NS December 7th, 2009
Subsequent to the last post published here, which was from an anonymous guest blogger and was a continuation of a meme involving writing letters to our 16-year-old selves, I decided that I’d like to do one myself. But when I tried to think of what wisdom I should impart to my teenaged self, I realised that the one I’d like to give the most advice to is my 11-year-old self. So if you’ll excuse this bending of the rules, read on.
It’s been two years since your younger sister died. Your mother still cries at random intervals and at others closes herself off from everyone around her, retreating into a shell of grief, rage and sorrow, the blackness and depths of which you will hopefully never experience yourself. Though you grieve too, know that her grief is different from yours – all-encompassing, far-reaching and infinte. You alternate between helplessness and uncertainty — wishing you could do or say something to soothe her burning heart — and self-righteousness and anger, feeling that your childhood is merely being gotten through and survived rather than treasured and observed. Be patient with her. She still loves you. This will make you stonger.
You struggle to know your place in the family now that you are no longer the middle child but the youngest. Every time you argue with one of your parents you weep afterwards, either with regret that you upset them further or with a bitter indignation that you should be worrying about their feelings instead of your own and tiptoeing around the hole in your family where your sister used to be. Allow yourself to be selfish at times without beating yourself up with guilt; you’ve faced some harsh realities in life already and selflessness isn’t a prerequisite to being a good person, especially when you are a child.
You will think that your older sister is perfect and that everyone wants you to be more like her, with her straight As and ‘nice’ friends and involvement in school activities. You will not do as well in school as she does, mostly out of laziness and partly out of boredom, but a) don’t think you aren’t smart just because you don’t have perfect grades and b) don’t mistake good grades for a goody two-shoes — your older sister is one of the most fun, funniest and most generous people you will ever meet so don’t think you have nothing in common with her or that you’ll never be friends. She will eventually become so dear to your heart and such an invaluable confidante that you couldn’t imagine your life without her.
You are starting to realise, even though it’s not really discussed, that your parents are having money problems. Both of them are working, and will continue to work, part-time jobs on top of their full-time ones in order to give you and and your older sister the things you want and need. You will cry when, next year on your birthday, your dad gives you a card made from a brown paper bag with a picture of a stereo taped to the inside with a note from him promising that after just a few more payments, it will be yours. You will keep that card forever and look at it whenever you think of what it means to sacrifice for love. It will also quell the rampant consumerism that threatens to completely take over many teens and sow the seeds of minimalism and ‘making do’ that you try to live by later in life.
One night later this year, when you’re at a sleepover at one of your close friend’s house, she and two other close friends will confide a deep, dark secret to you. They will ask you for your help and you will know what to do. You will hold them as they cry and understand when they retreat emotionally, because the messenger often gets shot. You will talk to child psychologists and police officers as their abuser goes to trial. You will receive a threatening phone call from him before he begins his prison sentence, which will have you looking over your shoulder for the next ten years.
In your teenage years you will watch two of these friends struggle to understand their sexuality and confuse sex with love and acceptance; the other will go through severe anorexia and body dysmorphia and you will have to unplug her treadmill before she passes out in the midst of an exercise frenzy. This will be your first taste of what sexual violence does to girls and women, and of the severe consequences that last a lifetime. You will get angry. Don’t be afraid of that anger; hold onto it but learn to understand and control it — it will lead you to a passion for social justice and activism for women and, aside from writing, will be your life’s calling.
The writing, the writing, the writing. You have just started writing poetry in the journal your parents gave you for Christmas. It sparks something urgent and indescribable in the depths of your soul and you will spend countless hours in the years ahead with a pen gripped between your fingers and your back hunched over a sheaf of papers and, later, a keyboard. Your classmates, teachers and family will soon start to tell you that you’re good at it and encourage you to write more. This will result in speech awards, poetry and articles published in the school paper and, eventually, eulogies for two of your friends at their funerals. You will dream of writing a book that touches and inspires people, of having such a way with words that people get lost inside them, moved to tears or action or both. You will discover that you want to see the world and change it and will begin planning your global travels and humanitarian work. As it stands now, you won’t have quite made it there on either count but don’t let that deter you. Both are great goals.
Pretty soon you will begin going to parties and drinking and, when you are about 17, experimenting with drugs. You will have an absolute whale of a time and make some great memories, but when someone at a party offers you a powdered white substance on a mirror, turn them down. Walk away and never look back, because you come so close to losing yourself to it. You’ll know it’s time to stop when you do it in the morning before class, pawn your jewellery and cry when you run out. Learn how to have a good time but don’t ever let yourself creep out on that ledge again. Many people aren’t so lucky as to talk themselves down.
If you think life is all doom and gloom — don’t. In 10 years’ time you will be married to a wonderful Englishman and living in London. Yes, THAT London, and it will be as fabulous as you could possibly imagine. Five years after that you will become a mother for the first time and begin a new phase in your life. Two and a half years after your daughter arrives, you will give birth to your son, unmedicated, in your dining room (yes, it will be planned that way!) and it will be the most intense, primal and spiritual thing you have ever experienced. Don’t be afraid or embarrassed of this — it will change you and give you physical and mental strength you didn’t know you had. After you’ve done that you will feel you can do anything.
You will find mothering challenging, exasperating, depressing, thrilling, fulfilling and about five thousand different kinds of wonderful. You will beat yourself up when you err or lose your temper or fail to live up to expectations you have been conditioned to believe must be met, but don’t waste the energy. You will love your children and do the best you can with what you’ve got and, really, that’s all that matters.
Be well. Look after yourself. Have fun. Be a child. Never stop caring about others and never stop using your voice, in your life and in your writing, to try to affect change. You may not think they matter, but they do. Oh, how they do.
Me (30 years and five-and-a-half months)