From trusting your intuition to surviving Fashion Week, “Life Lessons” have definitely been a theme in my life and on this blog lately. So, I thought this was the perfect time to just go with the flow and post another instalment of my Things I Would Tell My 20-Year Old Self series.
Today I have Tara of Magnolia Thoughts doing the honours. Tara is yet another one of the fantastic people I met at Bloggers in Sin City last year. Tara is fiesty and sassy and one of my favourite Sourherners 🙂 She’s also a fantastic writer and storyteller. I know I say this about all the posts from this series, but this is truly one of my favourite ones yet. Although I’ve met Tara in person and we shared some pretty amusing stories over brunch & a plate of crawfish, I feel like I know her better after reading this post, and I kind of just want to reach out and give her a big hug. I hope you enjoy her story as much as I did! Take it away Tara…
Whew. From where I sit now, self, 20 was quite awhile ago. I am almost 32, and there’s been what feels like a lifetime and a half of insanity in the intervening decade-plus. Let’s you and I have a sit-down. Have some sweet tea and kick back. I’ve got a little hindsight for you.
You are about to rush into something. SLOW DOWN.
20 was a big year for us. 2001 was an important year for everyone. In September of 2001, a whole lot of things changed very quickly in your life. And 9/11 will be more than a national tragedy for you. You won’t forget Peter Jennings simply muttering, “Oh my God,” as you watched that plane hit on live television. You won’t forget the shock, the panic, the frenzied rush to throw your stuff in the car and take off with your roommate across the Commonwealth of Virginia to your boyfriend’s fraternity house in the mountains. The sheer emptiness of the roads, contrasted with the gorgeous late-summer day, will resonate with you forever. But you will remember most of all walking into the house and seeing a vase of white roses, and hearing your friends say to you, “Did you hear about [friend]? How about [another friend’s dad]?” Gone in the Trade Center; gone in the Pentagon. 9/11 isn’t just a national tragedy. It’s the day your friend died in a national tragedy.
You, your friends, and your boyfriend will all grieve together. You’ll be at one of maybe 20 college football games played in the country the Saturday after. No one really knows what else to do, so they’re playing football. You will sing the National Anthem with this crowd, and you will cry. You’ll all wear black armbands for your friend, and drink cheap vodka, and spend a lot of time in confused silence. Your friend’s fiancee will come, too. She’ll drink and cry more than the rest of you. No one will know what to say to her. You’re all 20. You’re kind of useless in the face of large human tragedy. And that Saturday night, you and your boyfriend will agree to marry each other.
Dear girl: stop right there. Do not do this. You will be warned in other ways, too, by the people who know you best. Your daddy, when you call him the next day in your giddy tragedy-drunk joy, will say, “Don’t you want to shack up first?” You’ll think he’s joking. He is not joking. Your oldest friends will be happy for you in that weird way you’re happy for someone you think just might be doing something insane. You kind of are. And your insanity will be validated by all the tragedy-drunk 20-year-olds around you. When you announce your engagement, one of the frat-bros will pick you up in a huge bear hug, swinging you around and bellowing, “Thank God! GOOD NEWS!” And that’s really why you did this, self. You were desperately in need of some good news, some comfort, some ray of light to break through the grief-crazy. You wanted happiness so that the beautiful Virginia fall could be somehow justified when the world seemed to be crashing all around you.
You don’t have to marry him. You’re not really in your right mind right now. And ten years later, when you divorce him acrimoniously, you’ll realize that you both suffered because you made this snap decision. You don’t need a wedding ring to feel safe again. Pause. Breathe. STOP.
Send that letter.
You’re a tough kid, self. You’ve been that way for a long time. You learned it from your parents. You come from survivor’s stock. Except right now, “survivor” would be the LAST word you would ever use to describe your mother. She is unraveling before your very eyes right now. You understand what is happening intellectually. She’s sick. She’s major-bipolar. She’s relapsed on a couple of the addictions she’d gotten under control when you were a little girl and you made friends with other recovering alcoholics after AA potluck “eatin’ meetin’s.” You understand the reasons why this is happening.
Doesn’t make it any easier to deal with, I know. Calling repeatedly, with no answer on the other end for days, weeks on end; rambling, tearful messages on your answering machine; having to call the sheriff in her town to make sure she’s still alive – it’s more than you feel like you should have to handle. And on a certain level, you’re right. It is not your job to be the last tether holding your own mother to reality. And though you’ve done your best, you have finally said to yourself, you know, I just can’t right now. So you stop calling. And you don’t visit. You build the sad but necessary psychic space that you need to make room for yourself to grow.
This is not the wrong choice. There isn’t a “wrong” choice, really. And you’ll spend your twenties in a sporadic, tentative written chain of communication with your mother. But as she gets sicker, you’ll let the trail go cold. When you go to law school when you turn 26, you’ll mean to send that change of address, but you won’t. You’ll get to it eventually.
In 2008, the Super Bowl will coincide with Joe Cain Day, the most Mobilian of Mobile Mardi Gras observances. You, being a Mobilian, love Joe Cain Day. So you’ll think it odd that, after the parade and the festivities, along with that AMAZING end to the game, your husband’s phone is ringing. But it is, and when he answers, the time to send that letter is up. You will fly to Florida. You will take a boat with your daddy and his brother. Your daddy will tell you a story of your mother at age 13, and how she spent her mission trip will at once stir your pride in the woman who bore you and stab straight through your heart at how it ended. You will go to a memorial service at the group home where her life ended, and you will hear her friends give a eulogy that makes you realize that you really did not know her at the end at all.
Kid, send the letter. This one matters. When you’re crying at Thanksgiving dinner because you finally got that damn recipe for Mornay sauce right, but you can’t share that with the woman who handwrote the cookbook you use every fourth Thursday in November, you’ll think about that letter, and how it just never got sent.
On the subject of law school:
You took the LSAT right before your 20th birthday. You knew full well that you were going to be a lawyer from the time you were a tiny little child. There’s a newspaper clipping from the spring of 1986 of your four-and-a-half-year-old face, buried DEEP into a volume of the Code of Alabama. This was DESTINY.
Except that you have this gnawing, nagging feeling that maybe this isn’t right somehow. And as you write your applications, that feeling grows and grows. And one night, you will have a crying-fit meltdown at your future mother-in-law’s house, right after she’s lectured you for some transgression against what you think is her opinion that you’re too Alabama redneck for her proper, pedigreed, old-Virginia white-picket-fence family. (You’ll learn later how very wrong you were about that now-ex-mother-in-law of yours. But I digress.) And you’ll pull all of your applications and give up on law school.
This was smart. You weren’t ready. You needed that five-year waiting period. And when you were ready, you got to law school. And you LOVED it. And it was good for you. So good instincts, then and now.
Be a LOT smarter about your money. No, really.
Three years at LSU was wonderful for you. You learned the law, your trade to this day, and you learned who you are outside of your now-ex-marriage. But law school was expensive, hon. I’ll be paying this off for the rest of my adult life. And to be blunt, part of the reason that age 31 is so hard money-wise is that you, my dear, are about as dumb as a box of hair about your money. And that shiny new fiance of yours is, if you can believe it, worse than you are. For God’s sake, put that credit card away. Don’t use it. Stop spending like the kids at his college. They have rich parents. You are a teacher’s kid. Your daddy is a good man, and you never knew growing up just how broke you both were. He sacrificed the world so that you’d never want for what you asked for. Learn from his example.
Finally, and MOST importantly, HOLD ON TO YOUR FRIENDS.
You think you know right now who your forever-friends are. I mean, you spend every weekend on that interstate, speeding across the Commonwealth to spend all your social time with this crew. Your fiance and his frat brothers, as well as their girlfriends and all your other pals at the tiny mountain college, are your world. These are the folks who will stand up at your wedding, who will be around for all the major life milestones. And the clique you kept in middle school and high school? You love those kids, but you just don’t make it home as much as you used to. You don’t call, and even though IM is VERY much a thing, you just aren’t as good at keeping up with your old pals as you were in the old days.
Girl, let me tell you. In ten years, when you’re a divorced woman, you and your ex-husband will have an unspoken “friend draft.” The clique of people you spent every free second with? They will take sides. It’s human nature. And you’ll see that, even though they’ll stay Facebook-friendly with you, almost all of them will stay with him.
Good thing for you that you had law school, to make you stronger and confident in your own skin. Your girls from LSU will be your lifeblood leading up to the divorce. You will move into your first-ever all-by-yourself apartment at age 29, and you’ll meet a girl who will be your first post-divorce friend. And somehow, you’ll reconnect with that band of high-school friends, and you’ll wonder what in the world ever drew you away from the runnin’ buddies who knew you best. Y’know, the ones who thought your marriage was possibly a good idea, but probably really insane.
One in particular.
This has been a really heavy letter, self. Your twenties are full of missteps, really. You don’t get things in order like the culture tells you that you’re supposed to. But through it all, you have a constant. You have your best friend, your old confidante from tenth grade, who you didn’t manage to alienate in your wilderness years. He will, as luck will have it, move to Mississippi for awhile right around the time you move to Louisiana. You’ll spend time with him. Lots of it. He’ll be a lifesaver when you need to get out of your house as your marriage goes sour. He’ll move back to DC right before you do. He’ll live down the street from you. You’ll spend tons of time together as you lick your emotional wounds. When he thinks it’s appropriate, he’ll ask you on a date. Like, a date-date, the kind you haven’t had since long before you were 20. When that date is done, you’ll be head-over-teacups in love without looking back.
And not quite three years after you leave your ex-husband, this best friend of yours will put an engagement ring on your finger. And the love you have with your man, tempered in half a lifetime of laughter, tears and solidarity, will be the foundation upon which you’ll build the new version of your life.
Dear girl, you’re kind of in for it. But trust me: the payoff? So, SO worth it.
Love always, Tara