A Letter to My 13 Year Old Self On Turning 30
It’s your girl, your first and best friend, the person you’ll always live and ultimately end this life with -- you -- at 30.
I started and halted this note on my subway ride home last night from Manhattan to Brooklyn (yes, you live in NYC, crazy right?). When mom visited New York City a few years ago, she chirped that riding the subway is like surfboarding, and she never lied. Typing this out with one hand on my iPhone (that’s not a thing yet, but just wait until that cult comes around), while clutching a standing pole, slouchy tote bag, camel coat, and being leaned up against by an older male tourist, doesn’t make for easy writing, but here we are! I have thoughts for you on what you’re going to experience and learn over the coming years, because we just turned 30. Grab a cup of tampico and have a seat.
First things first, you feel like a fish out of water right now in the year 2000, and your intuition is right. Being the “ambassador for black and brown people” that you’re so aptly called to be in middle school and high school is exhausting, I know. The sheepish stares from your classmates during the slavery segment in history class; the pulling of your soft brown bountiful, braids by classmates who think your “hair looks funny;” the effective yet draining communication tactics you learn to shut racist comments down from students, teachers, and pretty much 90% of the people you interact with on a day to day basis; these things will build a fire within you. Not of rage, but a desire to prove that you aren’t defined by other people’s lack of knowledge, exposure, or empathy. You have the freedom to define yourself and what your life means, and you adopt that attitude very early. High five to you boo! Freedom is a deeply motivating emotion for you. You need freedom like fire needs air.
Middle school is going to be a really weird time, in fact, I have a hard time even remembering what you did in middle school besides wearing questionable color pairings, playing the flute, and having sleepovers with friends. You no longer have chip munk cheeks, but you do have C cups because ample boobs run really strong in our genes. Right before you enter high school you have your first major shift in friendships, which is expected with any major life transition, but it’s going to be hard and confusing.
In high school, you’re going to start exploring your interests and get into a lot of activities because you have the gall to do so. In fact, at the end of 9th grade a fellow classmate asks you if you’re trying out for cheerleading (you have no idea why she even asks you that because you never talked about being a cheerleader a day in your life) and you're intrigued, because you’ve always been a performer. You train for the entire summer before sophomore year, getting your inflexible, yet firm legs to hit a split in 3 weeks, and learning all the moves from cheerleader alumni after school.
You make the team, and you spend a lot of time choreographing dances, throwing girls in the air and catching them, and clapping and yelling pretty hard, losing your voice so often that one of your old bosses at the call center you work at asks if you’re a smoker (and, duh, you’re not). You get your first taste of leadership, becoming co-captain of that cheerleading team. Oh yeah, that call center by the way is where you’ll work 20 hours per week throughout high school. This job makes you a pusher of Proactive, Windsor Pilates and any other infomercial enticing people to set their money on fire. It’s going to be tough to manage that schedule and all your extra curriculars, but you swing it. Until you get fired after 2 years of slanging on phones. But you’re fired for a stupid reason! You just want to get your college applications in on downtime between calls and use the internet to do so (and the internet is banned at work for some odd reason). You broke the rules but the payoff is worth it.
You’re left with a hard choice at the end of high school. One choice is to stay in your hometown and go to school locally, which is motivated by your first love. This love is light. It’s Mickey Ds in the parking lot, and basement hang outs. It’s chats in the car, and jaunts in the park. It’s easy, fun, and physically charged. You don’t want to leave him as you just started dating at the beginning of your senior year. He’s the first person who awakens what it means to be desired and feel desire for another -- but your mom makes a good point about not missing opportunities. You applied to every Ivy League in the country, again to prove that you get to define your life regardless of other people’s biases, and you got into Cornell University. You’d regret missing out on the opportunity to take a risk and try new waters. So you go, pack all your belongings in two suitcases, get your one way air fare donated by your church (because bless them for their kindness) and you hope your relationship lasts the distance.
Which it does for a while! The distance doesn’t break your bond, but religion does. You should be proud you stand your ground when the Bible is quoted to you about women being seen and not heard. You retort with logic and reason, hell even quoting other passages of the Bible to disprove those points, but it doesn’t work. While falling out of love with him, this also starts the journey of falling out of love with your faith, as you start to dig really deep on the history of organized religion. As a long time member of the Christian faith and an active baptist church participant, this is one of your hardest lessons to go through. I still don’t have all the answers for you, but do know you continue to grapple with mindful ideologies and approaches that bring you spiritual and grounding peace in new ways.
You will do things that your demographic isn’t expected to -- like attend an Ivy League school (bleh at elite titles honestly) as a broke kid from a single parent home. You’ll learn on that campus that not all black people you meet are “regular black” and there’s a wide range of cultures and countries that people who live in the U.S. and have melanin in their skin, identify with and come from. You soak this all up, basking in no longer being an “only” or “other” but a part of a larger, rich (figuratively of course because you are definitely, unquestionably, ramen noodle diet level broke) community. Some of your best friends you’ll meet in college, and they embark on this new life journey with you.
You’re going to spend a lot of your time focused on tangible, functional goals -- activities and school. You believe in, like everyone in our modern society, a linear path of fulfillment and success, but the cracks start to show in that plan and your world is turned upside down when you attend and then become a teaching assistant in a social impact entrepreneurship course. This class feeds you ideas on breaking paradigms, shifting the status quo, and having impactful, purpose driven work. Your entire ideals about your career and what you want to do are forever changed (you can thank Professor Anke for that!). This ball keeps rolling into an avalanche when you stumble upon a career development course, where you create an entire portfolio about your life, desires, and personality that we still reference to this day.
You’ll also live abroad in London, seeing how much American culture has permeated the world, yet isn’t the world. You’ll work for a quirky black man and a hilarious Australian woman at a scrappy web design shop, and they’ll show you what entrepreneurship and creative work is all about. You’ll guzzle Strongbow with your classmates on the Tube, and attend way more faux Irish themed bars (which Americans love abroad) than you’d like. You’ll make friends with locals who will introduce you to an entire new world of nightlife and culture, with funky style. New countries are a $40 plane ticket away, so you’ll ride (and crash) scooters in Italy, chug lager in Dublin, and stumble on cobblestone in Wales. You’ll get on the bus on your last day of your study abroad program, pretending you’re going to the airport, but dip over to East London to crash with your internship boss. You’ll overstay your visa, stuffing cash in your suitcase, and subsisting on cashews for lunch. It’ll all be worth it, and great stories to tell later.
Your identity, so deeply shaped by the migrant lives of your family from the South to Utah, will be rooted in your childhood and extended through these experiences. Your afro will speak well before you do when you enter a room. Yes, you come to love the hair that you now despise and melt with relaxers in the hopes it will be straight and “pretty” like the rest of the people around you. I can’t wait for you to see the power and beauty in the mane you were crowned with.
So now we’re in your early 20s, and what you should know now about those...is you will party and drink (a lot), because you’ve always loved to dance and live life to the fullest. You’ll drop into the splits more times than is necessary, and have hangovers, but never regret it, besides gaining like 50 lbs. So, don’t make me come back there and slap tequila out of your hands, because I will.
Speaking of health, you are really disconnected from your body and continue to be until you reach a breaking point, becoming pre-diabetic unexpectedly (strangely after a diet of smoothies and healthy eating). You’ve always struggled with your weight but take for granted the strong, lean, healthy body you have. As you get older, you are a public menace when cheese is around, swell at the sight of bread, and need a two day recovery from a few glasses of wine. I have to work much harder and be much more mindful of what goes in us (even taking a jaunt through every health food trend under the sun from paleo to veganism) thanks to some genetic disposition, sensitivity, and ill fitting lifestyle choices. Buckle up kid, enjoy that cheese now. I’ve started to correct the ship for us, it hasn’t been easy, but change and understanding of what works for our body comes over time (and we're no longer pre diabetic, can I can get a woot for that?!)
New York City is the place that both breaks and makes you. Your first month out of college is rough -- crashing at your friend’s grandmother’s house while you navigate the cesspool that is the NYC housing market, drudging onto the bus daily to make the 20 minute drive from Teaneck, New Jersey into midtown. You become an expert in real estate, not paying a single dime to a broker, and proudly blowing up your air mattress on your first night of crashing in the four bedroom apartment that you and your three friends from college snagged in Harlem. Don’t worry, you do get a bed with a iron frame eventually because we started from the bottom, now we’re here.
Your friends will be like family, and you’ll hold each other down as you navigate young adult hood, lending each other money, giving advice on this strange new world of professional 9-5 work, sharing war stories on dating, discussing social issues, racisim, and politics, and dropping it low at bars on the Lower East side that are now all closed. Your needs, values, effort, and priorities will grow apart, and some of those friends will become strangers, while some of those friendships will last regardless of distance and time, growing deeper and stronger through the test of the ups and downs of life. The spaces left from these painful changes allows your connections to expand in unexpected and soul fulfilling ways.
You work hard, and your values never cease. You care about the marginalized, about leaving a mark, making an impact, and having purpose. That will be your struggle -- as the modern work system is disconnected from the deeper emotive and spiritual aspects of life, sanitizing work down into surface, transactional networks of people, frantically chasing money and status. You’ll see this chase in the law world, in the non-profit world, in the media world. Each new opportunity you take will be made thoughtfully and curiously, with a goal to learn and to grow a larger expertise that can help you build something powerful in the world that just maybe shifts how we perceive work and creativity itself. Your love of reading won’t stop, and The Desire Map, The Power of Habit, Steal Like An Artist, Big Magic, The Gifts of Imperfection, and Spirit Junkie are just a selection of the many ideas that change your perspective on work and creating.
It’s a no brainer that you will live far from your immediate and extended family. You’re going to miss them. The silly fights and the ridiculous songs you made with your sisters, chatting with your mom, cracking jokes with your grandmother, hanging with the large extended web of cousins, uncles, and aunts that played a role in your childhood. Those faces and lives will evolve into part of a yearly, annual tradition during the holidays, which is tough. Medical trauma, untimely death, and personal struggle will visit your family’s doorstep, but you’ll grow stronger and always know you can depend on each other when a storm arises, no matter the distance. Your relationship with your father, which hasn’t really ever existed since you were a kid, doesn’t get better with time. You learn to accept loving him from a distance, as the best way to care for and love yourself.
Love is a mirror. Reflecting the desires, insecurities, and vulnerabilities of your psyche. You won’t be open to love for a while, cutting potential people off at anything you deem as a “red flag” and many of those "red flags" are arbitrary. Running from vulnerability and being hyper-vigilant to letting the wrong person in doesn’t stop the pain, so you stop running. You open yourself up to love, and love hard, sometimes not knowing what you need from love, or what truly makes a good partner for you. You will topsy turvy between life changing highs and the searing lows of heartache and betrayal, but the burns remove the barriers you had about knowing yourself on a love level. You’ll be grateful for the experiences, and connect deeper and higher with the love that is currently in our life.
You’ll still create. Not at the break neck, care free speed that you did when we were younger. Singing and performing won’t come as frequently, except with your stint in a funk band your first year in NYC, which was a fun and hot mess. Writing will be a private outlet that grows into the platform I’m writing this letter to you on now. Creating is freedom, and your desire for freedom continues to grow.
As I look back on all the things you’re about to experience, I see that life is a series of choices and desires. Remember that self esteem and purpose is driven from within, no labels will guarantee that, no amount of success and schooling, or outside love, or money will grow that. Fall in love with you, embrace your desires, don’t be afraid. Be ready for the adventure and for life to continuously get clearer and more precious. Also go eat some ice cream because you ain’t lactose intolerant yet and it’s your birthday!