentary and maybe a hefty amount of snark and I suddenly want to be around them more than I want to be alone. We’ll call this the “honeymoon” period. Of course you know where I’m going with this.

The honeymoon eventually fades – sometimes suddenly, sometimes gradually. It can be the expression of an opinion that seems to come out of left field and makes you question everything you thought you knew about them. It can be a qualification on something you previously thought was unqualified. It can be you  suddenly started looking at them like they’re lunch and that really was not where they thought things were headed.

For whatever reason, the rainbows that seemed to arc over your every minute together have turned to a fine mist if not outright rain and you’re not quite so eager to spend all your free time with them. The people that are still around after the honeymoon is over are usually the ones I call friends. So when I say that I don’t make friends easily, you’ll know what I mean is that I don’t tolerate people for extended periods of time easily and if I do, it means something to me.

One of the things I’ve learned in the intervening years between the third grade and now is that nearly everyone I come into contact with has their own individual criteria for determining who will become the friends in their lives, as well. It was somewhat of a shock to learn that I am not, in fact, 100% in charge of every relationship I have, but I’ve learned to adapt.

These are all things I knew at least ambiguously in my head, but the “universe” or the three year old who lives in the back of my head or whatever you want to call it have been pushing it to the fore. Repeatedly. I’ve recently left the honeymoon phase of a couple of relationships that I don’t believe will stand the test of time. One I saw coming, one was a massive disappointment. At the same time, I’ve had other people affirm friendships I hardly knew were there. I don’t like being surprised (that comes standard with the controlling nature), even when it’s good news. I do that thing where my face gets hot and splotchy red and water leaks out of my eyes. At the same time, it’s always frustrating and a little bit painful when the honeymoon is over for the other person before it’s over for me. (I have a bit more experience with this, however. Can I get a whup, whup from all the other socially awkward adolescents in the house?)

I’m going to have a big party in a few months for a milestone that I’m excited to celebrate. I used the apparatus of social media to invite everyone I wanted to see there. I got the most unexpected responses. People I never expected to acknowledge the invitation have expressed keen interest. People I really expected to make the effort won’t be there at all. And that’s not accounting for who actually will or won’t show up on the day of, or the people who aren’t active on social media, or for the people who just aren’t keen on parties.  And it occurred to me that this is a microcosm of my life in friendships so far. Disappointment and wonder and a bit of absence. It’s not like being 16 and sitting in the garage with your best friends and knowing – just knowing – that if life is a sinking ship you’re all going down together.

No, it’s arguing with your oldest friend about not having any more beers because you’re tired damn it and you want to go to bed. It’s learning to go to the gym because that’s the only time someone has for you and you’ll take what you can get. It’s realizing that what you thought was smart and funny is really insecure and callous and what does it say about yourself that you didn’t see that right away? It’s realizing that the people who want to be there will be there and those people are your friends, whether you knew it or not. It’s showing up for them, because you want to, not because you have to.

It feels very strange to me that it’s taken me so long to understand that the meaning of friendship changes as much as the friendships themselves. It feels like I should have gotten that memo a while ago. It also feels like I maybe don’t understand it completely. Because I still want my sinking shipmates, I want the comfort of that security – but I’m not on that ship anymore. I’m adrift and so are they, on these currents that may eddy and swirl now and then, but never really join. It’s very lonely knowledge to have.

Tattoos and Me

At one point in my rich teenaged fantasy life, I was convinced I wanted a tattoo of a leopard draped across my shoulders. I think this was influenced by a steady diet of Guns-n-Roses videos on MTV and a desire to shock mainstream culture with my internalized misogyny, oh-so-white sexuality. It’s embarrassing what the sheltered think of as shocking.

My first tattoo was less shocking. It’s a palm-sized sprig of Pennsylvania mountain laurel on the back of my left shoulder. When I was 18, a California girl facing the end of a year lived in the completely alien city of Philadelphia and the end of my first live-in relationship, I wanted to mark myself with a visual reminder of everything I experienced in this strange city of brotherly love that was often scarily hostile. The Liberty Bell, with its doomed crack and over-simplified symbolism would have been the obvious choice, but I went with the mountain laurel. Literally a last minute decision, made when I asked the artist what the state flower of Pennsylvania was and he looked it up in the set of shop encyclopedias because that’s how old I am – my first tattoo predates the internet. (Although you probably guessed my age by my reference to music videos on MTV.)

I sat wrong-way forward on an old chair, arms crossed along the top edge of the back and my chin digging into my forearms. My Flashdance-style shirt draped half-way down my back, I asked the artist, a thin, bearded, long-haired man I assumed to be OLD, how long he’d been tattooing. He glanced at my ID and replied, “Oh, about as long as you’ve been alive.” It’s funny to think he was probably as old as I am now. Then he turned on a buzzing like a hundred bees rehearsing an opera, placed a reassuring hand on my quivering back, and began to scar my flesh with ink. I fell down a rabbit hole of introspection and art and found myself in love.

I don’t want to credit Generation X with bringing tattoos into the mainstream (mostly because this is the internet, and as soon as I do, someone will present a thesis on why it’s not true), but some numbers claim the difference between tattooed Baby Boomers and Gen Xers is twice as much. When I was discussing my plans for the elaborate (and painful and thankfully never realized) shoulder-leopard, tattoos were still seen as counter culture, but counter culture itself was seen as a positive influence. Sailors and convicts had given way to rock stars and 70s icons and that was A-okay with us. Between Gen X and Millennials, the numbers increase yet again.

Which is not to say that tattoos are universally accepted. I happen to live in a conservative part of the country (both socially and politically), and have actually been tut-tutted by older people for my arms, which are approximately 60% covered in tattoos. It’s enough to get me second glances. Within tighter spheres of social influence, tattoos can mark me as a rebel (military wives in my age bracket), a liberal (the church crowd), an esoteric, artistic type (upper-middle-class intellectuals), or an instant member (music festivals and the Renaissance Faire). People adjust their attitudes when they notice I have large tattoos. It’s a very human thing to do. Even when they are adjusting for negative prejudice, I strangely feel closer to them – engaged in a social interaction that might have gone ignored were it not for the pictures on my skin.

What my tattoos don’t seem to do is give insight into my personality, which is ironic because I have custom, elaborate pieces that the artist and I collaborated on extensively. I chose meaningful symbols, specific colors and placement to reflect a culmination of experiences – a sort of I Am Here map for my life thus far. The selection of a tattoo artist merits its own post, but suffice it to say that trust in artistic vision is probably at the top of the list. Once the design is set, sitting in the chair and submitting to the pricking of dozens of microscopic needles piercing the skin becomes an exercise in mindfulness. Or at least it did for me. The pain I experienced was less about enduring suffering and more about perseverance during metamorphosis. The picture was already under my skin, coded in my cells – I just had to wait for it to appear. At the end of a four hour session, that waiting can get tedious, but still worth it.

I have plans for more tattoos. Ideas taking shape under the surface, waiting for their time. I have to arrive at the place before I can map it.