I was listening to Glennon Doyle Melton's podcast this week with Cheryl Strayed. They were interviewing Cheryl about her new tv series "Tiny Beautiful Things" which I just watched and loved. Cheryl was talking about her Dear Sugar column where she answers peoples questions. People write to Sugar when they are lost, and need help finding a direction. Cheryl was talking about loving who we are in those hard transition places, when we don't know. A variation of Rilke's famous words "And the point is to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer."
It started me thinking about when I was most lost, around 19-20 yrs old. When I left college, and traveled around Europe by myself in the winter, and read books that would change my life, like May Sarton's Journal of a Solitude and Chogyam Trungpa's Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism. And then I came across this piece I wrote about advice I'd give my 18 year old self. It's still good advice. And it still helps me when I read it now. Sharing some vulnerable photos from that time of life, photos that are a mixture of the rawness and the excitement of being nineteen.
1. Enjoy the part of your life where you are fearless.
2. Enjoy your Beautiful Body. Tell society to Shut the Fuck Up-You are Gorgeous. Stupid society is trying to take that away from you to make money.
3. Take time to know yourself. Be discerning in relationships. You are so valuable, appreciate yourself. You must appreciate yourself deeply, and then you will be able to recognize someone else who does.
4. Pick partners who you laugh with, who you feel yourself with, who remind you of the
Best Parts of Yourself.
5. You will probably not spend that much time alone in this Life time. Enjoy the times you are single. You are planting the Garden of your self-enjoy it, Tend it. Those nights you stay home on a Friday night doing watercolors and scribbling are Gold.
6. Do more of the things you might feel a little self-conscious of but somehow feel deeply fulfilling-journaling, collaging, drawing. Whatever it is for you. It may feel totally irrational. The more irrational the better.
7. Good job keeping your heart open all those years, when you had parents who were suffering and did not know how to be there for you.
8. Learn to play an instrument.
9. Enjoy this part of Life when the future feels like a smorgasbord.
10. Plunge in. Don’t wait for the “right thing” to do. You are gaining Experience at this age. This is the Most Important Thing. You don’t know the “right thing” at 18. Very, very few people do. But follow what Robert Johnson in his memoir Balancing Heaven and Earth calls your “golden threads”. The threads of what interests you. Listen to the little voice that wants to go hiking in Nepal, or waitress on Nantucket, or count turtles in Hawaii for research. It is really important to try out different directions. Your late teens/early twenties is a very socially accepted time to try out different paths.
11. Do Things that help you Engage in the World. That is what Life is about. This is what work is about, and play is about. I wished my parents had told me this. I spent so much time dithering about what is the right path, that I was paralyzed for many years. I should have just been doing. I did some…I worked as a waitress, in a health club, at a hotel..but I wish I had done more. Gone to Alaska and worked there, waitressed in NYC, worked on a cruisehip, things that whispered to me. I spent too much time staring at my bellybutton, hoping the answer would be revealed.
12. If you think you want to have children in this lifetime, try and do as much as you can before having them. Try and get as much of a sense of self before then. It is easier to go back to a path post-babies, than try to figure out your path with babies. There is a lot that destroys your ego when you have kids: no sleep, no time to shower, or pick out clothes. Try to have a strong sense of self beforehand.
13. Most things that are truly valuable are not valued by our culture. Value them anyway. Value them a lot. They will whisper to you often. Find time for silence so you can hear them.
14. Cultivate Well-Being. However it is for you. Through running, hiking, walks in nature, yoga, friendships. A Constant Connection with your Well-Being will fuel you in all parts of Your Life.
15. Life and Love are Messy. Not like the movies. Remember that. We don’t know how to love perfectly, find careers perfectly, or parent perfectly. We are here to Practice and Learn. When you feel like you have fucked up and life is over, and you have made a mess of it, it is only one chapter. One part of the quilt of your life. It will ultimately make it more beautiful. Hanging in, and loving people is messy, and doesn’t always feel good. Sometimes you have to walk through and breathe through the mess to get to the other side. I think I abandoned the ship a lot because it didn’t look like what I thought it should, like in the movies or tv.
16. Doing things we are terrified of and have huge resistance to is Very Important. Resistance is a flashing light telling you something is there for you. Practice defying resistance.
17. Society has sold women a story that all they need to do to find joy and fulfillment is to find the right person. Joy and happiness are made up of a million different pieces. Start collecting yours.
18. Practice slaying your own dragons.
19. Make up your own fairy tales. Make yourself the protagonist. Make yourself the central character of Your Life. Take Up Space. Let your life be a cairn on the road for other women.
20. So much of life, especially early on, is like walking through a forest with a headlamp on. You can’t see very far ahead. You can’t see the Path. You will be able to see that it adds up to something later on. It will form a beautiful, Jeweled, colorful, Vibrant, Imperfect, entirely particular path to Yourself. Only you can do this path. It is your gift to the World. So, in hard moments, know you only need to see a couple of feet ahead of you. In twelve step programs they say “do the next right thing.”
1985-86 I have left college. I cut off my hair in a hotel in Berkeley, Ca by myself. I am so lost, and yet also so very myself at the same time. I don't know how to love my body yet. But I am trying. Photo and painting by Christian Gwinn.
Student at UCSC I have discovered Women's Studies and fallen in love with a woman for the first time .
photo: Douglas A. Ertman
new student at University of California at Santa Cruz. So excited! I've found my people! A world I didn't know existed exists! 1983