It’s September 2nd, 2003.
I am exactly 14 years, 10 months, and 13 days old. It’s after 11 pm on the night before I am supposed to start high school. Anxiety is coursing through my veins, though it’s not until I am well into my graduate school studies that I really understand the weight of what that means. I am in the bottom bunk of the bed I used to share with my brother, but for tonight, we are both laying horizontally, legs hanging slightly off the side of the bed. He is exactly 9 years, 3 months, and 7 days old. It’ll be years before he and I will ever have a relationship beyond basic sibling rivalry and yelling, kicking, and hitting each other. But for tonight, we silently agree: life, as we know it, is about to change. The chunky green screen Nokia cell phone that my dad left me with for the night rings, breaking up any chance at restful sleep. On the other end of the phone is my dad’s voice telling us that our baby sister was born, making her entrance into the world at 10:48 pm. We acknowledge the news and drift off into sleep, not quite grasping the significance of that night.
There will always be events that stand as markers of time — a life before and a life after.
That night, for me, was the beginning of the after.
It’s September 5, 2017.
I will be 29 years old next month and my brother is 23 years old. We often reminisce about that night and how strange it was that we still remember so vividly sleeping with our legs hanging off the bed, my dads old cell phone stuck between the top bunk mattress and the rung of the bed. We retold the story three nights ago on my sister’s birthday.
Tomorrow, my sister starts high school.
It’s hard to believe that it’s been a little over 14 years since my brother and I laid in that bed, wondering what it would be like to have a sibling so much younger than us. It’s hard to believe that it’s now that little baby’s turn to transition into high school, and that my brother and I are both adults — so far removed from those two little kids we were 14 years ago. It’s hard to wrap my head around the thought of that little girl that I used to watch scoot around the house, the little baby who started running long before she started crawling, the toddler who turned four the day after I moved away to college, who drew me pictures and sent them to me for me to string all around my dorm, the kindergartner who asked me to come to her Christmas party to help decorate cookies, the 8 year old who gave me a toothy grin as we stood in line in the dead of November to meet musicians she loved after her first concert ever, the now teenager who graduated 8th grade with all honors, the bright, resilient, beautiful, sassy, funny, and kind-hearted little girl that I will always call my baby sister will be a high schooler as of tomorrow morning.
There have been so many moments over the last 14 years, where I look at my sister and think, my God, this world is going to break her. Life is going to hurt her. There have been so many times where I wanted to put her in bubble wrap and protect her from all of the hard stuff. But I’ll never be able to protect her from the things she has to go through. So instead, I’ve always tried to be an echo that whispers all of the things I want her to know, with the hopes that what I tell her sticks. And that, in some ways, the lessons I share with her act as metaphorical bubble wrap in a world that will do its best to knock you over.
This list is for my baby sister. It’s a compilation of advice, wisdom, and lessons that I was told, but never really heard– things I wish I knew then, and words that I want her to carry with her these next four years.
I don’t know much about the world, but this much I know is true:
1. Please do not walk around carrying the weight of a heavy scarlet letter branded across your chest. Do not wear your skin stained with the bright red ink of apology, and the fainted whisper of, “I’m sorry” rolling off your lips so effortlessly. Know that the things you should apologize for are the things that you are genuinely sorry about — like accidentally cutting someone off in the lunch line, or knocking someone’s book off their desk, or unknowingly taking someone’s seat. You do not need to apologize for the way your hair falls in front of your face, or how loud you laugh when something is really funny, or how you choose to get over something or someone that hurt you. You do not ever need to take a hammer in one hand and a chisel in the other and carve away bits and pieces of yourself to fit into the mold of what the world around you is expecting you to be.
2. I hate to quote Bieber, but he hit the nail on the head when he sang the line, “You should go and love yourself.” There are going to be days when you feel ugly. There will be days when you decide you want to chop off all the hair you have, or style it a different way. For me, it was deciding to get a perm when I was 15, and years later, getting a bob hair cut. [Note: please do not ever get a perm. Or a bob.] There are going to be days where you won’t leave the house without painting a full face of makeup on. There will be days when the clothes that you liked just yesterday won’t fit the way they used to. And there will be people, myself included, that will tell you you are beautiful. That will tell you that you are smart, and funny, and kind, and caring. But people will never love you any more than you love yourself. It’s a hard truth that I still grapple with at my age. You can fill your closet with the cutest clothes, and your makeup bag with everything under the sun in Sephora, and you can fill your time with friends, but none of that stuff will ever fill you in the same way that self-love fills you. Bring self-love with you wherever you go. Or, as Mariah Fenton Gladis says, Arrive Already Loved. I promise you it will carry you further than any makeup pallete or pair of ripped jeans ever will.
3. You will never feel good having shallow people in your life. Gossip might be funny and drama might feed your little teenage soul, but none of those things will crawl into your bed at night and tell you that you are loved, that you are a good person, and that you are deserving of having good people in your life, no matter how much hate and vitriol those people spew from their mouths. Do not allow yourself to be dictated by conversations surrounded by gossip. Do not let yourself feed into the friendships that sit around scrolling through social media mocking selfies-gone-wrong, or outfits that don’t match. You, my dear, sweet sister, are not made for anything shallow. You are made to be deep. So, look for the friendships that add depth into your life. Look for the kind of people who ask you how you are and really mean it. Look for the people who cheer you on, who cry when you cry, and who laugh when you laugh. Look for those people who tell you when you’re wrong without shaming you for being wrong. Look for the kind of people who know what kind of day you are having just by the sound of your voice, and who know what kind of ice cream you want just by the look on your face. Look for the people who make you feel good, and loved, and seen — the ones you can be wholly and fully yourself around.
4. Never believe a boy when he tells you that he will leave his girlfriend for you. You are strong, but you are not strong enough to turn a bad boy into a good boy. You are worth more than someone’s second option. You are worth more than someone who is willing to leave one good thing and get the next good thing that fell in his lap. There will one day be a boy that stumbles into your life without any strings attached [just let me know ahead of time when this happens so I can schedule a panic attack], and he will respect you and only have eyes for you. Wait for him.
5. There is not one single class in the next four years that will teach you how to say goodbye, though I wish that was a pre-requisite for adolescence. People will come into your life and leave silently in the night. Others will stay for a season, and lucky for you, some will stay for the long haul. But, there is no way of telling who will stay. Goodbyes are painful, and heartbreaking, and devastating, but, like most things, they’re inevitable and unavoidable. There aren’t enough eloquent words to talk about how much it hurts closing the door on some relationships and how much it stings to see friendships fading away, or how hard it is to have your heart broken. But if there is an upside to having to say goodbye to the people that leave, it’s the comfort in knowing that at one time, that person loved you and you loved them right back. And sometimes love doesn’t last forever. Sometimes love just isn’t enough.
6. There is still something very sacred about face-to-face interactions, though your generation grew up on technology. But, no matter how advanced we get in this technologically driven world, please pick up the phone not only to text, or to tweet, or to Snap, or to Instagram a selfie. Please pick up the phone to hear a voice on the other end of the line. Make plans to meet people face to face. Have conversations — the hard ones about deep things, about your dreams and goals and hopes for life — in person. When I was your age, my friends and I always ran to the beach late at night and sat on the swings dreaming about what our lives would turn out to be like. All these years later, I don’t think those conversations would have such a permanent place in my heart or such a profound meaning if they were had in a group chat over text. Please unplug from time to time. Put your phone down. Turn it off. Leave it home.
7. You do not need to have it all figured out. Repeat after me: I do not need to have everything all figured out. There are some people who know at a young age what kind of career they want for themselves, and then there are other people just trying to figure out what it is that they like. Please don’t worry if you don’t know what college you want to go to or what kind of career you want to pursue. Figure out what moves you. Figure out what ignites a spark in your soul. Figure out what your heart is passionate about. And once you do, all that career and future planning will fall into place.
8. Write things down, whether it be a diary, or a gratitude journal, or just a short sentence or blurb of the days events. Ten years from now, you are not going to remember specifically what you are feeling or why. But, it’s nice to be able to reflect on the things you experienced and the way you felt and say to yourself, I made it through that even when I thought I never would.
9. Slow down. Life goes by fast enough. One day, I am 14 years old and getting news of my little sister being born, and in the blink of an eye, that same sister is 14 years old awaiting her first day of high school. Adults will tell you all the time to pay attention, to take things in, to never miss a beat, to never take for granted the time you have here. Well-meaning adults told me that a million times when I was your age. Back then, it all sounded a lot like noise. Today, in retrospect, it sounds a lot like advice I wish I would have heeded at a young age. The truth is life does happen in the blink of an eye without you even trying, so don’t try so hard to rush this growing up thing. Life does that all on its own.
10. You were beautiful long before he ever told you so. This goes back to #4. There is going to be a day that, [if I had it my way, this day would come later rather than sooner] you become enamored by a boy. You will fall for his charm, you will fall for the way he says your name. You will fall for the way his eyes glisten in the sun, and the way he talks about the things he wants from his life. Your heart will flutter the first time he calls you beautiful. Your heart will sing the first time you fall in love. But if that boy hurts you, if that boy stops being the sun in your sky, if that boy stops being the one who makes you feel like you are the center of the universe, please remember: you were beautiful long before he ever told you so. And you will love again.
11. Ask for help. If you find yourself unable to fall asleep at night, covered in sweat and crippling fear, ask for help. If you have trouble getting out of bed, or have little motivation for the things you once loved, ask for help. If you need a little extra support, some encouragement, or for someone to listen to you and actually hear you, ask for help.
12. You are going to feel like everything is the end of the world. I promise you it’s not. Friends are going to betray you. And the proverbial knife they are going to stab you in the back with will sting more so than if a boy rejects you. You are going to feel like you aren’t good enough — like nothing you do is of importance. There are going to be days you will want to throw in the towel — days where you’ve had enough. You are going to feel like the smallest cut or scrape is a deep wound. I promise you that these things pass. The world keeps on moving. The things that sting so much now will be the things that have very little significance in the future. Life doesn’t stop here.
13. Piggy-backing off of #12. Listen to the song. “It’s Only Life” by Kate Voegele. Live by those lyrics. After all, it really is only life.
14. Your voice matters. Your voice matters. Your voice matters. Saying it three times for emphasis. You have a voice. You have opinions. You have thoughts. All of those matter. Do not ever allow yourself to be silenced by the people in this world that are too insecure to hear the opinion of a 14 year old. Do not let anyone tell you that your opinion doesn’t matter, or that you are too young to care, too young to have choices, too young to be heard. If you believe in something fiercely, no matter how much the world around you is telling you that you are wrong, speak up.
15. Know that it’s okay to be at home on a Friday night watching Netflix in a dimly lit bedroom. There might be nights that this makes you feel like there is something catastrophically wrong with you. You’re going to wonder why there are parties going on and football games to attend, but you’re in your room on a Friday night indulging in your latest binge TV show. You’re going to feel that uncomfortable pang in your stomach that urges you to change. Change what your Friday routine is. Change what you believe in. Change the way you spend your free time. Change to fit in with what everyone considers normal. It is okay to spend your Friday nights alone. It is okay to say no to parties if there will be people doing things you are not comfortable with. It’s okay to not fit in with whatever normal happens to be.
16. Know that today, right now, as you are, you are full. You are not full when a boy likes you. You are not full if the popular girls choose you to be a part of them. You are not full if you wear what’s trendy, or if you perfect the winged eye liner look. You are not full if you join the right clubs or if you make high honors. Exactly as you are, exactly as you stand, you are full. The rest is just secondary.
17. Do not leave your friends for a boy. And subsequently, do not stick around waiting for friends who will choose a boy over you. Women need women. Having a group of solid girlfriends that don’t bend or break when a boy steals one of your hearts is so, so important. After all, who’s going to be left standing there when you want to talk about that boy?
18. Grades are not the only important thing about high school, but please, please, care about your grades. Study hard. Do your homework. Ask for extra help if you need it. Apply for National Honor Society if that’s what you want to do. But more than just academics, have fun. Join clubs that are appealing to you. Find out what interests you. Go to football games. Go to dances. Do things you never thought you would. You have four years to figure out what feeds your soul. All of that starts now.
19. Respect your body. I know, I know. Here we go again with the anti-nudes soap box that I will forever stand on. You have one body. One. It is yours. Respect it, nourish it, feed it. There is not one single person on this planet that is deserving of access to your body through Snapchat [or text message]. Trust me when I say you can’t ever get that back.
20. Be kind, always. I could write you a paragraph about how kindness always wins, but I know that it’s sometimes hard to believe with the way the world is today. Sometimes, bullies win. They do. And while there are so many things I wish I could change about this world for you, I still know deep in my heart that having a heart that is kind and loving and compassionate will always trump hate. Always.