I have had two half-written letters sitting in my drafts for a long time, it is part of my 30-before-30 challenge but they are hard letters to write. Yet today, when I pulled out an old photo album to find a silly Halloween picture to post, I thought about it and said, what the hell. So I sat down after dinner and finished it. It is brutally and maybe even painfully honest. But on a day of celebrating ghouls and a day that scares the shit out of me, I celebrated the skeletons in my closet.
Dear Seventeen-Year-Old Self,
If I could go back, I would hold you and tell you, be unstoppable. I would say grow a set of balls and be fearlessly you. I would say don’t squash your hopes and dreams, don’t make yourself tiny and belittle ambitions because you think that you should be a grown up. You are still a child. Be a child. Don’t rush this process. Don’t wish away these teenage years of uncertainty and the in-between. Live in the innocence and the conviction that you are allowed to chase the lofty because this is the only time in your life where you will actually have the naivety and dumbness to do it. Dream.
I would tell you that in a sea of faces, you are not invisible. That in the lonely and the unknown and the homesick, to find solid ground and your center. To cling to faith and believe, despite the chaos and noise around you, that there has always been a plan so infinitely bigger than you can even imagine. That your little broken moments are being weaved and crafted into a beautiful big picture that will take your breath away when you can finally step back to see it. Stay faithful, stay hopeful, stay close to a God that is bold and strong and more loving and gracious than you can even imagine.
That as you try to find yourself and find a community in a new stranger place, that it is going to be scary and all very new. But that it can also be so very exciting. It is okay to color outside of the lines. It is okay to just be you. It is okay to be vulnerable and afraid but guard your heart and protect yourself against the bullies. The ones that will make fun of you because you are different, the ones that will remind you that you are different because they don’t know how to fit in too. There’s always going to be a bunch of people that won’t like what you say, or how you feel, or even the color of your skin. That is not on you, that is on them. Walk away.
And as much as it pains me to say this, remember how they made you feel. Remember that words hold power and how you treat a stranger or betray a friend matters because you know exactly how that feels. Don’t judge. Don’t be a bitch. Don’t be a shit starter. Remember that your mama raised you better than that. Remember that even if you hold a juicy sliver of gossip that it is not your story to tell. It is never your story to tell.
When you figure out who your friends are and those who are just curious, be loyal. Remember that you can’t win them all, remember that when people throw sticks and stones, that they are piecing together their broken pieces too. You don’t know their stories, and you don’t understand their ugly, but you do know yours, and you are always worth walking away. It is not your job to make them like you or accept you, and it is certainly not your job to save them. Walk the fuck away Racheal.
Stop running. Stop running from your fears and your demons and your secrets. They are only going to hurt you, and break you. The silence and the burying and the running, will lead you down paths and roads and scary dark places and if I could I would tell you, they weren’t worth it. Your silence and your burying and your running wasn’t even worth the ugly that you thought would happen if you used your voice. What happened was wrong and I wish the Racheal I am now could meet the Racheal you were back then because I would have the courage and the wisdom to tell you it is okay. I would stop you and hold you and tell you, it is safe. You are safe now. I forgive you. You are loved and you are safe and it really did happen so stop running. Acknowledge it, process it, let it go. And for the first time in ten years, you will feel like you can breathe again.
Go out there and live! Participate in the seven million clubs that seem interesting to you, join that sorority, go for it. Even if you think you aren’t pretty enough, or smart enough, or talented enough, yes, even if they might reject you. Because this is what this time in your life is for. It’s to make mistakes. It’s to not be perfect. It’s to do stupid things and try stupid things and embrace stupid things. Because you will always wonder what if.
You will regret this, some day, as much as your fears tell you it’s scary as hell, you will regret not taking chances, not pushing the limits, not stepping beyond the safe to try the new. You will regret not making a fool of yourself when you were younger because it would have taught you the precious lesson of learning to laugh at yourself. It would have taught you that you are not a clone, not a puppet, not a porcelain China doll, not a shell, but flawed and dorky and real. And real is good, real is awkward and imperfect and real is freaking magical.
Enjoy your Friday after class Red Lobster rituals with your friends. Your little gang. You will never ever be this young and irresponsible again. Take more pictures. Make room in your memories for these snapshots of carefree and silly and fun. In a couple of years, you will all be married, and on different continents, and as much as you think this will never happen, you will be in different life stages and some will drift away, and that is okay too. Do not discredit your friendships or your experiences together because they taught you so much and you will always always look back at this time with love. Take a shit ton more pictures.
Because your little gang kept you sane and threw you the best surprise 18th birthday party complete with “fake strippers” and poker tables and a cow cake. Your little gang taught you to have fun and gave you “American” experiences like Halloween and taking you shopping the day of because it was completely unacceptable that you weren’t going to dress up. Or saved you and brought you pine cones because you had only seen them in pictures or read about them in storybooks and that was completely fascinating to you. Go on more road trips. Go Disney or bust more often. Learn the magic that is spring break with best friends and piling twelve people in a double room because you can split the box spring and mattress. You are only this age once and your back can still take the abuse. Enjoy the late nights giggling in dark rooms fuelled by midnight brownies and ringing friend’s doorbells to leave surprise flowers and silliness because you can.
Go back to that Waffle House on Davis Highway and find your favorite server and tell her what she meant to you. Tell her how much you admire her, tell her that the way she has loved on you and your friends at 3am or the way she has brought you and the old man coffee and bacon while you cried frustrated tears of evil math homework has changed your life. Tell her that her story has changed your life. That how she honors and serves her husband has always and will always be an inspiration to how you serve yours. Tell her that that last stop before you left Pensacola, when she handed you the cheap paper waffle house hat so you would always remember them, made you feel more loved than you even have words for.
And then remember how that feels. Remember how it feels to have a complete and absolute stranger love you for no reason at all other than because they are good and they want to. Learn this, learn this art and learn it well. There is a precarious balance between too selfish and distant to care, and between being used and abused because you are too trusting. The only way you’re ever going to know the difference and be good at this is to walk that line, making the mistakes, and learning each time what worked and what didn’t. What you will take away and what you will try to never repeat again. Practice, just practice and practice and practice until it is second nature. Be gracious. Be genuine. Be kind. Shine your light little big girl.
Go to the beach more often. Take that twenty minute ride and go spend some time alone there. Watch more sunsets and sunrises and listen to the waves as they crash on the shore. That tranquillity of learning to sit alone in the silence is a beautiful gift. Memorize the horizon and the landscape before it all changes. Before the hurricanes violently sweep it all away. Someday, you will move to the middle of the country and you will wish for the ocean, and someday again, you will move to a big city with concrete buildings and steel skyscrapers and long for those college years you could go to the beach on a Wednesday morning just because. Save up more memories for later. Save up these precious times.
Put that damn cigarette down. Put it out and stop smoking. I know that right now you think that this is just for fun. I know that right now you think a couple of sticks here and there doesn’t matter. Don’t be stupid and so damn naive. That shit will kill you in fifty years.
And Racheal, hear me when I say, you are skinny enough. MY GOD are you skinny enough. I don’t know why you only see the flesh between your thighs or the way your arm bat fat jiggles. I don’t know why this consumes you more than it should. I don’t know if it’s because in theater it feels like all the lights are always on you and that it is this reason that you will walk away from a craft you love because there is too much staring, and too much scrutinizing. Too much tearing apart and too much grey and questionable in-between. But I want to tell you, stop.
Stop destroying your self-worth. Stop being so damn harsh with your self-image. Take a deep breath and just stop. This is a dangerous slip and slide, this is a chess game with the devil, this will haunt you for the rest of your life. The things you see in the mirror and the voices you choose to listen to in your head, they lie. They lie and lie and lie and it will take a long long time for you to realize that, so stop. Don’t play that game, the numbers on your weighing scale has never and will never define your worth. The irony is, someday, you will look back on this time and wonder how you ever thought you were fat.
But more incredible than that, someday, you will look back at this time and think, man, I was too skinny. Someday, it will horrify you that you weighed less than a hundred pounds and it won’t be a battle won, it would be your wiser, smarter, more confident self weeping for the lost naive little girl that trusted the stupid things she saw around her on how she taught she needed to look in order to fit in. In order to be like the girls in glossy magazines. In order to get a role. Or how she thought she needed to eat for a boy to love her. Or to control the things she couldn’t control.
Your Prince Charming is waiting for you. On the other side of the country, he’s figuring out who he is too, he is making mistakes like you, and making choices, and making decisions that will eventually lead you to each other. It will take a while, but he is out there and he is faithfully waiting for you. You. Can you believe that?
You bark up the wrong trees and pursue the wrong boys, the dangerous completely inappropriate boys, the unkind ones, the crazy ones, the scary ones, because somewhere between then and now, you thought that this is what you deserved. You are so so so wrong, you are so very wrong and someday you will learn the heartbreaking redemption of God’s grace and mercy that you deserve better.
And when you feel the peer pressure to hide your virginity because everyone around you is fucking each other like little bunnies, don’t. It is not something to be ashamed of, it is not a flaw to be a virgin at seventeen. Be terrified of your first time, it is normal. Be ferociously protective and guard it. Be fucking tenacious about who you pursue and who you decide to give your first time to.
Because it is not something you should be ashamed about, it is your body, it is a choice you made, and do it because you want to. Not because you think you have to to fit in. Not because you don’t want to miss out. Not because you feel awkward and weird and am not even very sure what goes where and how. I won’t even tell you to do it with someone you love, or someone you want to marry, or someone you will want to spend the rest of your life with, but I will tell you that it would be worth the wait. I will tell you that I wish you had.
But because I know how this story ends, I wish I could tell you to learn that your body is yours. Learn that no man should ever guilt you, trick you, force you, manipulate you into doing something you don’t want to do. You should never ever be afraid of your partner, you should never ever be afraid to tell him to stop or that you don’t like it. You should never be ashamed that you don’t know how to do that or that you don’t enjoy things other people tell you you should enjoy. Trust your gut. Your gut is always right. If it doesn’t feel right, don’t do it. Don’t ever ever silence that. There are times that I am so fucking mad at you because you didn’t know this. Why didn’t you know this? How do I go back in time and tell you all this? How do I go back and tell you your body is yours and yours alone and that love does not look like that. Love will never ever look like that.
Because someday you are going to learn this from the boy that waited for you. You are going to find each other and you are going to learn that beyond whether you are the perfect size or was on the Dean’s list or can fit into size 0 jeans with a C cup bra that he really doesn’t give a shit about it. That he just sees you, and your heart, and you are just as sexy in your pasar malam mumu or in expensive lacy lingerie. That you are just as sexy fully covered up than slutted out. But mostly, he’s going to teach you about setting boundaries. He will teach you how precious and how special sex is. Because he will teach you what it means to respect each other, to trust, to be vulnerable and intimate. To have a safe place to ask questions and learn what feels right and doesn’t. What you enjoy and what you don’t. What you are comfortable with and what you are not. And you will wish, my God will you wish, that you saved all your bests for him.
But mostly, dear seventeen year old self, remember who you are. Remember the 7-year-old girl in her kitchen, learning to fax menus to the office and rollerblading a tiffin carrier of dishes she boldly experimented in the kitchen to share a lunch with mom and dad. Or the 14-year-old that knew exactly who she would and would not date and refused to settle for any less. Or even the 15-year-old girl that once spearheaded and organized an entire organ donation drive just because she read a story and thought she could make a difference. Remember that 16-year-old that when forced to choose a sports activity in high school, picked cheerleading because she liked dancing and you didn’t have to get dirty like long jump. Then went for broke and defiantly and stubbornly put together a team to represent the school at a national competition in which they were the unknowns. Who shamelessly went up to the “rival” cliques and said, “Put your shit aside, give me your bests and lets bring a trophy home”. And they did because she just believed they could.
Remember that same captain, who many many many years later stumbled across one of her girls who said the most powerful thing they remembered, was not the hours and hours under the blazing sun or her unapologetically and fiercely making them run the same routine again and again and again. It wasn’t even the many many dollars they compiled and saved up to bribe the delivery man to bring a constant supply of 100 plus and food to the secret padang they practiced in the neighborhood. It was that she always believed in her girls, and she always made sure they knew their worth. That one afternoon, on a whim, she had made them write down the most precious thing about each other and then made them read it to each other. That win or lose, they were going to be a team and each and every girl was going to know how damn important they were and that they mattered. I forgot that story, I didn’t even remember I did that.
So I’m going to tell you, remember that you matter and that you are capable of so much more than you can even imagine. That somehow, somewhere, you let bad decisions and insecurities quiet your inner strength and let fear take over. That in between the hormones and the lessons, that you thought growing up meant not making bold decisions but tiptoeing down the line instead. Because you thought that was careless and stupid and might get you in trouble. That being a good girl meant being a yes girl but it is so very not. You are not this girl. You are not broken or too old or too late to change. Because I am 29 and I am telling you, we have made more mistakes than a lifetime can contain and we are going to make so so many more. And that is a hundred and ten percent okay. Life is about making mistakes and learning and trying and discovering. Life is not about tiptoeing and silencing and forgetting. Live your one and precious life taking chances, and dreaming, and believing.
Brush it off. Get back up. Love you.
Shine your light.
You and I, we’re going to be okay.
We’re going to be just fine.
One day in retrospect, the years of struggle will strike you as the most beautiful.