A few years ago, Sugar, aka Cheryl Strayed (who has published in Brain Child), wrote a “letter to her younger self” in one of her stunning Rumpus advice columns. As writers and mothers we at Brain Child are trying, in this bizarre time, to show each other (and our younger selves) our similarities and our differences with a new perspective.
With Cheryl’s blessing, we invite you to submit letters to your younger selves.
-Francesca Grossman, Column Editor
Dear 19-year-old self,
Deep breath. I still love you. You are still loved. You will both earn love and deserve love even when all signs point against it. It is for this you will be most grateful.
You are too young to have made any mistakes that matter. You will make so many of them that it isn’t worth being upset about playing strip poker with eight sophomore boys in high school when you are a freshman, or not taking ecstasy soon enough, or sleeping with a first boyfriend who left you for your fourth best friend, or going to the wrong college because it was the best college, or not appreciating the best college for what it was. You will have to forgive yourself for thinking that faking it IS making it, for being “let go” for not caring and then being indignant about it, or for changing directions midstream. Your mistakes will shape you, of course, but they won’t define you, not yet, and maybe, actually, not ever.
You will make mistakes. It is very easy to make mistakes. It’s actually easy to hurt people, even the person you love most, and not just if you mean to. It is easy to look reality in the face and ignore it, not because you don’t believe it but because you do. It is easy to do the wrong thing, even the same wrong thing more than once. But it isn’t hard to be kind. It isn’t. It isn’t hard to forgive or ask to be forgiven. It isn’t hard to apologize, sincerely, kindly, because you know that all of the above is true.
You will be woken up from a gardening trance by a call from your beautiful friend’s beautiful girlfriend telling you he’s dead. You will have to tell your very good man this piece of news and though you know in your heart that you should be more sad than you are you realize that this is the first time this very good man has experienced death this close up and you feel both experienced and grateful that this isn’t your first time. You won’t understand yet that death doesn’t get easier if you know it more. You will never forgive yourself for how you do tell him. When he drops the ground beef you were going to BBQ on the floor in the doorway, dripping bloody juice for the cats to lap up, you will wish you could cry as well as he does. You will find out that your inability to cry then will make crying your full time job years later.
You will learn to be vulnerable. And that vulnerability is not about revealing your secrets. You will not understand this for a very long time. That’s your mistake. Secrets are just the juicy bits. They don’t mean much in the end – once they come out they are usually just regrets. You will learn that vulnerability is not revealing your secrets. It’s being willing to admit you were wrong.
And you will be wrong a lot. You will be with the right guy but think he is the wrong guy and spend a year making sure. Thank the gods for that, and that he came home to you too. Much later, when you break into a million pieces and work to put yourself together with the glue of forgotten forgiveness you will know that he is the partner you need, and the one you need to emulate at all costs. Don’t pretend the things he has done to you equal the things you have done to him. Or that they should. He deserves no less than your whole, true effort. There is no winning in love.
You will have pain, and you will succumb to it. You will have cancer, but not a bad kind. You will have your thyroid removed. You will have nine surgeries, some of them unnecessary. You will have a stomach disease that kicks you to your knees and you might blame it for a lot of things you have been refusing to face, like your ongoing, relentless depression.
You will have two souls enter your life through your body. That’s the way you will learn to think about it – that something you were always afraid of was the thing that gave you this kind of precious joy. Or that something you always expected to give you the greatest joy does not. Because having children does not give you all the joy you need and when you look to your children for all of your joy you will find out that that’s not enough. You will feel guilty for this, and it will etch something new onto you, but you will have to believe it. Otherwise you will stay underwater, and underwater, it turns out, is where the beauty ends, not begins, as you once thought it was.
From a distance you feel is too far, you will watch your sister birth a part of your heart too and you will wish you could slurp up her soft skin and the smell of just starting out.
You will learn, when you are almost forty, that forgiveness is an open palm. It’s in your hand, the light touch of release, the swell of it’s enough. But it’s not so easy to open and it’s not so easy to stay that way. Curling up so that your knuckles face the world is so much easier. But a fist to heart feels quite a lot different from a palm to heart, resting square on your breastbone, staying there, the heel of it pulsing the same rhythm as the heartbeat on your chest, marching your body along in a long trek to some sort of quiet absolution. Forgiving yourself first, that’s the trick, because forgiving anyone else without that is just an exercise.
You will have learned a lot about love the year your parents are hit by a tow trunk in the beginning of the night and the surgeon tells you “we can be hopeful” in the middle of the night. You will learn a thing or two about guilt. And gratitude. You will be lucky because you have seen the underbelly of your own twisting mind, and the glowing, beating hearts of your truest friends. You will judge your friends. You will have to let go of that. You will see your own expectations of how people will respond to you dissolve in the history of your relationship, experiences, love – and spill to the floor like sand. You will see a brain cracked and crushed and growing and healing. Twice. Three times, it you’re honest, if you include yourself. You will see how halves become whole when disaster strikes. You will be so tired your eyes sting, your back will creek, your chest will heave. You will find some peace in the strangest places: the seventh floor sunset at the hospital in a Boston October, when the fall just won’t give into the winter, the easy laugh of your children, those pieces of forgiveness in those forgotten places. You will look forward not to better, because you might not be ready to commit to better. You will look forward to enough. You will work toward enough.
You will work to be strong and you will fail at it over and over again. You will keep trying. Please, what ever you do don’t stop trying.
The 39-year-old you.
Francesca has been published in The New York Times Well Family, Brain, Child Magazine, Drunken Boat, Ed Week/Teacher, Glasscases.com, S3 Magazine, and Interview Magazine. She graduated from Stanford with a BA and MA in Education and from Harvard with a Doctorate in Educational Leadership, with a focus on writing education and improvement. Francesca lives in Newton, MA with her husband Nick and two children, Theo and Brieza.
Today is her 39th birthday.