Saturday, July 20, 2013
Dear Christie in 1992
You are in the second semester of the eighth grade, or possibly the first semester of the ninth grade, depending on which month we're talking about. You either do or do not have a boyfriend whom you love, also depending on the month we're talking about. You live with your happy family -- Mom, Dad, younger brother and sister -- in a nice house in the suburbs. You have no health problems, and you've never lived through anything remotely approaching tragic.
You have been placed on the "gifted" track in school, a fact about which you feel mostly undeserving and unqualified but that, if we're being honest, also gives you the idea that you are of a higher-than-average intellectual caliber, and that therefore the universe has excused you from much of the studying and homework that plagues the hours of hoi polloi in your age group.
This year is an interesting one in terms of your social development -- a brief blessed moment during which you are considered to be marginally "cute" (at least by the boys in the lower echelons of your school's "headbanger" subculture whom you find yourself increasingly drawn to) and "cool" (at least by your own dorky friends). This is more true of the first half of the year, the junior-high half, than of the second, the high-school part. I am sorry to report that by the tenth grade your social currency will have dropped on both of these counts, but let us focus on "now" and what I want to tell you -- to serve both as cautionary tale and as, perhaps, a bit of encouragement.
First we need to talk about the aforementioned boy. I am sorry to tell you this, but he is going to break your heart. Brace yourself. He will do this not just once, but two more times -- maybe you already know this, if I'm speaking to you at the end of the year. It will take you until your freshman year of college, when you finally find a replacement obsession, to get over him. In your first months at a dreary party school for rich flunkies, you will still be writing weepy love poems about him that get published in the independent college newspaper.
The important thing is this: Let him go.
You will fall in love again. Several times, in fact. And this doesn't have to degrade or cheapen this first love that you're feeling; if anything, it's a small testament to the resilience of the human spirit, its capacity to love again. It's like a damn Cher song or something.
You will even -- HUGE spoiler alert -- get proposed to by a wonderful guy when you are 34 years old (uh, sorry about the wait; 20 years will fly by!), who will give you a beautiful sapphire ring down by the gently lapping wavelets of the Potomac River on the Fourth of July, fireworks and fireflies sparking all around you in the woods. He will want to have a family with you. You will joyously plan a laid-back fall wedding by a lake at which there will be apple butter and your dad playing banjo.
This is also important: When you are 21 years old, you will write a long, rambling, confessional, "just catching up after all these years, and telling you things I meant to tell you back then but never did" e-mail that you will want to send to this boy, your current (or former) love of 1992, a letter that you will painstakingly compose while sitting in the dorm room of a better college that you transferred into for your junior and senior years.
Don't send it. It will not make you two reconnect. It will not answer any questions. He will never respond, and it will do nothing but make you feel like shit. I repeat: Let him go.
OK, now that we've dealt with the silly topic of boys (and the not-so-silly topic of love), let's move on to what, even "now" in 1992, is the next most important thing in the world to you, and will likely remain so for the rest of your life: writing. I am sorry to tell you that, at 34 years old, you are not a best-selling, critically acclaimed novelist, or even just a published one toiling away in obscurity.
You will keep writing, though, and you will continue to get better. Or so you will believe, and to hell with anyone who disagrees. You will devote yourself to short fiction, and your hunch about your still-incipient talent will be confirmed when a group of good writers you meet at a snooty short-fiction workshop urges you to publish some of your pieces, when its members say things such as, "This needs to be out in the world."
Regarding writing, and your chance to possibly have some sort of literary career, I would like to kindly suggest that you keep up your grades -- e.g., in Algebra class, think about, you know, algebra, and not the aforementioned boy -- and try to get a decent math score on the SAT (you've already got the verbal portion nailed, so don't even bother studying for that part) so that you can, yes, get into a good college, perhaps with some sort of partial merit-based scholarship to ease the financial burden off your folks a little bit. Not that they're poor, but they do have two other kids besides you whose educations they will need to at least partly pay for.
Might I suggest trying for UVA's English program? Or even something nutty like St. John's College in Annapolis, with its intriguingly elitist old-school, classical-education angle? Or hey -- you will soon visit the Big Apple with your journalism class, and you will fall in love with the city; might I suggest something like NYU's "literary reportage" concentration, if in fact it exists in 1996 when you graduate from high school? After that, you must promise me that you will try to get accepted by a school that offers an MFA in Creative Writing, with the University of Iowa's vaunted program being the dream school in this vein, but... sorry; I'm getting parental toward you, and we can probably both agree that's just weird.
The reason I say all of this guidance-counselor stuff is because I want you to believe in your talent, and cultivate it. One sad day in the car, on the subject of your career prospects and potential college majors, your dad will muse, "You go into a bookstore and it's full of thousands of books; why couldn't one of them be by Christie?" Don't believe your wonderful mom when she replies: "Yeah, but what are the odds that one of them will be by her?" She is from small-town Appalachia, was raised by a self-deprecating mom, dropped out of college and never had an away-from-home career, and was maybe even having a bad day on top of it all. The larger world stage has always seemed a remote and off-limits place to her. This isn't her fault, nor does it reflect on what you are or aren't capable of.
Remember: Everyone who ever wrote a classic or best-selling novel or celebrated collection of short stories, every writer who ever won a Pulitzer Prize for fiction or a Nobel Prize for literature, was only human, not some superbrain alien from a more literary planet. They were and are made out of the same elements that you are.
If you don't follow my advice about grades and colleges, though, you'll still turn out OK. You will be a newspaper reporter for a bunch of years, and will win a big fancy journalism award that Bob Woodward will win the year before you do. And yet pretty soon after receiving that golden plaque -- and feeling, once again, mostly undeserving and unqualified but a little bit smug and entitled -- you will make an about-face, career-wise, and decide that your nerves are not compatible with being a member of the vilified media, a nosy persona non grata at every local event that you cover, a shatterer of privacy and heralder of disgrace.
After you leave this world for the more comfortable and lucrative milieu of writing and editing for organizations and corporations, you will continue to tell yourself that you miss reporting, and you will have nothing but admiration and respect (and a little envy) for the people who do that every day, who make themselves vulnerable to holier-than-thou criticism in return for deigning to bring news of the outside world to people too busy or lazy or preoccupied or underqualified to go out and get it themselves.
What else is there to say? Don't wait until you're almost 28 to have sex.
When you're 20 years old, you will become an atheist -- I know how much you value your "big buddy in the sky" now, how you talk to him as if he were your friend, how you keep a silver cross on top of the Bible on your nightstand, and how you kiss the cross before going to sleep every night, so I hope this isn't too much of a shock or a disappointment. The atheism -- it will be a good thing. You will feel more clear-eyed as an atheist than you ever did as a Christian. You will still find the world to be a crushingly beautiful place, and you will still be a good person, after you leave religion behind.
I tell you all of this about religion in part to make the point that you are not going to descend directly through a trap door and speed through a chute that leads to hell after having sex. Respect yourself; don't do that with just anyone, and never do it out of pity or guilt, or fear. But when you do have sex -- it's OK, you don't have to freak out, you don't have to feel as if you've crossed some sinister point of no return. It can be a profound experience, especially with someone you love. (Believe me, you will get a lot of writing fodder out of it.)
Don't feel bad about being shy, but don't let your shyness keep you so much in your shell that you never leave it to reach out to other people. They really aren't judging you all the time. They really aren't going to hold up score cards, Olympic-judge-style, every time you say something in a conversation. They really are more focused on the noise in their own heads to care too much or even notice if and when you inevitably slip up and say something dumb, if and when you inevitably make some faux pas. Make the faux pas, then get on with your life. It really isn't going to kill you.
Go ahead and try out all the things you want to try. Audition for roles in school plays. Go out for track; we both know you can sprint like a motherfucker. Get involved with the college radio station. You know how your mom is always saying that the main things she regrets are the things she didn't do? Yeah, well, I know how much you detest unoriginality, but that woman is speaking the truth. Oh, and take Spanish, for god's sake, instead of so many years of German. You will use Spanish a lot more. (I know it seems as if "everyone else is taking Spanish" and you want to be different -- but there is a reason everyone else is taking Spanish.)
Does the above paragraph sound banal? A little too much preaching about extra-curriculars? Then let me tell you some cool things about your future. You will live in California for a tiny little while. You will have a legitimately torrid love affair with an older published novelist in New Orleans, and he will write a book about you that he is still, as of now, unable to publish because it's too personal and he doesn't want his current girlfriend or his son to read it.
You will visit Croatia, drink locally made honey-wine in a mountain village in Montenegro, shop for jewelry on the street in Bosnia-Hercegovina; you will run on a beach in New Zealand as your now-fiancé takes your picture; you will explore a Patagonian town at the bottom of the world, wandering windswept streets and the aisles of an above-ground cemetery alone. You will make love in a pick-up truck parked in a field of wildflowers in Colorado on a sunny July day. You will stand alone in the middle of a deserted road in Moab, Utah, and again in the Mojave Desert of California, euphoric and on the cusp of beginning a brand new life far away from everything you have ever known.
Drink a little alcohol but don't make a big deal about it. (Remember what I said about the trap door that leads to hell, and how it won't swallow you up the instant you have sex? Yeah, the same goes for drinking booze.) Don't vacillate wildly from one extreme to the other, avowed ascetic to defiant decadent, for this mindset(s) only feeds addiction. Just drink a little bit like a normal person, but know that you can have fun -- you can be fun -- without it.
What else are you going through right now, or about to go through? We've covered most of the biggies, so what are the little things, the more mundane woes, that occupy your mind right now? Your skin, in typical teenager style, will get a little bit bad in about a year, and will stay that way until college. Just realize this will endow you with character, will impart unto you empathy for all the less-than-model-perfect creatures of this world. You won't have boobs for a long time, not until you are nearly the age that I am now and gain a little weight, but that won't keep guys from loving you or finding you sexy.
(But rest assured -- I am writing this to you clear-skinned and sporting a bit of bona-fide cleavage. Also, I don't know how, but somehow your face bones will sort themselves out, and you will magically become more photogenic around the time you hit 30 -- either that or you will feel sexier and more confident, and this development will trick everyone, even the camera. You will even know several talented photographer pals who will clamor to take nude photos of you on a regular basis.)
At 34, you will not yet be married with a gaggle of kids. You will not be the minivan-driving soccer mom with the "Mom jeans" and the "Mom hair." You will not be a member of the PTA; you will not watch Oprah and listen to Josh Groban. Your thirties will feel strangely as if they should be someone's twenties -- you will go out to nightclubs and dance; you will have creative, fun friends who throw themed parties.
In fact, one day when you're 34, you will get invited to a party whose jokey theme is the year 1992. Coincidentally, Vogue and the other magazines that 1992-you loves so much are currently ablaze with the news that the grunge '90s are "in" again. So it will be easy for you to simply drive to the mall and pick up a flannel shirt and faux combat boots at Forever 21, and even a form-fitting (lace-trimmed!) tank top with Kurt Cobain emblazoned across the front at Hot Topic.
You will feel a bit sheepish about this retro, inauthentic, mall version of the 1990s that you have thrown together. But don't. Because 1) 1992-you buys all of her things at the mall, too (Contempo Casuals, holla!); and 2) you got rid of your actual 1990s clothes that still fit, and a bunch of other stuff, before the big (anti-?)heroic move to San Diego a few years ago. So just feel proud.
I have to end this missive here. Because not only do I need to take a shower and clad myself in flannel nostalgia for the party, but I believe it's counter-productive to visit the past for more than the briefest of context-providing jaunts. So I will end this with:
Love yourself. Work hard in school. Read and write like a maniac. Cherish this time with your friends; someday you'll be surprised at the ones you drift or break apart from. Know that you have value.