Finger-Pointing and a Well-Aimed Slingshot

“You own everything that happened to you. Tell your stories. If people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should have behaved better.” ― Anne Lamott

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about kindness and compassion—both how easy it is to forget the importance of these qualities and how quickly we remember them when we’re on the receiving end of harsh words or behavior.

Much of this frustration came to a head over the weekend when I ran into an old friend at a local beer market. We caught up over a quick conversation—only to have one of her short little crones… er cronies… approach, point a finger up into her face, and angrily say, “YOU should NOT be TALKING to her!” (Capitalization used to indicate the shrill inflection characteristic of a convincingly repugnant movie witch.)

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Here’s the thing: I had never seen this woman before in my life. And she didn’t know me; she only knew what she had learned from her companions in my absence. But there’s a reason for this behavior: I left their religion. Five years ago.

Now, that may not seem like a good reason to outsiders, but it’s their reason, and these individuals are entitled to behave in whatever manner they see fit, just as bakeries in certain states can refuse to provide wedding cakes to homosexuals. It may not be just or kind, but it’s their right.

But when I saw that unfortunate woman’s furiously plump red cheeks and fleshy finger shoved into this poor woman’s face—and the insinuation that I was a disease-ridden monster to be avoided and abhorred—something in me snapped.

For a long time, I’ve decided not to share certain things about my life publicly, due to fear of speaking ill of my former friends, being labeled by them, or disregarded further by the few beautiful people (out of thousands) who still maintain even sporadic contact with me.

However, partly due to keeping pseudo-religious posts to a minimum, my blogging has come to a standstill. I now know I was doing a disservice to myself and others by writing about only cheerful and superfluous topics—without also sharing that which is honest and real. It was almost as if I was on a pathway leading into a verdant forest, but blocking my way was an enormous rocky crag, and the only way to move forward was to make a long difficult climb over it.

I’m beginning to realize that moving forward in life requires saying the hard things, and having difficult conversations that might hurt people. And, when I look ahead at my life, the risk of not saying them poses more harm than keeping them inside.

While I certainly have no desire to point fingers because that would be unkind (does anyone else see the irony here?), it’s worth acknowledging that the majority of this post is fueled by the brilliant Anne Lamott quote at the outset. So I won’t use names, but I will use examples. In honor of moving forward, it’s time for me to climb over the hard things that stand in my way.

I’m tired of protecting people who engage in shunning and ostracism because they believe they are representing the will of god.

I’m tired of making excuses for people who will go out of their way to greet my friends when I am in their company but simultaneously pretend I do not exist.

I’m tired of protecting people who hide behind religion as permission to administer so-called street justice in the name of their faith.

I’m tired of remaining silent about the people who heartlessly divided up and distributed my personal belongings amongst themselves during a drunken house party before my divorce was final.

I’m tired of defending people who blamed me for the same or similar mistakes they themselves have made throughout their lives.

I’m tired of defending a religious band of glorified frat boys who jeered and yelled at me one night as I walked along one of Boise’s busiest streets after having dinner with friends.

And as of Sunday, as I watched that sad little finger wagging in the face of one of my most favorite old friends, I’m tired of defending people who continue to deprive me of my basic human right to be acknowledged and to take up space on this planet.

Frankly, I’m also tired of making excuses for “nice people” who have not been all that nice to me. Throughout history, so-called “nice people” have committed terrible atrocities in the name of religion.

Ever read Under the Banner of Heaven: A Story of Violent Faith, by Jon Krakauer? It will give you a whole new (and terrifying) perspective about churches that favor personal revelations and messages from god. And lately, if you’ve been watching the news, you’re likely tired of hearing about religions that deprive their children of proper medical treatment in the name of faith—but are defended by certain legislators who deem them “nice people”.

For the record, the intent of this post has nothing to do with religion. It’s not about god, or politics, or even activism. It’s about compassion. It is about the basic tenet of treating humans with compassion and dignity—and if that’s missing from your religion, you have some serious spiritual problems to address.

It’s sad to admit that I’ve learned as much about compassion in the last five years as I did in the decades previously. That may be partly because my former religion preaches that the “meek will inherit the earth”—while smugly acknowledging their own meekness will win them salvation (and simultaneously pointing both figurative and literal fingers in people’s faces).

Most importantly, I’ve learned what meek people (or “nice people”, for the non-zealots) look like. But strangely enough, they are some of the same people I was too busy judging in previous years that I failed to see their contribution to humanity. Here’s what one of them looks like:

 

Today, a Facebook friend shared the above video of the sweetest old Greek grandmother who accepts refugees in need with open hands and an open heart, when many in the world consider them a burden (or worse).

While I can’t relate 100 percent to the devastating plight of humans on the run for their lives, I do know what it’s like to be treated like a subhuman species by a large group of people which places more value on judgment than on human kindness. And it seems to me that this world would be a lot better off if we all tried to be a bit more like this grandmother.

Yet, some are so worried about protecting their own rights that we justify hurting people (or at least not helping them), simply to make a statement. When did being right come at the expense of others’ wellbeing?

Lately, I’ve been asking myself some big and very tough questions: ‘How do I treat people? How do they feel I’m treating them?’

But maybe more specifically, ‘How do I treat well-arranged and beautiful living sculptures of bone and sinew and flesh, with their very unique backgrounds, life stories, pains, heartbreaks, and daily struggles?’

And that’s when I know: there is always room for more compassion.

Noted Scotsman and author Ian MacLaren once said, “Be kind. Everyone you meet is carrying a heavy burden.” Isn’t that the truth? Sometimes I think humanness is synonymous with weakness; there are days when just living can be a challenge.

But there is a power transfer that occurs during acts of kindness and compassion. Doing or saying nice things hurts no one. In fact, it can change the world. And it definitely can change our relationships.

Occasionally, old friends and family members will ask why I don’t return to my former faith, in a tone that often borders on pleading. Part of me understands the desperation—many of these individuals honestly believe that I’m as good as dead, at least until I am properly disposed of by their supposedly loving “god”.

It’s during these conversations (and especially while writing this) that I think of the words of Maggie Kuhn, a lifelong activist who fought for human rights, and social and economic justice:

“Leave safety behind. Put your body on the line. Stand before the people you fear and speak your mind—even if your voice shakes. When you least expect it, someone may actually listen to what you have to say. Well-aimed slingshots can topple giants.”

I don’t often share such raw, personal experiences. It’s scary and it’s very, very hard to do, especially in anticipation of the inevitable fallout, hurt feelings, and ridicule. But if “speaking my mind” means endorsing compassion over judgment, kindness over criticism, and love over condemnation, I will gladly bear my slingshot, and accept whatever punishment comes with it.

Ultimately, one major purpose of this blog is finding inspiration—and how can you and I be inspired unless we first climb over what stands in our way? So if sharing this writing with the world means it resonates with someone, then I have all the courage I need. Better yet, if it helps us understand one another, or empowers someone to have a conversation about something that’s been difficult to address, then I’ve done my job as a writer.

And if you need one, I’m happy to let you borrow my slingshot.

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Just Another 2015 Manifesto

As much as I try to avoid resolution hype around January 1st, something didn’t feel right about kicking off the new year without some introspection. (After all, here I am typing away at 1:14 a.m. the morning of January 2nd.)

autumn leafFortunately for my tired brain, I recently participated in a writer’s workshop facilitated by Elizabeth Sharp McKetta, an incredibly brilliant writer (among other things) who was as gracious and warm as she was inspiring.

During the event, she provided several prompts from her new book, one of which was to write a manifesto. Apparently, that was all I needed to clarify what I want in my life, both in 2015 and beyond, because in ten short minutes, I had myself a manifesto—and something (hopefully) worth sharing.

I highly recommend you write your own, but here is mine, in case you find anything juicy enough to steal.

Be present.

Speaking of presents (presence), give the gift of your time, attention, and love to those who will appreciate and reciprocate.

Daydream. But don’t just dream away your days. Put some plans in motion.

Travel somewhere new once a year (at least), experiencing time and place as an innocent, wide-eyed, and curious child.

Ask for help when you need it.

Same goes for hugs (and you need them even more regularly).

Forgive others liberally—not for their benefit, but for your own.

Spoil yourself with simple but sensory pleasures—strong tea, a riveting novel, a hike during sunrise.

Eat food straight from the source whenever possible.

Smell flowers that grow abundantly in gardens.

Gather leaves from trees.

Make snow angels.

Let people love you.

Love many, trust few.

Understand that your footprint in this world may be small, but it can make a huge impact.

Breathe fresh air, walk barefoot in the grass, put your hands in the dirt (when seasonally appropriate).

Observe children and how they experience the world. And don’t be ashamed to live like them.

Be kind to yourself.

Move your body, feed it regularly, give it rest. Listen when it tells you what it needs.

Tell yourself kind things.

Write love letters, most importantly, ones addressed to yourself.

Make things.

Use your hands.

Use your heart.

Be love.

Fall in love—even when it’s scary.

Learn to heal your broken heart when it doesn’t work out.

Put as much effort into being beautiful on the inside as you try to be on the outside.

Do not judge others; bad behavior is simply an indication of pain or ignorance.

Be compassionate.

Call your mom.

Say I love you.

Cuddle with the cat.

Use your words. They are your power.

Be honest with others, but most importantly with yourself.

Bake cookies.

Give gifts.

Send thank you cards.

Live a life that inspires others.

Try new things.

Ride your bike.

Discover new trails.

Don’t allow small people to make you feel small.

Be confident, be bold. You are more capable than you think you are.

Don’t allow others’ opinions to define you.

Be your own soft place to fall. Be that for others, too.

Make music.

Love yourself more than you love anyone else.

Be true to your deepest desires.

Discover something you love to do—and do it forever.

Infinite Jest and the Beauty of Unfinished Business

November 12th, 2014: DAY OF THE DEPEND ADULT UNDERGARMENT.

Or, more directly put: With all due respect, Mr. David Foster Wallace, your 1,079-page-long “philosophical quest” is complete and utter shite.

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When my dear literary-minded friend suggested Infinite Jest as our next book club read, I should’ve realized that the title itself portends a comical, meandering foray into the creative mind of Mr. Wallace.

While many others in my circle of well-read women and men have extolled the virtues of the author, and myself having fallen under the spell of his iconic Water speech and several of his essays, I thought this would be an easy read. Hell (pun intended), I’ve read the bible from beginning to end several times in my young life, how hard could it be to complete this particular work of modern fiction?

My self-confidence couldn’t have been more misplaced.

In terms of its scriptural equivalent, I made it about as far as Jacob’s quarrel with Laban of Syria—or, to be exact, page 55—before I realized that, dammit, this book is just not working for me.

Worse: I loathe it.

I’m pretty sure it didn’t help that I awoke at 4 a.m. this morning to the sound of the kitty barfing up her not-so-cheap cat food on my freshly laundered comforter, only to immediately thereafter see this monstrosity of a book, so far from completion, mere inches from my face—all only seconds after being jarred from a peaceful sleep.

Now, I realize that, as a writer, I may come under intense scrutiny for my intense hatred for this “encyclopedic novel” (as the work is now categorized). In all fairness, however, after learning a bit more about the history of Infinite Jest and how it came to be, I was not at all surprised to learn that the writer himself struggled to bring it to life: he began writing several beginnings of the manuscript between the years of 1986 and 1989, after which he abandoned the work until 1991-1992, when he finally completed it.

That said, my intent is not to decry its literary value or even to insult this fine author’s skill or impact upon the reading world. After all, I do indeed own a collection of World Book Encyclopedias, in their glorious, tangible form. I appreciate the educational and cultural role they play in my life and in the world at large. But will I sit down to read A through C? Nope.

I will admit that I probably spend too much time online to have patience for a book that weighs more than my laptop. Maybe Elephant Journal articles and Elizabeth Gilbert books are more my style. Maybe that makes me a lazy millennial, maybe it makes me a child of the revolution, or maybe it just means I’m not in a place in my life where tackling one of Wallace’s greater works is among my most burning desires. In my defense, I have read thousands of books (many of them wonderful, some of them mediocre, and a few of them downright terrible), and I have, almost obsessively, insisted upon seeing each one of them through to completion, even when I don’t always enjoy the process of consumption. Having read works of similar depth and caliber, I have nothing to prove.

So, being the over-thinker that I am, I couldn’t help but wonder about the bigger reason as to why I suddenly decided to remove my bookmark, list the thing on half.com, and say “to hell with this!” After all, there is usually an epiphany on the heels of most 4 a.m. wake-up calls, and since the idea of quitting a book midway to completion is so foreign to me, I knew there was something significant I had to consider.

And here it is.

If a person’s life is one great big library, then the books on its shelves are relationships and all the infinite pages therein are our precious days. Further, what we choose to read implies whom we choose to spend our time with, and how we choose to spend it. And, in retrospect, while I don’t ever regret the books I read, I certainly wonder if I would’ve expanded my literary vocabulary or cultural contribution to this planet if I might’ve just been a little more selective.

Who knows? Maybe people are a bit like books, too. Maybe a page is torn out, maybe the subject matter is over one’s head, or maybe this character of David Wallace’s is, up to page 55, drowning in his dysfunction and crippled by his addiction and, hmm, sounds heartbreakingly familiar to someone I know in the flesh, and I’m not sure if I can do this anymore.

Sometimes you only get to someone’s page 55 before discovering that, dammit, this is just not working for me.

For me, there is never a good stopping point. I don’t quit books. I don’t quit people. But when there is no respectable reason to continue sacrificing time and mental energy in a heavy, depressing saga that, for one, doesn’t resonate with you; two, often makes you cry; and three, you know is going to leave you feeling depleted when you turn the last page, it’s time to close the book.

I may love many of the other writings of David Foster Wallace, but in this particular context, his Infinite Jest represents the 1079-pages of drama that I’ve been lugging around with me for far too long. It’s the book I’ve been fighting to finish; all because of my pride and because of my loyalty—a loyalty both to books and to their authors, but most of all to the belief that we are all just torn, ink-splashed pages of humanness; the ugliest of which only need a little understanding in order to be loved.

You, my friends, might be fans of this big beautiful book, but it is, at last, time for me to let it go for now. Maybe I’ll pick it up again later, but at this point, it only signifies dead weight, the difficult story to which I already know the painful ending. And, frankly, it belongs in someone else’s library.

10 to 1: Bedouin Caravans and the Likability Ratio

“The dogs bark; the caravan continues, anyway.”

The above is an old Bedouin expression, and, like many proverbs originating from ancient cultures, it needs little explanation. But humor me anyway.

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While talking with a friend the other day, she reminded me that “for every one negative comment or experience, a person needs ten positive experiences to counteract it.”

I suppose that’s why, if you’re like most people, one negative social interaction is enough to cancel out ten positive. And it’s why—despite a hundred people who support you and want to see you succeed—you can immediately recall that one individual (hopefully it’s only one) who would love to see your house burn down, your career fail, your relationships crumble, and your self-respect dashed to pieces.

And it’s that one percent that can really mess with you.

But why? Haven’t we all read about the study that found internet trolls actually “score” higher on the Dark Tetrad of personality traits (narcissism, Machiavellianism, psychopathy, and sadism)? Don’t we realize that confident, well-adjusted people are too busy living amazing lives to waste time trying to bring other people down?

What it really comes down to is this: healthy people don’t look for reasons to hurt others. Happy people don’t hate.

I’m sure there will be about 100 people that read this post, and of that number, there will be ten people who will hate it—and maybe one who will even talk about how much they hate it. And I’m OK with that—because I don’t really care about the opinions of sickly and unhappy people. I’m also realizing that the vast majority—though perhaps not as vocal—doesn’t really care to hear them either.

In the scenario of the Bedouin traveler mentioned in the expression at the outset—”The dogs bark; the caravan continues, anyway”—I’d rather be the caravan’s brave guide than a noisy animal, standing in piles of its own filth.

Safe travels, friends, and may you leave the slobbering dogs in your dust.

Dear Human: 30 Things You Haven’t Learned About Life

Year 30 came and went, bringing—and taking—with it the irrational trepidation of aging.

While I reveled in a solid week of self-indulgent activities earlier this summer, surrounding by great friends—cocktails on rooftop patios, spontaneous road trips, and concerts under stars—I couldn’t shake the feeling that despite this celebration of what is most definitely a joyful, wonderful life something was amiss.

For one thing, if I had my 20s to live over, I’d have done things very differently.

You will never hear me flagrantly dismiss an entire decade of my life with the “no time is wasted if you learn from your experience” credo. Fouls are made, games are lost, and sometimes time truly is wasted.

In these times, I’m afraid the only lesson to learn is: DO NOT REPEAT.

If only I could have written myself a letter at birth, to be adhered to strictly during the folly-filled, young adult years to come. It would primarily amount to an invitation to live a fuller, richer life, and a plea to stop caring so much about what people think. But I’ve never been one for brevity, so here are, not so coincidentally, 30 additional instructions. I raise my proverbial glass to perfecting these over the next ten years.

letter

Dear Human,

Welcome to this churning, spinning, pulsating earth. You will find that it can be both very beautiful and very ugly here—as can its people—but hopefully you will choose to enjoy it for its beauty rather than scorn it for its ugliness. Whichever you preference, your life will reflect.

Remember: you are here for only a short time. Find your purpose as soon as possible. Then live it.

Do not worry: you will get lost along the way. Just don’t wait for someone else to find you.

However, you will need help. Ask for it.

People will tell you to stop and smell the roses. Do it, and often. No one can enjoy them quite like you, human.

Friends come and go. Both the ones who stay and the ones who depart from your life have something to teach you.

Book clubs are better than b*tch cliques.

Others will have opinions; listen. You will have opinions; voice them tactfully.

Sometimes you’ll prove others wrong, and sometimes you will be proven wrong. Maintain grace regardless.

People will ask too much of you. Learn how to say no.

Carpe diem, even on Mondays—they consist of one seventh of your life, so seize them, too.

You’re not going to be for everyone—and that’s OK. Neither were Martin Luther King Jr., Ghandi, and Mother Teresa, and they still changed the world.

Don’t allow the actions of a few to destroy your faith in humanity.

You can’t please everyone and be happy. Pick one or the other.

Remember to look up every once in a while. You’ll notice clouds, sunsets, and stars; no one will appreciate these quite like you, human.

People will disappoint you. Love them anyway.

You will disappoint people. Love yourself anyway.

People will make mistakes. Forgive them.

You will make mistakes, and sometimes even repeat them. Forgive yourself.

In fact, you will fail miserably. Allow the experience to humble you.

Be kind. Always, always be kind.

Don’t invest in relationships with individuals more skilled at digital communication than basic human interactions.

The measure of a man is not in how diligently he spreads his seed, but in how well he tends his own garden.

The measure of a woman is continually being redefined. Define yourself.

People will betray your trust. Choose your tribe carefully.

People will hate you. Let them.

People will love you. Let them.

Someone will break your heart. Don’t let it harden you.

Someone will eventually find and put back together your broken pieces. Thank them.

Love your life. No one can live it quite like you, human.

Phenomenal Beauty: A Womanifesto

Phenomenal Beauty: A Womanifesto

Maya Angelou passed away this week, her absence felt as salt in an open wound across the wide belly of the Internet, just days after a gunman opened fire near Santa Barbara’s college campus, killing six and wounding 13 others. In the tragedy’s wake, the hashtag #yesallwomen began a Twitter firestorm, drawing attention to misogyny and violence against women.

In Angelou’s memory, one of her poems was posted everywhere that phenomenal women—and those with phenomenal potential—might read it. And, I’d like to think it serves as a timely reminder that we, ladies, should remember our worth, love ourselves, and love one another. Listen to her recite this poem below (or read it in its entiretly at the close of this post).

I’m going to go out on a limb here and say #yesallwomen are phenomenal. The problem is, we’re fooled into thinking that physical beauty makes us that way. That’s a lie.

Truth be told, looking at fashion magazines has never bothered me. I understand—and you should too—that, while the Photoshopped models therein may be beautiful, they are flawed because their smoothed out smile lines, diminished pores, and impossibly slim waistlines aren’t real.

And fake is anything but phenomenal.

What does bother me, however, is this frenzy of “normal” women viewing their social media accounts as modeling contracts, with their duckish lips pursed just so, trying so hard for a face like Marilyn Monroe; with bedtime butt shots of black lace panties and high heels in the air (because don’t we all know that’s how a real woman gets comfortable after a long day of highly fulfilling, creative work).

I’m OK with physical beauty being celebrated. I’m OK with sex appeal being lauded. But I’m not OK with us being part of a very big cultural problem. I am not OK with us, as women teaching men that it’s OK TO TREAT US LIKE POSSESSIONS. That it’s OK TO REDUCE OUR VALUE TO THE SUM OF OUR PHYSICAL PARTS.

We’ve launched a Twitter takeover with #yesallwomen, let’s not negate its impact with a few cheap photos that make us no better than mindless, attention-seeking pop culture hags at whom the world laughs and rolls its eyes. Beware your role in perpetuating misogyny by portraying yourselves as a property to be desired and owned, a prize to be won, and a shiny trophy to be displayed.

I do know a good many authentic women. They may not be professional models, but their selfies are as fierce as their willpower, their intelligence as striking as their appearance, and their kindness deserves as many “likes” as their profile pictures. Simply put, they are phenomenal, not because of their abs, rack, or thigh gap—they are phenomenal because they are real.

My closest female friends are accomplished writers, pioneering artists, fearless mountain bikers, and adventurous foodies. They are mothers, grandmothers, human rights advocates, fighters for free speech, denouncers of corrupt politicians, and B.S. callers when it comes to hatred, bullying, and intolerance.

They are the phenomenal women.

I know a woman who, as a substitute for driving, bikes everywhere she needs to go, which sometimes means riding through pouring rain, over icy roads, and amidst maniacal drivers. She’s also a college instructor, a published writer, and an incredible (and generous) cook. Of note: I’ve never see photos of her arse on any social media feed (unless she’s on a bike, and the angle dictated such a shot).

I know a woman in the public eye who fights tirelessly against tired, impotent politicians, to defend the rights of constituents whom she believes deserve a voice. She is also a mother of two, a patron of the arts, and truly one of the nicest women I’ve had the opportunity to meet. Of note: I never see photos of her breasts on Instagram.

I’m going to request, ladies, that you do your fellow female race a favor: take fewer selfies. Love your body, share its beauty, but err on the side of oversharing your knowledge instead. Make it impossible for the world to ignore how phenomenal you are. If you’re wondering where to start, read the writings of Maya Angelou, Amy Poehler, and Erma Bombeck, and let them show you what a phenomenal woman looks like. Read the phenomenal biographies of Amelia Earhart or Sylvia Earle and get inspired. Then ask yourself if an Instagram photo of your duck lips or half naked booty is going to better the world.

(I don’t care how great the filter is, I’ll tell you now: the answer is no.)

You’re likely very beautiful. Every woman is in her own remarkable way. But if you’re in such sore need for approval, I suggest you first consider the legacy you’re leaving behind. If you are anywhere near or past 30, and the primary way you want to be remembered is by your thigh gap, I suggest you rethink your priorities.

And for the love of all that is holy, stop with the constant barrage of random sexts to dudes who are probably just collecting them as souvenirs anyway. If he values your brain as much as he does your boobs, it won’t matter. And if he’s worth hanging onto, he’ll prefer to explore every tangible inch of you in person rather than within the noncommittal confines of nude digital photos. So delete the Snapchat—and replace it with GoodReads.

I only request that you start with a little Maya Angelou.

 

– – – –

 

Phenomenal Woman by Ms. Angelou

 

Pretty women wonder where my secret lies.

I’m not cute or built to suit a fashion model’s size

But when I start to tell them,

They think I’m telling lies.

I say,

It’s in the reach of my arms,

The span of my hips,

The stride of my step,

The curl of my lips.

I’m a woman

Phenomenal woman,

That’s me.

 

I walk into a room

Just as cool as you please,

And to a man,

The fellows stand or

Fall down on their knees.

Then they swarm around me,

A hive of honey bees.

I say,

It’s the fire in my eyes,

And the flash of my teeth,

The swing in my waist,

And the joy in my feet.

I’m a woman

 

Phenomenal woman,

That’s me.

 

Men themselves have wondered

What they see in me.

They try so much

But they can’t touch

My inner mystery.

When I try to show them,

They say they still can’t see.

I say,

It’s in the arch of my back,

The sun of my smile,

The ride of my breasts,

The grace of my style.

I’m a woman

Phenomenal woman,

That’s me.

 

Now you understand

Just why my head’s not bowed.

I don’t shout or jump about

Or have to talk real loud.

When you see me passing,

It ought to make you proud.

I say,

It’s in the click of my heels,

The bend of my hair,

the palm of my hand,

The need for my care.

’Cause I’m a woman

Phenomenal woman,

That’s me.

19 and Holding

19 and Holding

Someone very special in my life turned 19 yesterday, a young woman whom I’ve viewed as a little sister since the day she was born. She’s been through a lot in the last year, losing both her mother and her aunt to death within a few short months of one another. But she is strong, she is beautiful, and she is tenacious, so she will be alright—better than alright, if I have anything to say about it.

Amber and Sadie campingMy lovely cousin and I are a full ten years apart in age, and, while I have no children of my own, I want a daughter just like her one day. In fact, so deeply does her life impact my own, it was her birthday that made me think deeply about the last ten years of my life, and my own follies have prompted a letter of advice both to my her and to my 19-year-old self.

If I could say a few things to each one of these precious girls, I would tell her to wait, just wait. Stop trying to move too fast. Grow up when you are ready, not when society tells you you must.

Related, don’t say yes to anything unless you are absolutely sure you’ve answered your own calling first.

I would tell this beautiful 19 year old to be brave. To not be afraid to be alone or to have her heart broken. To embrace independence over premature commitment. I would want her to know that her personal growth would occur in direct proportion to her commitment to herself, and that by doing so, she would avoid a mistaken commitment to someone unworthy of her love. I would tell her to trust herself enough to see the world through her own eyes rather than looking from behind someone else’s lenses.

I would also say this:

Your life will not progress in a manner consistent with your best-laid plans. Even the most finely tuned itinerary is subject to interruption. But try to go with the flow. Embrace spontaneity. You’ll meet a lot of interesting people and have a lot of great experiences that way.

Play an instrument. If you start now, you’ll have ten years of practice under your belt by the time you’re my age.

GET YO’SELF TO SCHOOL. You may have a high school diploma in your possession, but I promise you: Your college education will be the one thing you will never regret attaining, and one of the few things that no one can take away from you. Forget the hype that obtaining a degree will land you in a mountain of debt. It may, but so will the alternative. So choose your own adventure. Would you rather be temporarily indebted to an education that will serve you for a lifetime or owe a slew of corrupt creditors for a bunch of crap you don’t need?

Practice self-improvement rather than selfies. In ten years, you’ll have created a self worth living with, rather than simply a self worth looking at.

Sometimes it takes discovering whom you can’t be without before you know whom you want to be with.

Fight less, love more. And don’t argue with people or insult them via social media. It only makes you look the fool.

Understand the meaning of the word “toxic” not just in the literal sense, but as it relates to your habits, your relationships, and your social life. Then banish those things and people that are.

Remember: No one’s going to do it for you. Any of it.

If you have to drink it or smoke it to find energy, peace, or enlightenment, it’s not worth your money or your time.

Read a book, not just your Facebook news feed.

Life is too short to worry about someone else’s grammar, someone else’s lapse in judgment, or a difference of opinion. Let it go, you’ll live longer and be happier (since I’m pretty sure that’s what you’re shooting for).

When you hear that you, as a millennial, are lazy, entitled, and generally doomed to failure, ignore that, too. This lousy commentary comes from the pitiful sad sacks who are just bitter that they didn’t change the world. But there are plenty of people out there just like me who believe you hold a tremendous amount of promise. Believe us when we say you are our beautiful future.

Above all, sweep yourself off your own feet. Fall in love with you. Once you do, you’ll be able to spot the impostors.