When you were a little girl, you loved most a quiet corner where you could sit with your knees drawn into your chest and rest a book atop them, preferably a long novel with settings and characters as simultaneously painstaking and hazy in their drawing as an Impressionist landscape. A story into which you might dissolve from your world’s noise.
You loved the color blue, and in particular the blues nearest you: a plain sky, the chlorine blue of swimming pools, the flowers that bloomed bruise blue in Texas’ westward hills, and the blue inside music too. The steel guitar. The cello. A good folk song.
While your family loved sport—and you did too, on occasion—you loved to dance instead, to use your physical body to position the blues inside you, the flesh and bone as storyteller and container. And just the pure joy of it too.
You loved all the reenactments of God. The rosary, the stained glass window, the wispy flesh of Bible pages and the white moons of communion wafers and the kneeling and standing and the great silence in song.
I turn 40 in a few days, and I’ve been thinking of you. There are some things I’d like to tell you—advice?—and by way of reaching my own ears, bigger now, as ears get with age though perhaps no less able to listen.
You will spend much of your youth in a battle with your body. You’ll try not to let your thighs spread on benches, you’ll hold your breath to keep your stomach in: a slow, torturous way to suffocate. You will believe the girl in your 12-year old ballet class who tells you you’re shaped like a pear, little on top and big on the bottom. You will swallow whole the word pretty like a single crystal of sugar every time someone speaks it to you.
Listen: pears are delicious. Sugar is empty calories. I’m speaking of the soul now, but that’s true for the body too. Disarm yourself and defect from such wars.
As I approach 40, I forget to retreat to corners. I think failure (no book deal, no notoriety, nothing extraordinary, the banality of loose skin under my chin) when I should think transformation.
The transitions, sweet girl, are the most beautiful things. Let me show you the two photographs I love best of you. In the first, you are 12 again, braced teeth, braced too at the edge of dark water. The requisite late 80s perm renders you ridiculous. The metal grin, the double chin. Oh, adolescence, that cruel beast. As a woman on the verge of another ocean—middle age—I am enamored of this image. What a radiant little bug.
In the second photograph, you are pregnant with your first son. The morning light whispers blue on your skin. No make up, two hearts plotting their steady sounds inside you. You are a woman once again on a shore.
In your 20s and 30s you’ll grow threadbare wings and come untethered. A lover will read you Donald Hall’s poetry to his dead wife, “When she was forty/she came into her beauty/as into a fortune—eyes, cheekbones, nose, and thickwater hair.”
“That’s you,” he’ll say. “You’ll come into your beauty at forty.”
“Am I not beautiful now?” you’ll ask, petulant.
“Of course. But at forty you might finally know it.”
He will be one in a line of lovers, more or less condescending. Clear the land around your heart so that you can build it big enough to house more than one great love. A little torment is good for you. Do not judge yourself too harshly for any recklessness. Unlike many women, you will have the privilege of freedom in your early womanhood—freedom from doctrine and abuse and burden and threat. Freedom to kiss and scream and walk naked into lakes. The paradox of independence is that free people are free to make mistakes. Better that than servitude.
Try to speak more. Once in second grade, Mrs. Zuckero moved your “behavior card” from blue to yellow—a warning—because your girlfriend sneered a joke into your ear during multiplication tables and you giggled. The shame burned fiery inside you so that you confessed to your mother as soon as you arrived home. You stood in your white Keds on the hot driveway, weeping.
“Your card did what?” she asked. “What’s a behavior card?”
Admire your mother. The world is full of behavior cards meant to police women. Go yellow. Go red. Get sent to the principal’s office smiling. Learn before I have learned to tell it like it is and not worry about who likes you for it. Wear those colorful cards like fancy jewelry or badges that sparkle and announce you, so that the other sparkling women recognize you and so that women in dark storms might glimpse you in the distance. Sacred power exists in broken shards of light that pine for a rejoining.
Do not rely on external definitions of beauty. Consider the cellulite on the backs of thighs like the rippled soil spotted by space crafts on other planets or the lunar curve of the soft underbelly. Consider the gray hair and the scar. Always consider queso.
Make commitments. They are acts of faith. We do not marry, for example, because we love, but in order that we may learn how to love. You don’t need marriage to happen to you; instead, choose it. Then love the man who chooses you. Likewise, we do not have children because we are mothering, but in order that we might learn how to mother. You will be forced by medical condition to choose children as well—they will never just happen to you—and that is a painful gift, but a gift still.
Maintain what Marcus Borg called “critical faith.” But stop apologizing for faith; embarrassment about the Spirit is, in intellectual America, another form of good behavior that colludes with oppressive religion.
On this eve of your birthday, remember what you loved: quiet corners, good books, blue, dancing, ritual. Recall them from your muscle memory and start again. Remember the foggy early morning you ran from your car, doors flung agape, into a field and danced with teenage friends, shouting: I would walk 500 miles and I would walk 500 more. Remember the clear blue of Zanzibar’s oceans against the bone-white sand and the hungover crossword puzzle you completed with your beloved brother in an East Village coffee hole, the way synonyms offer redemption. Imagine the world one big, mirrored room in which you might stretch and choreograph a solo. Build more bookshelves. Buy blue dresses and wear blue stones. Notice your babies’ hands as they fall asleep, how the fingers search for and then rest on some soft part of your body you used to reprimand; receive that grace. Honor your grandmother.
Octavio Paz was right: the past is not past, it is still passing by.
Come with me. Come, beautiful girl, so that your youth might accompany me into our future.
3 thoughts on “Sermon for My Younger Self (A 40th Birthday Letter)”
If the boat’s too slow and the company is bad, jump and swim for shore…
You captured yourself so well, although my memories are of a truly accomplished wordsmith from the time you formed your first sentence. As a little girl you listened intensely and when left alone, created characters, dialogue and stories at a rate I think you could not keep up and were much to young to capture on paper. You published much throughout you childhood, not in the traditional sense but your make believe was magical. The fabric of who you are is woven in those words. Happy Birthday, love you much.