Not too long ago I found myself having a heartfelt conversation with a 17-year-old girl whom I happen to like very much. She was complaining about her life, as is the way of 17-year-old girls, and I was dispensing advice, as is the way of wise old women.
It has been a lot of years, but it hasn’t been enough that I can’t still remember what it was like to be 17 or how I was an especially attractive pile of insecurity, meanness (caused by said insecurity), self-pity, hunger, and angst. I know a lot of people look back on their high school years fondly but this I know for sure: you could not pay me to spend even one day back in my teens.
It was just such a hard time, and that was what came rushing back at me in this conversation. I don't mean to imply that this girl is anything like my former teen self, because I'm not sure she is. She seems to have much more of her shit together than I ever did. As I heard myself saying things I would've paid to hear from someone when I was 17, I thought, "What would I now, as a married mother of four children in my late mid 30s, say to myself at 17 if I was given the opportunity?"
I think it would look something like this:
1 | For God's sake, please eat something. Eat lots of somethings. I know you are (deathly, irrationally) afraid of being fat, but the irony (which is lost on you) is that your metabolism will never again be what it is right now.
2 | I know you're vegetarian, and I respect that, but I feel that it might be my civic duty to let you know that bacon cheeseburgers, cooked medium rare, are simply orgasmic.
3 | Please stop looking in the mirror so much.
4 | Wear less makeup and more sunscreen.
5 | Be nicer to your mom.
6 | Be nicer to everyone. Karma is a bitch, but so are you a lot of the time. While I promise that you will forget the people who were nasty to you, you won't forget being nasty to other people. Many years from now you will hear yourself repeating over and over again to your children the importance of being kind even to people who may not deserve it – shit, especially to people who don't deserve it – and you will remember how you treated some people in high school and cringe at your own hypocrisy. The only things you will end up regretting in your life are the moments you did not choose kindness.
7 | Spend time with your friends and spend it doing ridiculous and senseless things because, in a few short years, you're not going to have the time or the luxury to lay on a bed, listening to emo music and debating the various plot twists of Melrose Place. Before your life is consumed with the daily minutiae of laundry, groceries, and baby poop, hang out with your friends. Laugh hard at their jokes while you still have the bladder control because here's the thing: these people will not always be your circle. I know it's hard to believe right now, and I still think it's kind of sad, but it’s also just the way of life. People make life choices that take them far away, either literally or figuratively, and when you don't have the connection of seeing each other day in and day out in high school it becomes very hard to maintain those relationships with the same degree of closeness.
A few very special people will remain close to you, and the fact that you grew up together through what may arguably be the most awkward years of your lives will bond you in a way that is hard to ever replicate. A few others will make choices that take them far away, but you will occasionally reunite, and when you do, it will be like seamlessly picking up the last line of a conversation you last had years ago. These friendships are gifts, and should be treated as such.
Others will need to be let go, and this is okay. It's okay, and here is why: as you get older, and become more comfortable in your own skin, you will meet new people. A blessed, beautiful few of them will just fit perfectly into a them-shaped hole you didn't even know you had, and you will wonder how you ever lived your life before without them there.
8 | Along the same lines, please learn to let go of the old romances. Spoiler alert – you're not going to marry any of the exes you are pining over right now. While this may be hard to see right now, it is a very, very good thing. You're going to marry a man you actually know right now, who one day you're going to bump into and unexpectedly see in a whole new light while choirs of angels sing. Then you are going to make a life, and then you are going to make babies (lots of them), and it will all be (mostly) okay. In fact, it will all be (mostly) fabulous.
9 | While we're on the topic of poor relationships, I should let you know that no matter how mature you become, as long as you choose to remain in your hometown you're going to run into people from high school at the grocery store (and everywhere else) who may not have been the president of your fan club. You, in your constant need to mend fences, might smile awkwardly at them in a way that you hope doesn't look pathetic while still clearly conveying the message: "Um, sorry about those four years, but that was like two decades ago, and our kids just ran off towards the bulk foods together, so let’s be friends, okay?"
Maybe they will stare right through you as if you don't exist or, worse, look at you as if you are covered in feces (which, while possible, doesn't mean that you're a bad person). The silver lining here is that you really won't be able to afford too much mental energy caring either way because you'll be too busy staring blankly into your overflowing grocery cart trying to remember what the one thing you actually came into the grocery store for was in the first place. Like the cart, your life has a way of growing and filling up so much that all the caring about who said what or feels what or wore what or smells like what just doesn't really fit comfortably in it anymore.
10 | Here's the reason it doesn't matter that much, and this is the big one: all the things that seem so important now are not. They really are not. I know I will say this, and you will seem to hear it, but it won't matter because you think I don't understand. My mom said it to me, and I hear myself saying it to my own kids as they start the long painful journey of figuring out where they fit in what is so often an ugly social whirlwind, but it’s true. The people who made you cry become inconsequential so quickly. Like, the very second you walk out of that building for the last time. There are so many other things that matter more, things that will shape you as a human being and a woman and a mother and make you turn kind and empathetic and trustful. They will happen and they will matter and then you will know that I was right.
When I was all done saying these things, would any of it change how I felt back then? Probably not. Some of it probably was just the nature of adolescence and hormones and some of it probably was actual undiagnosed depression. All of it really boils down to the things I tell my own kids now, again and again:
I tell them to play and eat and have fun.
I tell them to be kind.
I also tell them that while some people will always be unkind, it just doesn't matter as much as it feels like it should.
Then I tell them the best thing of all: that growing up can actually end up being kind of amazing.
It takes a village!
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