(Artwork from the book, Journey, by Aaron Becker)
I just got back from a trip through time to my teenage years. I’ve been reading To Kill A Mockingbird with my book club, and as I’ve read, my mind has jumped back to being on stage in my high school auditorium, performing in the play as Miss Maudie Atkinson my senior year. Even with my bit part, the experience made a significant imprint in my psyche – I remember feeling like I was a part of something. After four years in high school theater, I felt like this show was IT, the one with meaning, the one that everybody came to see (even the jocks), the one that moved people. I was telling my daughter about it a few weeks ago, trying to remember the names of some of my classmates who had also been in the play. This led me downstairs to one of the endless plastic bins in our basement – this one held my yearbooks and my high school and college diplomas. I brought my senior yearbook upstairs and it’s been floating around the house since. I can’t seem to get myself to bring it back downstairs.
“Look Mommy! You’re on the first page of the senior photos. You look so pretty Mommy!” my daughter said to me as she looked carefully through each portrait.
Really? I thought. That’s when I had already started gaining weight after my mom left. And my eyebrows are so bushy. I didn’t say this aloud, but it was the first thing that went through my mind when I saw myself again. I also noticed that I looked kind of sad. She said it several times over the next few weeks as she picked up the yearbook again: “You look so pretty, Mommy.” I know she meant it completely – she isn’t the type to say things she doesn’t mean.
“Take that in,” my husband said to me when he heard her say it the second time.
I sat with my yearbook over the next few days, reading the notes people had written inside its covers and pages. It’s been years, possibly decades, since I’ve reread them, and I tried to put myself in my almost-18 year old shoes to remember how they affected me then.
The words of my best friend, surprisingly unsentimental. But then again, we had only known each other for 8 years then. (That felt like centuries, 8 years, when we were not even 18.) Now all these years later, she has stood by my side and held my hand for 34 years. She knows me like only someone who has been consistently present for 34 years can know you.
Then this jumps out unexpectedly: A single message from a guy I remember knowing only barely, who nailed me probably most perfectly. I’m sure it made me uncomfortable to read at the time. Or maybe it made me feel seen. However it felt then – understanding my younger self as I do now, with the perspective of all the years that followed – he got it. The essence of his words was, You are such a giver, you care so much about others. I hope you will let them give back to you. I hope they will.
I kept reading and found this several times in the words others had written: Never lose your optimism and idealism. They are the most special thing about you.
I sat at the dining room table with tears in my eyes. I felt as if I were sitting with almost-18 year old me, getting to know her again. Discovering how much she already was so completely the person she could only dream of becoming.
Already I was exactly who I am still.
This past week I read a work of fiction written by someone who had known my father shortly after my parents divorced. They had known each other well for several years, and kept in touch in the years that followed. She had known our family during a difficult time of enormous transition, and she had known that same teenage me I had just become reacquainted with through my yearbook.
While her work was fiction, there were some familiar pieces in her story. And it took me back. Back to how it felt to be figuring out what it meant to be a family after one-fourth of our family had disappeared. Back to driving my little white VW Rabbit – anywhere that was away from home – to get some space from what felt heavy. Back to finding a home in theater, a place that gave me meaning, community, confidence. Back to eating Ben & Jerry’s at 11 o’clock at night watching reruns of Welcome Back Kotter.
But there was also this: The perspective of someone who had known not only my father, but also his daughters. She had had her own experience of me as a teenager, her own view of that younger me. Hers was another lens through which I could revisit myself, another impression of the person I had been. Just like the words of those kids in my yearbook. I was seeing me as they had seen me.
I felt warm towards her, that teenage me, but I didn’t feel sorry for her. Already then, she was mighty. Already then, she was finding resilience, she was finding joy and meaning amid loss and sorrow. Even then, she was unescapably hopeful. Even when she felt alone in her heart, she continued to care for those around her.
I think we can choose how we tell our stories. I have told mine in many different ways, but I don’t like the version of the abandoned daughter anymore. That one doesn’t serve me, it hasn’t for years. Neither does the one about the girl who never felt cool enough, the one who was always overly self-conscious and insecure. And the story about the girl who got fat from grief, and then overcame that anger and sadness and released the weight? That one doesn’t really speak to me anymore either. There is no victory in overcoming our pain – only the important experience of letting ourselves truly feel it, and the peace that comes out of that.
They have all been my stories, though. Even if I no longer tell them the same way, I have told them, and they remain a part of me.
I used to feel regretful that I had wasted so much time in all those self-pitying places my soul has taken me. But I know now that this is where I needed to go. That entire sophomore year in college that I spent on the rooftop of my apartment building, feet soaking in the hot tub, writing furiously about my sorrows and my rage in a dozen journals? I had to go there too. Those journals – however depressing and endlessly circular – are also a part of my story.
What comforts me now, all these years later – here where I am surrounded by the love of others, blessed by family and home and a life of great meaning that I dreamed into being – is knowing that she was there already, that much younger me, even when she thought she had barely begun being herself. I don’t know that we are here to become ourselves, so much as our journey is about returning to our essence.
Maybe she is the one who traveled through time to see me. Maybe she doesn’t need me to go back in time to comfort her and tell her she will get there. Instead, perhaps she is the one with the message for me:
You are already there. You are already you. Your destination is inside you and you have been carrying it all this time.