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This is #3 in my series (it’s catching on!) of letters in which people give advice to their 16-year-old selves. This is by our friend Michael, who is a lovely person and a terrific photographer. He took the photos at our wedding and did a fun photo shoot with Zoe at the National Building Museum when she was three. 

Dear Michael:

I’m going to make this letter very simple and unadorned with any special old-guy wisdom, knowledge or self-aggrandizing. I’m just going to tell you what I know about your family, and tell you what I think you should do about it.

Your mom does not like being a mom. She would rather have a life that is more under her full control, which is impossible when you’re a mom. Because of this, she gets frustrated and she lashes out at you and your sister. She lashes out because she is not happy. She does not lash out because of who you are and what you do, although it sure feels like it, doesn’t it? It would be helpful if you let her be who she is, but not let it bother you or take it personally, because it is not personal. Despite her challenges, she loves you very much and she will always be at your side. Always.

Your dad sure does like to give advice, doesn’t he? But he doesn’t really seem to want to know what’s in your head, does he? You could be deeply, deeply affected by how he wants you to turn out, or how you think he wants you to turn out. I think that you think that he thinks that the best thing is to not think much at all, or better still, to not feel much at all; most certainly, not to express what you’re feeling. However, you, like everyone on earth, are a very deeply feeling person, and it is OK – more than OK, it’s GREAT – to have your feelings, to think about them, and to share them with people. People will value that quality very much. Much more than what you think your dad thinks a man should be. If you’re right about what you think he thinks a man should be, then he might not be right. But, you might not be right about what you think he thinks anyway. So just do what feels right for you and don’t worry about him. He loves you very much and will always – always – be right at your side.

Your twin sister is right by your side right now. Take as much as you can from her, and give as much back as you can. You probably don’t realize it, but she is giving you everything she possibly can, and she is deeply capable of giving. Lucky you. She will be giving you everything she possibly can for, …forever. Open your eyes. Give back. She is a bigger part of your life than you could ever imagine.

And a note about yourself. You’re an amazing person with a lot to give. You doubt yourself much more than you should. And you stifle your natural ability to think, feel and do, which are true gifts. People will miss out if you don’t just grab yourself and give him a hug and let go of what you think other people think you should think, feel and do. And look around at your family and just let your mom be difficult for her own reasons, and let your dad be the quiet, stoic one for his own reasons, but do all the thinking and feeling and loving that you want to do, for your own reasons. Understand how much you mean to your twin sister, and try to understand how much she means to you. Above all, love them all at face value, and love yourself, no matter who you are.

It gets better, beautiful child. A lot better.

I can’t believe it’s been 22 years since I was 16. It’s been nothing if not a learning experience. Happy birthday to me.

Dear Betsy,

You should be nicer to boys. Even though it seems like the ones who fall in love with you are never the same ones you fall in love with, you could be a little kinder to them. They are taking your every word and action more seriously than you realize.

And yeah, it is frustrating that the guys you like don’t seem to get you, and that may not change for a while, but eventually you will find a man who understands you completely and adores you. This will happen later than you had planned, but in the meantime you will still have many adventures and kiss plenty of boys. Don’t worry.

You won’t be a journalist after all but you will be a writer and you will love your work. You know how you’ve always loved to interview people? You will continue to do that and get pretty good at it. Sometimes people you interview will cry. Sometimes they will make you cry. Don’t freak out. The ability to listen to and tell people’s stories is a gift.

You already love to volunteer but no one has ever told you that you could actually get a job and have a fulfilling career working with nonprofit organizations. You don’t even know the word nonprofit, but all those places where you volunteer are nonprofits. And being a candy striper will be great experience for working in a diverse environment and getting along well with different kinds of people. Despite having to carry around containers of urine, it’s worth it.

Please drive more carefully. Slow down. Even if you’re all giddy after a date, watch where you’re going. Boulevards have two sides. Don’t go down the wrong one.

It is ok if your friends graduate and move away. You are loyal, sometimes to a fault, and you will always be sad (sometimes devastated) when friends fall away from your life, but you will eventually make new ones, and thanks to the Internet, sometimes those lost friends will be found. The Internet is a technology that will change your life (and all of society). Friends will value your kindness and often reciprocate it. But sometimes they will be flaky. Try not to take it personally. Some people (most people?) are just not as obsessively proactive as you. That does not mean they don’t love you or they’re mad at you. Maybe they’re just lazy or busy but they still want to be your friend.

It might not be a bad idea to rent after you get married instead of buying, but oh well.

Believe it or not you will someday play soccer. You will love yoga. You will run races, albeit slowly. You may not be an Olympian but you will learn to enjoy sporty things. Stop believing people who say you are clumsy or uncoordinated. What do they know?

You’ve always wanted to be a mom and you will be a great one. It’s still not known how many kids you will have, and there will be some tough spots along the way, but you will have a spectacular little girl and have so much fun with her. You will not get to be a stay at home mom like you had expected, but it still works out ok because you make it work, and because your parents are awesome.

Oh yeah. You live not far from your parents. I know you swear you will not live in Northern Virginia when you grow up because you think Annandale is lame. You will move away after college, and be miserable, and come back. But don’t worry, you will discover a really cool place called Arlington that’s just 10 miles away from your parents’ but a mile from DC. It’s an excellent place to live and not lame. So never say never.

You should dye your hair a fun color while you have the chance. Later you will feel like you missed the window of opportunity.

Life is not easy, but you’ve still got a great one. You are lucky. You are blessed. Try to stop taking everything so freakin’ seriously. It will all work out.

Love,
Betsy

I was back on my mat tonight, returning to yoga for the first time in a while. I didn’t mean to take a break, because I love yoga and always like how it makes me feel, but things happen and I haven’t been to class in months.

Yesterday I went to the gym. Also for the first time in months, but with the slightly more legitimate excuse of plantar fasciitis and a podiatrist who told me to stay off my feet. So my foot is better now.

What motivated me to get my tush in gear is my birthday, which is now mere hours away. If I don’t take care of myself, who will? No one else can give me that gift. I don’t have time to exercise. My life is stressful, with emphasis on the stress and the full. But I know what happens when you don’t take care of yourself, and it isn’t pretty. I have a ways to go before I could claim to be living some sort of healthful lifestyle, but I’ve got to start somewhere.

Where I’m starting now is giving this gift to myself. Starting tomorrow I am committing to meditating every day for the next month. It may be through yoga or just sitting down with those beads that are shoved to the back of a drawer. It may be five minutes of silence or a guided meditation or insight meditation with Sharon Salzberg on cd. But I will do something, whether or not I’m in the mood or exhausted. I’m giving that gift to myself of making time for peace, because no one else can do it for me.

I am delighted to post another letter in the series, this time by my friend Rob, who I met freshman year when we lived on the same hall. He went on to date and then marry my friend Maia. And now he’s the author of an actual novel that many people have bought, read, and loved. You can find Rob here.

A Letter to My 16-Year Old Self

Hey.

I have a few things I need to tell you. Some will be really awesome (your wife is hot) and some will be hard (your dad is going to get Alzheimer’s much sooner than you, he, or anyone, is expecting), but these are things I think you would want to know:

Stop Chasing that Girl
You know who I’m talking about and it’s totally cool. There is absolutely nothing to be embarrassed about. You are giving it your best shot, but it isn’t going to work out. Ironically, the strategy you are pursuing is a great one. You are trapped in the “friend” zone. This is a terrible place to be in high school. It is, however, exactly where you want to be later in life. The problem isn’t your approach; it’s just not the right time or person. So don’t be discouraged and don’t worry so much about it.

Buy a Tape Recorder
You don’t know this now, but you are a pretty good reporter. I know, right? You aren’t even interested in journalism and the idea of calling people you don’t know makes you sweat. It’s okay. You are actually surprisingly good at asking the right questions to the right people.
By the time you figure this out, though, you will have lost the chance to interview some crucial sources. You need to buy a tape recorder and interview your grandparents extensively on your next visit to them. You want to learn as much as they can tell you about their lives. This is important for learning who they are, but also for understanding more about where you and your parents came from.

Spend More Time With Your Parents
Your dad is going to be diagnosed with Alzheimer’s in about 15 years. The incredibly intelligent and gregarious guy you see right now? Enjoy him while you can, because he will disappear bit by bit until you have trouble remembering him. I’m sorry, but there isn’t a damn thing you can do about this. What you can do is set aside more time to hang out with him—and your mom. This is going to take a toll on her, too. This is a great time to be around both of them, so please enjoy it.

Stop Listening to Aerosmith
Right now. Later, you will refuse to throw out the 3-CD box set of “Pandora’s Box” because your dad gave it to you as a surprise gift, NOT because you ever want to listen to it.

Apply Early-Admission to William and Mary
I don’t know why you didn’t, but honestly, you never wanted to go anywhere else. Going here is a great choice—might as well lock it in right now.

Dream Bigger
You have a lot of hopes and dreams, but you have a tendency to worry about what’s “realistic.” Please stop. I know people think you want to be an actor—even you may think this—but you don’t. You do, however, want to write, and you’re largely afraid to admit this. You’ve been writing stories since the sixth grade and tucking them away, never showing them to anyone. You spend 50 percent of your time living in your imagination, thinking about novels you never even plan on writing. You have this strange idea that someone will come up to you and offer you a writing contract. I’ve got news for you: you are going to have to do this on your own. Don’t be too worried, though: it’s going to be fine. But you need to stop being intimidated about writing a book. Stephen King started when he was 17 years old. You should get a jump on him. Oh, and don’t worry about getting it published. Technology and a company named after a river in South America are going to solve that problem for you. Just focus on writing.

You Already Know Who You Are
If you ignore everything else in this message, I want you to know this: You are just fine as you are. I know you think you’re a nerd. But believe it or not, nerds are cool now. The last Star Trek movie was a huge hit, people love Lord of the Rings and there is a popular TV show about dorks. Weird, I know. It doesn’t matter anyway. You like to pretend that you don’t care what people think of you. It’s time to stop pretending. You will be much happier.

Sincerely,

Your 37-Year-Old Self

This is the first guest post in what I hope will be a series: A Letter to My 16-Year-Old Self . Thank you to Kim for being inspired to write a letter and being willing to share it with me (and you). You can find more of Kim’s writing at Blooming Boy. I invite you to write a letter to your 16-year-old self. If you want, send it to me. 

Dear 16-year-old Me,

You’re not fat. You are so not fat. I would gladly trade my body for yours.

You could read a lot more books if you didn’t spend so much time curling, teasing, and spraying your hair. Please stop immediately.

Your boyfriend is not the love of your life. And you are not the love of his. It’s really okay.

No matter what Madame Weigant says, do not bother taking the AP French exam.

Don’t wear so much makeup. You don’t need it. I know your Aunt Peggy spackles it on and you are emulating her, and that it’s still 1986 where you are. But you are pretty without it. On second thought, I would give anything to see Aunt Peggy and her blue eyeshadow again, so maybe you should go ahead and pull out the blusher. It’s not going to kill you. It didn’t kill her. That was something else entirely. Which reminds me, I’m glad you don’t smoke. Don’t start.

On a related note, don’t spend so much time arguing with your dad. Actually, scratch that too. Go ahead and argue with him. He’s pretty busy these days and isn’t paying enough attention to you. So talk back. Be sassy and sarcastic. Get his attention. Don’t make the mistake, however, of thinking that he doesn’t love you. Because he does. He really does. He’s doing the best he can. Try not to take him for granted, because he won’t live forever either. Enjoy all those Sunday breakfasts he likes to make for you.

It may seem like it now, but the Challenger explosion is not the biggest news story of your lifetime.

When it comes to college, don’t bother applying to UVA or Cornell or American. The University of Maryland is just fine, despite the whole Len Bias thing. Later, your heart will tug every time you spread out that tattered wool picnic blanket covered in Terrapins, which you will keep in the car and bring everywhere.

When you get to UMD, do not spend so much time pining after buffoons. Most of those guys do not deserve you. Or even if they do, they don’t deserve so much of you, so soon. Respect yourself.

While you’re there, try not to pick three majors that sound vaguely interesting or like something somebody ought to major in but don’t fire up your soul. Just save yourself and your college counselor the time and angst and choose a major based on what you love—reading and writing. (Just don’t expect to make any money.)

Love your friends, but don’t be sad if they drift away in the coming years. You will meet many more new friends at every stage of your life. Some of the old friends will come around again in surprising ways, and then before you know it, the new friends will be old ones too. Cherish the rich pageant of people you meet.

Also, and this is very, very important: There will be a tall guy with spiked hair who can’t stop looking at you at a recycling conference in Orlando in September 1997. Don’t laugh. There really are recycling conferences and you will actually go to one. Anyway, the spiked-hair guy. Pay attention to him. He figures prominently in your life story.

Finally, dear Kim, don’t worry about getting old. Here’s a secret: When you are my age, you will still feel much the same inside. You will still be you. Love yourself. Or, if you really don’t know how to do that yet, know that I love you from here. And I’m still looking out for you.

Kim

Five years ago today I did this thing with my body that seemed completely impossible. I gave birth. If you’ve given birth, you understand. If you haven’t, trust me when I say it’s bizarre. I’m not saying good or bad, because I know plenty of people who’ve had miraculously joyful or excruciatingly awful birth experiences. But I think most women would agree it’s a sensation unlike any other.

So it is with parenting. I remember when I was pregnant and Randy wondered if he was ready to be a dad. You’re never really ready, but you just do it anyway.

Zoe constantly surprises us. She knows things we can’t fathom how she learned (my sister used to be the same way, and did an amazingly accurate impression of Dr. Ruth when she (my sister) was about five years old). She is alarmingly self-aware. She can be absurdly dramatic and absolutely silly (which shouldn’t be a surprise given that her dad is pretty darn silly). She will soon be teaching her grandparents how to use their computers and the iPad.

Zoe is mostly joyful and sometimes petulant. She argues. She is often a good listener except when she completely ignores us. She can be careful and meticulous except when she makes a giant mess and refuses to clean it up. She usually wants to be the center of attention and–as much as I don’t want to be a helicopter parent–she wants me to follow her around on the playground and watch her tricks. I struggle to find the balance between serving as an enthusiastic audience and encouraging her to be more independent. She almost always asks for permission before doing things, even things she knows she’s not supposed to do, which I really appreciate and don’t really understand. I guess at heart she is a rule follower, which she gets from me for better or for worse. She has lovely manners–usually–although she gets frustrated that other kids ignore her on the playground when she says “excuse me” and politely asks for a turn. She’s doing exactly what she’s supposed to do, but they don’t care. This is also a challenge I’ve long had. According to my mom, she watched with concern when I was about Zoe’s age and I was repeatedly pushed out of the way at the water fountain. Of course I was taught not to push back, but certainly I deserved a drink too. This is something we’re trying to figure out together. And one of the reasons we are glad that Zoe is so excited about martial arts.

Yes, I said martial arts. She’s taken ballet, which was fine but she’s really more of a modern dancer. She’s doing soccer this spring at school and she’ll begin her second session of gymnastics after spring break. But she also just finished a two-week trial at Creative Martial Arts, up the street from our house. She was inspired to try it after attending the tae kwan do birthday party of a friend who, at 7, just earned her brown belt (the level just below black). I wasn’t sure how an actual class would go, but she took to it immediately. Amid a group of five- to seven-year-olds, most of whom were much more experienced than she was, she fell right in line. She caught on to the commands, persevered with her jabs and crosses and front kicks, yelled “AIYAH!” as loud as she could muster. I was slightly surprised and a little awed at how well she did for a beginner, this girl who loves to be a princess and wanted to get a manicure and pedicure for her birthday, and often tells us when she’s tired that she’s feeling “fragile.” But she demonstrated you can be tough and tender at the same time.

Another point of pride, although it seems inevitable coming from two families of devout readers and professional writers and editors, is her reading and writing. Randy and I both have a harder time enforcing bedtime when Zoe is reading to us. On the way to our excursion to Baltimore today, Zoe read me Henry and Mudge: the Sparkle Days, which was not seasonal but nonetheless lovely. On the way home she read me Henry and Mudge: the First Book, the first installment in one of our favorite series. Henry has a cousin Annie who has her own series, which we love to read as well. Today in the art studio at the Port Discovery Children’s Museum, Zoe wrote this description of a picture she drew. It says “A young girl playing with her baby sitter who gets lost in the woods and she can’t find her parents and does not find them.”

Perhaps that raises some strange issues of babysitter abandonment or separation anxiety, but we’ll deal with that later. To be fair, in real life her regular babysitter’s last day is tomorrow, and right before she wrote this she had become separated from me while climbing on this three-story structure (I could see her but she couldn’t see me).

So who knows what five will bring, and whether we are ready. We know that she will have another eye surgery (hopefully the last) in May. She will no doubt expand her already large medical vocabulary. We know kindergarten is fast approaching, although we are trying to hold it at bay as best we can because it brings anxiety for everyone. And we don’t know yet what school she’ll be attending. Meanwhile, we will enjoy every last moment at Zoe’s wonderful preschool and try not to think about how none of her preschool friends are likely to be in kindergarten with her. She will make new friends. She is a social girl. She is brave. She is kind. And we are very proud. Happy birthday Zoe! We love you so much.

The other night we had Chinese food for dinner and Zoe opened a fortune cookie. Her fortune read “Your dearest wish will come true.”

She revealed that her dearest wish was to have an American Girl doll. But we already knew this.

A few weeks ago Zoe was looking at books on cd with me at the library. Completely at random she picked out the stories about Molly, the spunky American Girl from 1944 with wire-rimmed glasses and braids. Molly is 9 in the stories, as I think all the American Girls are in their own stories. And I’ve observed a vast array of American Girl products aimed at the 8- to 11-year-old demographic. But Zoe is precocious at almost five, and she absolutely loved the stories. She listened to all six discs at every opportunity. I even listened to as much of the stories as I could. They were interesting! And well-written! I wanted to know why Emily from London came to live with Molly, and what Molly’s dad, an army doctor serving in Europe during the war, was writing in letters home. And how Molly and her friends were making Halloween costumes out of scrap materials because things were rationed. I’ve always enjoyed history most when it comes coated in fiction.

Then we got the Molly movie from the library, which she watched with Randy. He cried, and actually thought it was well done too.

All of us were a little smitten with Molly.

Coincidentally, or perhaps karmically or cosmically or whatever you want to believe, my mom had picked out Molly as a doll for Zoe long ago. She planned to wait until Zoe was a little older to give her the doll, but then Zoe started developing this deep desire. And what are grandparents for, if not to grant your wishes?

In addition to the Molly doll, my mom had procured some furniture for Molly and a set of the six books about her as well as a tiny version of the Molly doll. Perhaps the regular Molly doll’s own American Girl doll. She sent me to the American Girl store in Tyson’s Corner to find some additional accessories, including Molly’s dog Bennett.

I was in awe at the store. You may know I am a complete sucker for good marketing, and the American Girl people seriously know what they are doing. It’s a two-level store that includes a bistro for girls and their dolls to dine, a hair salon where grown women give your doll a new hairdo, and oh so much merchandise. Many, many dolls. Many, many outfits. And all kinds of accessories, from doll-sized grand pianos to a DVD that shows you how to style your doll’s hair (since you can’t take her to the doll hair salon every day, of course). It was masterful.

And of course, it was expensive. I will not argue with that.

But I saw all these girls who looked to be 8 or 9, holding their dolls, shopping with their moms. And it seemed so wholesome! The girls were not trying to be teenagers or be sexy or be adults before their time. They were really intent on accessorizing their dolls. And most of the dolls are historical. There’s Kit from the Great Depression; Addy, an African-American girl during the Civil War; Josefina from 1824 New Mexico, Kaya, a member of the Nez Perce tribe in 1764; and others. They all have many books about them that actually talk about history, and don’t shy away from hard truth. Certainly they’re still nice stories for girls (and I acknowledge I haven’t read any besides Molly’s) but they’re legitimate literature. They are not like any Dora books or My Little Pony books or Disney princess books in which someone has written down a story based on a show or movie in the most basic language you can imagine.

So I know people think it’s a racket and you can get a cheaper doll at Target (of course you can, but it’s not the same), but if Zoe’s going to be into something, I think American Girls are a lovely choice. I certainly prefer them to Barbie. They’re wholesome. They teach history. They have books (did I mention the books?). And no batteries required.

Tomorrow is Zoe’s birthday, so tonight when we were at their house, my parents made Zoe’s dearest wish come true. We are all very excited to welcome Molly (and mini-Molly) and Bennett into our home. They’re tucked into their bed, right next to Zoe’s bed, and are all sleeping peacefully.

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