No one has the answers to your questions but you.
Soul-repair isn’t floating in the dregs of wine bottles, and it’s not in my parents’ reassurances. Strength isn’t in adoring looks, romantic embraces, or build-me-ups of men whose opinions I respect, though I confess, I used to think this might be where to find it. “If they’re geniuses, and they tell me, ‘You’re brilliant’ it has to be true, right?” But the truth is, when life tears you apart with terror, when you want to run like hell, or scream at the top of your lungs, or crawl out of your skin into somebody else’s life – only you can quiet the questions gnawing you from the inside out.
There are great things about your mid-twenties though.
We can swear, and drink, and make our own decisions. We know ourselves better. We’re starting to learn we are stronger, more capable, and smarter than we give ourselves credit for. We’re learning life averages well, and most of the things we worry about – they will never happen.
Sometimes, I look up famous writers on Wikipedia to find out when they were published. I say a silent prayer that they didn’t become successful until later in life (27+). Like Sarah Ban Breathnach, for instance. She lived paycheck to paycheck as a freelance writer until she was 41, when she became a billionaire with her book, Simple Abundance.
Scouring Wikipedia in this way is comparable to watching Intervention or Teen Mom: it’s making yourself feel better about your life by comparison. It’s why I subconsciously love Trailer Park Boys so much. Because I might drink cabernets pretty often, but at least I’m not lighting up a doobie and drinking whiskey cokes in a libary. I might skip workouts and eat slices of Havarti and salami for dinner, but at least I’ve never been incarcerated. It’s like when you ask a friend how they’re doing, and they say “Not so good,” and your ears perk up, “Oh really, what’s going on?”
The Baby Boomers tell us we all think we’re special, and we’re too ambitious. That hits home, because my Baby Boomer Mom prays every night that I don’t end up pushing a grocery cart full of my belongings on the streets of downtown San Diego. I do dream on a grandiose scale. But I like my dreams as they are – extravagant and lofty. I might only see them realized at the end of years of hard work, but I’ve got the grit, the patience, and I’ll… eh, learn the discipline to make them happen.
After surfing today, I showered, got out, and caught my reflection in the mirror. I started to pick apart the person looking back at me. The curve of my hip seemed curvier, I’m breaking out, etc. But I also saw that red sunburn line near my hairline forehead that’s familiar. I always forget to put sunscreen there, so after surfing for three hours, it often comes back red. When I surf for a long time in the sun, the freckles on my nose darken, and I think they’re cute. I looked in the mirror and saw the surfer girl that peeks out once in a while, and thought I should tell myself I’m beautiful more often. Because I am. Beautiful and flawed. If hindsight is 20/20 I wish I could recover all the joy I gave up to thinking too much. I wish I could rake through my thoughts sifting out the bullshit that pulled me away from really living.
San Diego is beautiful, too, breathtakingly so. Thursday night, I headed north on the 101 rushing by waves erupting under bridges and white sand dunes dotted with green ice plant and footprints. Surfers were paddling out next to rocky jetties, and walking across the street at stoplights.
Against the beauty, I felt anxiety and loneliness like a tightness in my chest. What’s going to happen to me? type questions. I tried to smooth the fear out in phone calls and desperate visits. A “Please pick up, please pick up” moment. My emotions swept me away, and thoughts poured in with the force of Niagara Falls. But I’m stronger than I give myself credit for, and you are, too.
I didn’t know my great-grandfather, but I have a book of his. It was published in 1936. I loved this excerpt, and though long, I thought I’d share it:
“To me, the butterfly teaches the most wonderful and most important lesson that we human beings ever have to learn. You all know his story. He is a beautiful butterfly now, but he was not always a butterfly. No, indeed. He began life, and he lived what seemed to him a very, very long time, as a worm – and not a very important kind of worm either – what we call the humble caterpillar.
Now the life of a caterpillar is a sadly restricted one, in fact, it could be taken as the very type and symbol of restriction. He lives on a green leaf in the forest, and that is about all he knows.
Then one day something strange happens. The little caterpillar finds certain strange stirrings going on within himself. The old green leaf, for some reason, no longer seems sufficient. He begins to feel dissatisfied. He becomes moody and discontented, but – and this is the vital point – it is a divine discontent. He does not just grumble and complain to the other caterpillars, saying ‘nature is all wrong.’ ‘I hate this life.’ ‘I can never be anything but a worm.’ ‘I wish that I had never been born.’ No, he is discontented, but it is a divine discontent. He feels the need for a bigger, finer and more interesting life. His instinct tells him that where there is true desire there must be fulfillment, because ‘where there’s a will, there’s a way.’
And so the wonderful thing happens. Gradually, the worm disappears, and the butterfly emerges, beautiful, graceful, now endowed with wings – and instead of crawling about on a restricted leaf, he soars right above the trees, right above the forest itself – free, unrestricted, free to go where he likes, to see the world, and bask in the sun, and, in fact, be his own True Self – the free and wonderful thing that God intended him to be.
Now this wonderful story is intended to be the story of every human soul. It is up to you to develop your wings by the scientific use of creative imagination so that you may fly away to your heart’s desire.”
Sometimes I’m so scared and lonely I do things that aren’t good for me. I act like the needy girl. I ask my Mom if she thinks I can make it as a writer, which is oftentimes met by a half “yes,” half “no” answer. But it doesn’t matter if my mom thinks I can make it as a writer. It doesn’t matter if the entire world thinks I’m the next Jane Austen. If Charles Dickens himself rose from the grave, knocked on my door white door in the alley of Pacific Beach, and creepily told me, decaying flesh/skeleton and all “You are a better writer than I was,” it wouldn’t matter. What matters is what I think. What matters is what I believe. And the same is true for you. Baby Boomers like to bash our dreams with baseball bats. But I’ve read enough happiness books to know: as human beings we’re entitled to dream big.
What we should know is that more joy is possible for us. We’re supposed to live the lives we dream of at night – those are the lives we’re supposed to see during the day.
My Mom may fear for me, but instead of being scared, she should be proud. I am going to be fine. I have done the hardest part, which is beginning. I’m not quite a butterfly yet, but I am a caterpilly, or a buttercat.
It’s a scary, yet relieving truth – no one and nothing can save you but yourself. The world wants you to be what you want to be, and you have to know that, too. Despite cynicism that comes with years, this world has lost none of it’s magic. We can still be what we want to be, which if we looked in our hearts, we’d know we want to be butterflies.