God, let me think clearly and brightly; let me live, love, and say it well in good sentences. -Sylvia Plath
I’ve recently found myself pining for my misspent youth—dreaming about those carefree days that were wide open, when everything was still possible. When my skin was smooth and not puckered. When i was just an innocent little flower about to bloom.
And then I remembered what a total moron I was, and it made me feel a lot better about being old. It also made me think of all the things I wish I’d known back then, the things that can really only be learned the hard way.
So here are the things I’d say to all of my younger selves—the things that I will probably be learning and re-learning for the rest of my life:
There is very little that can’t be made better by a freshly made bed with sheets just out of the dryer.
You have so much time. Don’t rush to choose a job or a man or any final destination. You don’t have to have it all figured out yet.
There’s so little time. Stop wasting it trying to be perfect and just try to be better. Perfectionism is just a search for reasons to hate yourself. Being better is so much more possible—and interesting.
I’m not sure that I’ve been doing this long enough to start repeating posts, but an old piece of mine is up on The Huffington Post right now, and people seemed to dig it the first time. I’m trying to be more consistent about my posting schedule (because I know everyone is waited with baited breath), so Wednesday nights people. Wednesday nights.
Until a few years ago, I never let anyone get close enough to hurt me. Vulnerability was not a color I was willing to wear, and for years I thought that that made me pretty badass. I didn’t need a man to take care of me — I could do it just fine by myself, thank you very much.
Turns out, what’s actually badass is having the guts to be in a relationship — to show up on a daily basis for someone else and allow them to show up for you. There’s nothing harder or more revealing of self. My friend rightly calls being in a relationship the final frontier: raw and primal and often desolate. So, based on my extensive experience, I figured I’d compile a list of things that I’ve learned since moving to the final frontier:
Love is a choice you have to make over and over again. There will be times when you’ll want to punch this person that you love in the face — hard — and then leave. Times when the only thing you’ll be able to see is all the work that lies ahead, unfurling in front of you like a roll of garbage bags, and you just won’t be sure that you’re up for it. Intimacy is hard and it’s sloppy, and inevitably it will make you decide whether or not you’re up for the job of earning it.
Humility: Part 1 — The wood never fits. Admitting I’m wrong doesn’t come very naturally to me — especially, ironically, once I realize that I’m wrong. That’s when I decide that if I just whack this huge rectangular piece of plywood enough, I’ll get it to fit in a teapot. Spoiler alert: the wood never fits. That’s what she said. (Oh c’mon, you were thinking it too.)
sometimes touching another person is more than I can bear. -walt whitman, “song of myself”
i’ll admit it: i’m 34 and in the first real, all-growed-up relationship of my life. until a few years ago, i never let anyone get close enough to hurt me. vulnerability was not a color i was willing to wear and for years i thought that that made me pretty bad-ass. i didn’t need a man to take care of me—i could do it just fine by myself, thank you very much.
turns out, what’s actually bad-ass is having the guts to be in a relationship—to show up on a daily basis for someone else and allow them to show up for you. there’s nothing harder or more revealing of self. my friend rightly calls being in a relationship the final frontier: raw and primal and often desolate. so based on my extensive experience, i figured i’d compile a list of things that i’ve learned since moving to the final frontier:
love is a motherfucking choice. there will be times when you’ll want to punch this person that you love in the face–hard–and then leave. times when the only thing you’ll be able to see is all the work that lies ahead, unfurling in front of you like a roll of garbage bags, and you just won’t be sure that you’re up for it. intimacy is hard and it’s sloppy, and that’s when it’s time to choose: fight or flight.
humility: part 1—the wood never fits. admitting i’m wrong doesn’t come very naturally to me—especially once i’ve realized that i’m wrong, ironically enough. then i become certain that if i just whack this huge rectangular piece of plywood enough, i’ll get it to fit in a teapot. spoiler alert: the wood never fits. (that’s what she said. oh c’mon you were thinking it too.)
a few weeks ago, i took a pilates class to relax and clear my mind. this happened instead.
“c’mon girls, relax your neck and pull that bellybutton in toward your spine,” the teacher barked over loud music. “let’s go ladies! tighten those cores, tighten your glutes—and tighten that va-jay-jay!” oh for fuck’s sake.
first of all—no. just, no. and second of all—NO. never say that again. ever. anywhere. to anyone.
now let’s deal with the semantics. as a grown woman, you should be able to say the word vagina. don’t we do enough abbreviating these days? must we address our genitals like that too? tie-tie and tum-tum and cray-cray—i’ll cop to using some of those stupid phrases sometimes. and while they’re certainly not my proudest moments as a writer, asking someone if their tum-tum hurts is not the same thing as calling my vagina something that sounds like the name of a cheerful puppet on a children’s show. i’m not a little girl who hasn’t mastered the art of pronunciation yet, and neither are you.
semantics aside, there are much bigger issues here.
i work out to feel like a bad-ass. of course there are physical benefits—healthy heart and tight tush and blah blah blah. the thing that gets me to the gym when i don’t want to go (which is every time i go) is the bad-ass thing. i exercise to stop my rat wheel of a mind, tune the world out, and leave feeling stronger. do you think any of that is possible when you keep lobbing the phrase “va-jay-jay” around? does that sound like something that makes you feel ready to head out and kick the day’s ass? the only thing it makes me want to kick is you—in your va-jay-jay. and it’s not even the good kind of violent impulse that fuels my workouts sometimes. it’s the distracting and demeaning kind.
so listen closely because i’m only going to say this once: my vagina does not need to do pilates. y’know what actually, maybe that bears repeating. my vagina. does not need. pilates. it just doesn’t. no one’s does.
this has nothing to do with who’s had kids and who hasn’t—it’s not about anything physical. it’s about finding one goddamn place in my life where i’m not bombarded with the idea that as a woman, my value is inextricably linked to my sexuality—a sexuality of a very specific form and function. woman as object for consumption. shit, all i have to do is walk through the lobby of the gym and i see diet products everywhere and bright lcd screens that accost me with images of shiny, happy people using shiny, happy products. which is why when i actually get to the fitness studio, and you’re the one who is supposed to be my guide, it’s kind of important where you take me and how you get me there. and taking me there via vagina-talk is completely unacceptable.
while i’m at it, here are a few other things i never want to hear again from a teacher at the gym:
while working my ass, don’t tell me to “squeeze it like a stripper holding onto a hundred-dollar bill.” whatever the opposite of empowerment is—that sentence is it. not to mention an image i could do without.
when you’re balancing on one leg and you fall over, please don’t tell me that you have your period, which everyone knows compromises a woman’s balance. first of all, i very much doubt that’s true. and second, keep that shit to yourself. you fell over. it happens. just own it.
while working my back, don’t talk about all the women you see with back-fat to whom you want to run up and offer your card. let’s try not to confirm all of our worst fears about how women treat each other. you’re on stage, with a microphone, in front of women of all shapes and sizes—act like that fuckin matters to you.
don’t tell me that once i get into shape and start getting noticed by my friends’ husbands, then my own husband will start paying attention. really? do you get a bonus if you hit every evil stereotype of a conniving woman, talking shit and stealing husbands?
this last one has nothing to do sexual politics, but it’s reallyimportant nonetheless:
please—for god’s sake—don’t try to get me to whoop, clap my hands, count out loud, or vocalize my excitement in any way. don’t tell me to smile because frowning will give me wrinkles. YOU smile. do not ask me if i’m enjoying myself—i’ll tell you right now: no, i’m not. that’s always the answer. my muscles are burning, i can’t breathe, sweat is pouring off of me, and i’m watching the woman in front of me do it all more nimbly and without breaking a sweat. you asking me to show faux-enthusiasm for something that is kicking my ass only serves to highlight how much fun i am not having. and how can i be a bad-ass when you’re telling me to clap my hands?
as the people closest to me will attest, i am not an especially easy person to please. i know that. i realize that often my expectations get the better of me, but i don’t think this is one of those times. i’m asking for a few simple things: don’t tell me to clench anything in my ass, don’t perpetuate every nasty female stereotype, don’t talk about your period, and please—if you hear only one thing today—leave my vagina out of it.
the true terror was that WE once didn’t exist, and then, through no fault of our own, we had to. -dan chaon, you remind me of me
i’m the first one to admit it—my maternal instinct was installed with faulty wiring. i was never one of those girls who imagined the day she’d become a mother, and i suppose i haven’t yet become one. over the years i’ve vacillated about having kids—it’s been like a really fucked up game of hopscotch. jump with two feet: no way, no kids. one foot down: maybe, but i feel off-balance and a little bit like i might throw up.
recently, i’ve hit a good long stretch of two feet firmly down, and people have a hard time understanding that. here are some questions that people have asked me about friends who don’t have kids (and i can only assume have been asked about me):
what’s wrong with her?
is she barrren?
is she a lesbian?
to my face, what i get is mostly pity followed by reassurance—reasons why i should hold off on blowing my spinster-brains out. one time, when an extraordinarily pregnant woman found out that i was without mate and without child, pity began to ooze out of her like honey. she cocked her head to the side, raised her eyebrows and made this terribly sad scrunchy face. “don’t worry,” she consoled, “a few years ago i hadn’t even met my husband yet, and now look at me!” ok take it easy there preggo.
did i assume that you backed your way into your life by getting knocked up accidentally? did i project all of my deepest fears onto you and tell you not to worry because in 18 years you’ll be free? no, i did not. so please extend me the same courtesy. don’t assume that my unmarried status and empty womb are causes for concern—colossal fuck-ups and/or fate’s cruel hand at work. they’re not. they’re conscious choices.
so what is it that’s informed those choices? i’m glad you asked.
i love kids. as a nanny, i get to see some really cool shit. i get to watch as these kids see things for the first time and then help them as they grapple with complex issues from inside their mini-brains. kids teach me about resilience and curiosity and staying present in each day. there is no better feeling in the world than when my 2 year-old charge comes running across the ballet studio and jumps into my arms, absolutely giddy with glee to show me the dinosaur stamps that her teacher just gave her. kids make me feel loved and needed and fulfilled.
but they are also perfect tyrants—little ids running around with dripping noses who want every need satisfied IMMEDIATELY and who have no idea how much work they are. they don’t understand how lucky they are to take naps, they don’t repay you any of the money that they cost you, and the only time they want to do anything for themselves is when you’re running late. (and on a personal note, kids of all ages and genders have always felt entitled to grab my boobs and fondle them at will.) all of which is child’s play compared to the kind of psychological warfare that they engage in as they get older. anyone who says that kids don’t take all the strength and patience you can muster to do an endless and thankless job—well either they’re lying or they have nannies around the clock.
and since we’re talking honestly here, let’s talk about sex (insert Salt-n-Pepa melody here). as any good red-blooded american woman, i have some deep-seated issues about my worth as it relates to my body and my desirability. the temptress-quotient i call it, the roots of which are complicated and often opaque, but suffice it to say it is a deeply embedded issue that’s about a lot more than just fitting into my skinny jeans. it’s about what i’ve seen happen to relationships and what i’ve witnessed people doing in pursuit of missing pleasure. it’s about examples that have been set for me as well as experiences of my own. it’s about how things change over time in ways you can’t even imagine, and about all the pieces of self that i’ve watched so many women put away after having kids. it’s about the fears that are activated by the thought of what motherhood would do to my entire sense of personhood. and, of course, it’s about fitting into my skinny jeans.
it comes down to a few simple questions: am i up for the job of being responsible for another human being? have i become everything i need to be for myself in order to be a good parent? am i capable of giving a child everything she deserves?
let me be clear about something—i’m not saying that my reasoning is necessarily sound. i’m not saying that you can’t be a temptress once you become a mom (i know plenty of smokin-hot mothers), or that i won’t wake up ten years from now and regret not experiencing something as profound as motherhood. maybe everyone’s right—maybe i’d feel differently if they were my own kids; maybe the joy of being a parent would make all of the hard work and heartbreak worth it. my reasons are probably selfish and vain and drenched in fear, but i’ve spent a great deal of time grappling with them. this hasn’t just happened to me. nothing ever does.
so let’s make a deal preggo—let’s not exchange condolences on the lives that we’ve chosen for ourselves. let’s assume that we’re both exactly where we want to be.