To My Imaginary Daughter: Part 1

I lost my mother at a young age. Not tragically young, but definitely young enough to matter.

I was 20. I was still living at home, had dropped out of school for a semester, and was working a temp administrative job for the 2000 Census — alongside her, actually. I was an adult, but I hadn’t left the nest. We were impossibly close; she called me her shadow. And while I learned many things from watching her, the fact that I needed to pay attention and learn hadn’t hit me. I wouldn’t realize that until after she had gone and my family support had vanished.

As a result, I floundered. A lot. I’m almost embarrassed to look back on those times. I was mourning the loss of her while struggling to find a job and fix my car and pay rent and bills on my own for the first time in my life. I’ve often described myself in that era as having no skin. Just a walking, talking bundle of raw and exposed nerves that spilled onto everyone that happened to cross my path. Not exactly the perfect picture of poise and presence. I’m kind of shocked my friends are still around.

I found my old journal from those days recently, and cringed at some of the entries and “poetry” that I was scribbling down. It was articulate, it was heartbreaking, and I’m very glad I have it all these years later, but it suddenly dawned on me how happy I am that the Twittersphere wasn’t around yet. I’m glad Myspace and Facebook had yet to grace us with their presence, and I thank my lucky stars I hadn’t discovered LiveJournal. Because GOOD GOD ALMIGHTY those raw and tortured thoughts belong nowhere but on the crinkled pages of a journal buried in storage.

I have some younger friends on Facebook. Nieces and nephews and friends’ little brothers and sisters, and I see this very thing being splashed around on the Internet so freely. Random tortured lines of poetry, dramatic song lyrics, supposedly anonymous messages sent out into the universe in the “I love it when you underestimate me… it only makes me stronger” vein. And again I cringe, because what goes online these days isn’t something you can hide in your sock drawer when you’re embarrassed by it later.

There were a lot of things my mother taught me about being an adult, but many, many more I wish she’d been around to teach that I had to learn on my own. And I was thinking the other day, as I approach my 32nd birthday — if I never have children, who will learn from the trial and error of my own life?

So, just for the hell of it, I’m composing a list of things I would have LOVED to have known before I struck it out on my own, and what I would tell my own daughter, were she in existence. Maybe no one will read them, maybe someone will stumble upon them. Who knows. In the mean time, I’ll probably keep adding to it.

1. Dismiss what insults your own soul. Whitman said that. It’s been my mantra the last several years. There are many things I grew up around that seemed fundamentally wrong to me but I was told otherwise. It wasn’t until I struck out on my own, and gravitated towards the people I wanted to, that I realized I was right all along. Don’t bury that little voice in the back of your head that tells you something feels weird. If you’re living in contradiction to your innate beliefs, you cannot be happy.

2. Don’t assume anyone has your best interest in mind. Many people have parents and family who’ll look out for them no matter what. Many others don’t have anything like that. But even if you’re among the lucky who do, they’re not going to be beside you at every twist and turn in your life. There’s a funny switch that happens after high school that many of us aren’t prepared for. When you’re living at home, there are people whose jobs–whose missions–are to protect you. Your parents, your teachers, your coaches–they all have a vested interest in your success, and you take this for granted. So once you’re on your own, it’s hard to wrap your head around the fact that people aren’t thinking about you first. Your bank is gonna rack up tiny little fees when you’re not looking, hoping you won’t notice; Your boss is going to promise a promotion and not deliver if it protects his bottom line; Your coworker/friend/friend’s parent won’t tell you the whole story when they try to sell you that old car; People are going to try to mess with your credit report because they think you’ll never check it; Your cable company is gonna switch up your plan and charge you more unless you call them out on it; Your health insurance won’t pay for your treatment if they can get away with it; Your doctor might even prescribe something you don’t really need because it makes him more money. People you think you should trust still look out for themselves first — everyone has to in order to make it. You’ll have to learn this too.

3. Despite all of this, don’t lose your sense of empathy. Ah, the golden rule; it’s the worst kind of contradiction. People aren’t going to look out for you, but that doesn’t mean you get to be an asshole in return. Practice the art of empathy: the act of thinking, “you know, I wonder how I’d want this person to treat me if our roles were reversed?” Such a simple concept, yet one so lacking in much of society. Try it. You’ll be shocked at what it will do to your worldview as well as your interactions to other humanoids.

4. Look it up for yourself. You know those email forwards you get from your aunt or your grandmother, the ones with “Fw: fw: fw: fw: fw:” in the subject line and the colorful Comic Sans type in the body? In case you haven’t figured it out yet, those are pretty clear clues that you need to be skeptical of whatever is being sent to you. Nine times out of ten a simple Google search of the first line of the email will turn up a plethora of “HOAX!” entries. It’s amazing that more people don’t check out what they blindly forward to their friends and family–and that’s true of so much more than emails. It’s doubly true of anything involving religion or politics. If you hear something outrageous–hell, if you hear something boring, but that is being passed on as “truth”–LOOK IT UP. Don’t blindly pass along. Read. A lot. Get your news from more than one source. Get your rules from more than one book.

5.  Keep your skin on. What you share/write online now will follow you for a long time. The vague threats of a jilted friend or lover never make said jilted person seems strong or above it all. Saying you’re rattling cages in your own mind only makes you sound mentally unstable. Proclaiming to the world that you hate drama makes you look like you feed off of it. And melancholy “When will someone love me?” posts don’t sound soulful, they sound needy. Unless you have a recording contract, those thoughts are best kept between you, your journal and your therapist. Or perhaps a very, very patient friend.

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