Lately, I’ve noticed some really great efforts out there to impart wisdom from women to girls, fueled by a desire to close gaps that have been stalled out, to inspire confidence, to help ensure #metoo isn’t repeated. In some ways, I think these efforts are also born of a desire to do some internal landscaping and healing, an older woman to her younger self – worry about pleasing people less, speak up more, ask for what you want, let the dishes sit in the sink more often.
All good stuff to be sure. But I wonder if we should only think of learning as from older-to-younger, rather than occasionally let it flow the other direction. I wonder if my 14-year-old Self might not have a few important things that she could teach ME, as in the right-here-and-now me at 41. What did I know then that I have now forgotten? What have I learned since that is no longer serving me or clouding up my little squinty near-sighted eyes?
I got a glimpse of that girl I was when I went into the mountains two months ago to write in solitude. I brought with me into the cabin all my old journals. ALL of them, y’all. And it felt damn near heroic to crack open the one I wrote during high school, which began two weeks before my freshman year and two months after my mother died, and read it straight through with minimal wincing. That girl in there broke my heart (and totally embarrassed me) with her earnestness. As I read, I watched her wrestle and often flail with both the bottomless pain of such immense loss – as well as the quotidian tiny dramas of teenagerdom. She addressed her first entries to her mother and wrote in a careful, controlled hand, which then loosened into a wide and messy scrawl at 15 and 16 opening on to her loneliness and wild thoughts, then tightening up again into a steely resolve at 17 and 18, as she wrote through her plan to get on her own.
I wouldn’t want to re-walk that rocky path again for anything – full of all the fits and starts of adolescence combined with mother-orphaning and a cross country move. But I was struck in remembering how good I was at asking for exactly what I needed. In between those pages with its erratic handwriting, I was talking about reaching out to aunts, using babysitting money on therapy, and lingering after class with a few favorite teachers to tell them how I was feeling, and ask for advice. Always, too, I was writing, writing, writing.
I’d do well to remember these things today when I get caught up in some struggle and immediately make my Go-To connection: “I’m all alone and it’s all hard and I have to do it all by myself.” In those flowery notebooks (bought before our national moleskin craze), I had accidentally stumbled upon a time-machine to the brief window just after I had first faced real hardship, but before I began second guessing my needs as worthwhile and justifiable. A place where I was willing to reach out to others and say, with a child’s lack of self-referential apology or hedging, “I need something. Can you give it?”
Last month I sat on the couch in front of a fire with my mother’s best friend from childhood, who has become my friend in the past five years or so we’ve been living in the same town. I looked at the fire and mused, “I remember the first time I met you. I was 14 or 15. You picked me up and we spent the day together. We sat in the cemetery near mom’s grave and the wisteria was blooming and it felt like we talked for hours. Did that really happen? How did you come to be there – weren’t you living in Houston then?”
She turned to me. “You wrote to me. You don’t remember?”
“No. Tell me.”
“I couldn’t make it to your mother’s funeral, but about a month later, I got this letter from you – I don’t even know how you got my address. ‘We’ve never met,’ you wrote, ‘but you were my mother’s best friend growing up and I would really like you to come to Louisiana and meet me and talk with me. Will you come?’”
“Well, that did it,” she said. “I found a babysitter for my 3 kids and made the trip.”
“I wrote that? I just found someone my mother loved and said, ‘I need you to travel to meet me’?”
“Yes,” she said. “You did.”
I marveled at the audacity and resiliency of my 14-year-old self.
And then I marveled that I should marvel. When had it become surprising to me that I was someone who asked for exactly what she wanted (much less knew exactly what she wanted)? I expected to survive. I simply expected to be okay and was matter-of-factly walking out the way in which I would be okay. I had a clarity then that the gnawing worry over the years, the death by a thousand papercuts of adulthood, has fuzzed over in me now.
Dalia Lithwick, brilliant, heartfelt writer on legal issues, culture and politics, observed that much of the power and effectiveness of Emma Gonzales and her Parkland student colleagues lies in that they have not been cowed or made skeptical that they might not be able to affect change. In her article, The Student Teachers, she outlines what she has learned from the students fearlessly reimagining how to affect change in the Trump era.
Lithwick writes, “The adults forgot to tell the kids at Stoneman Douglas that they can’t win against the NRA. As Alec MacGillis suggested last week, decades of demoralized fatalism have allowed progressives to persuade themselves that the NRA and Republican interests are too powerful to overcome, causing liberals to give up the fight before it begins. But no one shared this received wisdom with Emma Gonzalez. ‘If you actively do nothing, people continually end up dead, so it’s time to start doing something,’ she said last weekend. That may sound naïve to an older generation of progressives, but it’s also the only possible starting point for changing the terms of the debate. I, for one, am grateful to be reminded of its essential truth.”
I couldn’t agree more with Lithwick’s assessment of how we might learn from these young people, who are just as close to cartoons as they are their first real job. And it feels like no coincidence that my inspiration in them is occurring at the same time I am learning from the fearless reimagining work of my younger self.
We tend to think of ourselves in this oyster way, accreting, accreting, accreting, the pearl of wisdom growing fatter and fatter on our tongues. But I think sometimes we forget so much about ourselves that we never thought we would. It’s still there, of course, our former selves. And in the sense that we can learn from the younger, we can go back – so long as we’re willing to do a little shucking.
My friend and I have on our respective bedside tables a little box that says, “Anytime you need to remember.” It references a line from Father Tom Weston, Anne Lamott’s best friend, who likes to say, “Remember to remember.” Inside this box are all the truths I know and love, mostly by writers and thinkers and feelers far more evolved than me, cut out on little slips of paper and folded inside. The idea behind this is that we really already know so much of what we need to in order to be mostly content and kinda sane, to keep our teeth from being so little and razor sharp with everyone we love most, especially ourselves. The challenge, of course, is to remember to remember what we already know. When I am present enough, I’ll take out one of these little slips of paper, read it, and remember all over again. And for a short time, I’ll feel a little more knitted up, a little more connected to my better Self.
We’re in an age of empowering girls, and that’s fantastic and CRITICAL – but it sometimes means we’re weighing them down with all our decades-old bricks of advice. What if empowerment meant paving the way for who they already are?
What if we could see our own work as facilitating the perfection we ourselves already are?
Early-teen Elizabeth was no spiritual Sappho. She was a hypercontrolling perfectionist who bit down her fingernails, made to-do lists even on the weekends, and harbored a “hobby eating disorder.” I’ve learned much in the intervening 27 years that I wouldn’t trade for anything, namely how to let go, how to listen, how to yield, how to trust. But I would be remiss if I took that accrued wisdom, often won the hard way through so many mistakes and false steps, and failed to remember that I knew a few things then too.
My 14-year-old Self still has a Lisa Frank ™ Trapper Keeper full of lessons for me.
How about you?