To Lili, Age 22

Dear Lili,

I’ve been reading your diaries. I stumbled on that entry on February 13th where you were adamant that you would never sleep with Alasdair again, and then the entry on February 15th when you admitted sleeping with Alasdair the previous night. I think we can both see the humor in that. What made me sad was your detached analysis of your motives, your willingness to admit that he was the antidote to the crippling loneliness you felt that day, that you feel most days.

I remember that time well. You’re under an incredible amount of pressure, mostly self-imposed, to finish your university career with a flourish. You’re living with people you don’t feel close to or particularly comfortable with, and you are failing miserably at maintaining the facade of mental stability. Sorry to break it to you, but it’s not fooling anyone. That being said, nobody is helping either. Your parents have no idea what is happening to their daughter or how to help. Your therapist’s eating disorder is starting to consume (pardon the pun) your sessions, and you’re not sure whether she’s sharing her experiences to try and normalize yours, or whether she’s just losing her grip too. You’re tired all the time, and you think it’s an illness, but it’s probably just severe depression. It’s an awful, awful time for you. You feel crazy. Everything is a trigger. You’ve already spent two years intermittently trying to starve yourself and time your binges to when everyone is out of earshot so that you can force yourself to throw up. It’s bad. It’s really bad.

You write that you feel like two people, you’re not half wrong. You’re growing up, badly I should add. Your rebellious phase is all happening internally, and you’re doing a lot of damage girl. There is a part of you that wants to remain a child, and it is viciously and violently attacking the woman that you can’t help becoming. That’s nature, baby. You can’t avoid it.

I wish I was there to walk you through the next three years, to keep you from tripping over the life you’re inheriting. Of course, if I did you wouldn’t end up where I am now. If you looked at me you’d be disappointed because I’m not 110lbs and I’m still getting coffee for people. However, I’m financially independent, I’m in a loving relationship, and I can’t even remember the last time I binged or tried to starve myself. In other words, I’m on the other side. That person you don’t recognize in the mirror, that’s me. That’s us. We did it. Everything else is just an added bonus from here on out.

Just know that your life will be yours again, and this disgusting, petty disease will eventually be tamed. You’ll end up sleeping with a few more Alasdairs, but company is company, and you should always be grateful for someone who was willing to be the person you needed in the moment you needed them.

Love Lili,
Age 26

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To The People Who Show Up

the racesDear Friends,

This is a thank you letter.

For years I would count backwards. “Who isn’t here?”, “Who didn’t respond?”, “Who didn’t understand, invest in, thank, appreciate me?” I used a complex formula of value assigned to each person which I multiplied by the frequency of their disappointing behavior, divided by excuses for their absence, subtracted my own failings, and then I added four. I may have based it off some sort of conversion from Fahrenheit to Celsius. Regardless, I would obsess over the numbers, get buried in fractions of relationships, it was all a mess. And then I learned how to count, what to count, operated in real, whole numbers. One, two, three, four. Who shows up?

Showing up means responding to a need not a want. It means when you experience joy that has to be shared, or disappointment that can’t be borne alone, you know who to call. When you fight with your Mom, who is the person whose house you run to? When you get your heart broken, who will sit on your couch to keep you company while you cry? Who do you call for advice? Who rescues you when you’ve bought too many groceries and can’t get them home?  Who keeps in touch? Who takes you for your driving test three times without blinking? Who sends you thank you cards, birthday cards, or letters? Who do you trust implicitly? Those are the people who show up.

Showing up is not about volume. It’s not about attending every party or answering every phone call. Showing up is a shit-hits-the-fan, balls to the wall, ride-or-die attitude. Who do I want to fight alongside in the Zombie Apocalypse? To those people, my sincerest and deepest thanks. I love you, and I appreciate you. You get  unrestricted access to my time, my care, my home, my respect. I’ll run down the street like lightening or fly half-way across the world for you, no questions asked.

Love Lili

To Lili, Age almost 19

Age 19

Hey Girl,

I read a letter you wrote to Davey not so long ago. I don’t know if you sent it, that it isn’t important. I was struck by how similar we still are. You already had a level of introspection that would surprise people. Right now you’re finishing your first year of university, you’re making plans to go to Turin, and it feels like the ground is moving in two separate directions. Everything is scary. I do not envy you. I really don’t.

I’m turing 25 in a few days, and I wanted to let you know that we’re not there yet. Home is still an abstract concept. I can’t describe what we do on a business card. Relationships just get worse. The reason I’m telling you this, is so that you’re a little kinder to yourself on the way here. You move so fast you’ve stopped enjoying where you are. And you’ve come so far that you feel stranded. You’re going to feel that way in six years too. It sucks, but maybe knowing that you’re not successful yet will relieve some of the burden you feel to prove yourself to the world. You’re driven, and I hope that never changes, but the way you define success has been perverted. You have a habit of modeling yourself after others, picking out qualities you admire and imitating them. It’s a vicious cycle. The more you change parts of yourself “for the better”, the less you’ll recognize that patchwork doll in the mirror, and you’ll just punish her for failing you. It’s only because you see the best in people that you feel like you’ll never measure up to them. But forget that. Measure yourself against me. Measure yourself against Lili, Age 16. Those are the only people you need to prove yourself to. And you’ll get there honey. You will. Just ask Lili, Age 33.

Your natural gifts and passions are enough. More than enough. Trust yourself, and be selective about the support you accept from others. Take the ladder, not the crutch. Be grateful for your moments. Take stock of what you have, not what you want. Above all, don’t think so much about the future. Let me worry about that.

You’re a firecracker kid. Enjoy it, and study your verbs.

Love Lili, Age almost 25

To The Tribe

Dear Family,

It worked. I thought I was above the hype, beyond impressionability. I thought I’d travel as I always have and return as I have always been. I rejected the notion of fast friendships and profound experiences before I even arrived at the airport. It wasn’t going to be me. I wasn’t a rube, I know nothing is free. Ten days of sleep deprivation and high school flashbacks passed, and I drank the Kool-Aid. I didn’t realize I was thirsting to identify with something, parched for a sense of belonging in a profound and meaningful way.

This whole experience has forced me to confront my deepest insecurity, a deeply rooted remnant of my earliest school days where I struggled and failed to be accepted by my peers. I wanted you all to like me. I wanted you to accept me. But I didn’t want to ask for it, work for it, risk not getting it. I didn’t want anyone to know how much it meant to me. I couldn’t even admit it to myself. I let myself stay separate from most of you, make assumptions about who you were and what you valued, found reasons not to participate, allowed myself to feel awkward and stick to socializing on a one-on-one basis. I’ve spent much of my life trying to stand out by standing alone.

Even now, as I write, I’m resistant to talking about this experience. I start to think about my friends who haven’t had the opportunity to participate in a trip like this, and that they’ll laugh at me for being so moved by it. I imagine how the affection we feel for each other could quickly dissipate once we return to our old lives, and that these words will seem sappy and naive. Or, perhaps you’ll think I’m insincere. That I realized I was late to the party and am trying to cultivate a sense of belonging. A sort of deathbed conversion to Taglit. But the outpouring of affection everyone has expressed for each other in our final days together softened me, and the genuine intentions to stay in touch and continue to build on the friendships we’ve cultivated has inspired me.

Those who haven’t had the good fortune to have participated on Birthright just can’t understand why we’re all so overwhelmed by the experience. Everything gets taken away from you in this trip. You have no personal space, no control over when you eat, when you rest, where you go or how you spend your time there. You’re deprived of sleep and over-stimulated by the beauty of the landscape and the history of a people you can’t help but feel connected to. Everything you associate with real life is stripped away, and all that’s left is the people you’re scrambling up a snake trail with and sleeping on top of. We formed our own little tribe; there were bands within it, but loyalties throughout it. We’re thrown together and suddenly the experience ends. It’s jarring, we’ve all felt that, especially me as I transition back into my solitary reality.

But, happily, I know something has changed. Despite my reluctance to participate and to share myself I’ve come away feeling listened to and encouraged. I feel accepted for where I am in my life and what I’m choosing to do with it. I am excited to cultivate the friendships I’ve formed, and grateful to have the time to get to know others of you better. I realized how important it is to me to feel like I’m part of something, and that the fears I had were from another time. I’m confident that from this point forward I’ll be a participant, not an observer. I’m thankful for what all of you have taught me, and look forward to sharing more experiences with all of you in the future.

All my love,

Lili

To The Emperor’s Cheering Crowd

Dear Cheering Crowd,

I want to talk to you about something. I want to talk about self-confidence. I found some the other day and wore it like a hat. It was all very exciting, but I thought it would last longer. It was that crappy kind of self-confidence. The low quality kind of self-confidence. It’s H&M quality confidence. You know what I’m talking about. You get it, it looks great, feels pretty decent, then falls apart. So then you’ve just got the same old stuff to sort through, and it doesn’t make you feel particularly attractive, or special. It makes you feel like a slob. And then you hide inside a big sweater with a hole in the elbow that desperately needs to be washed because last time you wore it you spilled melted sorbet on yourself. Why melted sorbet? Was it because you were savoring it? No, it’s because it was too cold to eat sorbet so you melted it into sugar soup and drank it. That was really attractive. Good thing you spend so much time alone.

So, with these shreds of self-confidence being totally unusable, you do the whole Emperor’s New Clothes schtick. You pretend you’re wearing your self-confidence but you’re metaphorically naked.You try and cover up with the closest thing you have to leopard print and hope to jesus that people think it’s either cool or ironic. You go out, you make self-deprecating noises which are as close to an honest conversation as you can get, and then you smile until you can go to bed. When you wake up you eat the left over mac and cheese that you showed everyone pictures of the night before. Does anyone really care about mac and cheese? No. Did you need to flaunt your culinary prowess? Yes, because without that reaffirmation that you have desirable qualities you might crumble like that Stilton you used… badly. And, in the end, people look up from the pictures you’re distracting them with and see that you’re naked. You’re naked and wishing you had melted sorbet to warm you up.

And the worst part about all of it was that it kind of works. You got attention, and that was nice. But was it the attention you want? Probs not. Was it from that dwindling number of people that you actually want to think you’re fantastic? Hells to the no. So you come to resent the people who aren’t compassionately telling you to shut up. You’re hopping around and waiting for someone to point to you and say “have some self-respect and put some damn clothes on.” Even people you admire don’t say anything. Even if they did you’d brush it off because nobody’s going to argue with you. You’ll just insist you’re wearing clothes, or you’ll admit you’re naked and not going to so much as cover it with a fig leaf. And sure, being naked is beautiful. It’s honest. It’s raw. People love that crap. But if you could do it over you’d have only let a few people see you that way. It’s a little late now.

We were talking about self-confidence. Here is what I know. I know there’s a tailored, exquisitely stitched, flattering, modest confidence. I know it’s somewhere, made for me, but how I can afford it is beyond me. And I don’t want help. I don’t want someone to buy it for me. I want to earn it.

A final thought; if you want to earn my respect then don’t compliment me on my tattered rags of an ego. Don’t spare my feelings by averting your eyes when I’ve got nothing on at all. We both know what’s going on. And, really, you think I can’t see what you’re wearing? We can go shopping for confidence together if you want, and maybe get some frozen yoghurt afterwards.

Actually, one more thing. Occasionally I meet someone who makes me feel like I’m wrapped up in the fanciest mink money could by. Warm, secure, and with enough self-worth to buy a small island. I’m sure they don’t have the slightest idea, but I wanted to thank them publicly regardless.

Love Lili

To My Drama Teacher

Dear Mr. Herron,

In my dreams you are the manifestation of all my insecurities. In high school, your form of mentorship involved a lot of threats, public humiliation, and the occasional begrudging compliment. I thought you hated me, and I was desperate for your hard earned approval. I’d never been pushed to be better before, so I had no idea what you were doing. Years later you admitted you saw potential in me, and I finally understood that every stern reprimand was an investment in my future.

And yet, since high school, 99% of my anxiety dreams take place on a stage. We’re mid-performance, I’m backstage, and would you believe it but I can’t find my costume and don’t have a damned clue what my lines are. I don’t even remember rehearsing! You were always on my case about memorizing my lines. I always waited till the last minute. I guess it’s apt. Anyway, normally there is a lot of rushing around, I find a costume that isn’t mine but at the very least isn’t my street clothes, and I get on stage. I start to freak out internally while trying to make sense of the scene. I try to come up with something appropriate when people turn and give me the “it’s your line, Lili” look. It’s mortifying, I wake up exhausted, and I think of you.

Last night I started have the same dream (different show, of course). We were in some sort of musical, and Lauren Buglioli was the lead as always. I was totally lost backstage, but it was coming up to the final number so I figured “Eh, I’ve made it this far, what else is there to do?” I got dressed as best as I could with what I was given and thought I looked pretty cute in it. I couldn’t find my shoes so I wore flip flops. I realized I was supposed to be on stage when good ol’ Lauren gave me the stink eye (again, a remnant of high school anxiety, courtesy of our well-established leading lady). I walked onstage in a line with other characters. I was close to the front, and people were singing. I got the feeling it was my verse, but I had no idea how it went. This time, instead of trying to fake it, I just smiled, bopped along to the music, and let some girl in the back with a faltering voice cover my solo. She knew the words. She was waiting for her chance to shine. And yes, it sounded terrible. If I had known the words I would have sung it so much better, but I didn’t. The funniest thing about it was that I didn’t feel panicked at all. I thought the whole thing was rather amusing. I even remember saying to myself “Ha, this is just like those dreams I used to have!” while totally convinced it was real life. I didn’t give a damn that everyone would be pissed at me later. The audience didn’t really know what happened. The show went on. This dream is no coincidence. I’m kinda doing a two-bit shuffle on the stage of life right now. I guess this means I’m okay with it?

The thing that really gets me about these dreams is the total lack of preparedness I feel every time and the knowledge that it didn’t have to be that way. I think that’s what you were trying to hammer home in your sardonic fashion. I have potential, and I’m wholly unprepared. What I haven’t quite understood is if there was any way for me to be better prepared, or if life is just one big improv and a single curtain call. Should I just bop along, smile, and be okay with it? I don’t know. Regardless, I could really use a mentor like you again. You are one of the only people who told me to cut the crap on a daily basis, and one of the few adults I respected then and now. It means so much to me that you pushed, even when I stubbornly dug my heels into the ground. I needed it. I still need it, now more than ever.

I hope you’re well, and that your students this year know how lucky they are to have you.

Love Lili

2013: The Year of Ass-Kicking

Dear Everyone,

You may have noticed I was about as subtle as wrecking ball last year. That’s because 2012 was The Year of No Bullshit. I made a poster and everything. 2012 was about being honest when it’s inconvenient and uncomfortable. It was about figuring what direction to head in and not make excuses for why I didn’t stick to anything. So, I moved three times. I worked at four different jobs. I said what I thought. I acted abso-freaking nutballs. And, I made a startling discovery that it’s not just me. You’re all a lil’ cray in your own way. And I love you for it, especially when you tell me about it. Makes me feel downright normal.

So, with such a fabulously fun year ending, you may wonder what to expect next. I felt that it was only fair to give you a little heads up that things are going to get rowdy. Oh yeah. 2013 is The Year of Ass-Kicking. That goes for my ass, your ass, that guy’s ass (just look at the closest person to you. I’m talking about them. You let them know their ass is mine). This year is going to take “no bullshit” to another level. It’s going to be a monkey flinging poo of a year. Stinky, messy, eye-catching, and damn freaking effective. 

How is this going to work you may ask? Well, 2012 helped me realize what I want, 2013 is about figuring out how to achieve it without making excuses. I’ve only given myself two objectives this year, and I’m feeling pretty good about holding myself to a higher standard. There’s going to be a lot of yelling, a lot of cursing, and I’m getting a little more aggressive. I’m going to surround myself with people who find joy in being the best version of themselves. I want us all to be at our best, so if I yell at you this year, or push, you’ll know why. 2012 got one foot firmly on the ground, the other one is headed towards an ass near you.

Love Lili

To Lili, age 9

Dear Lili,

I know this is a hard year for you, and if you ever got this letter you’d read it over and over, huddled in the bottom of the supplies cabinet at school munching on saltines. Knowing us, you’d probably show it off to your classmates too. Don’t do that. Even a letter from the future isn’t going to make them like you. I know you want them to know you’re special, that you’re going to be somebody, that you’re worthy of their friendship and so much more. They do know that, but they’re going to keep making your life miserable until you finally leave that school. If I could offer any advice to you I’d say give them a big middle finger when you do.

Lili, things are about to get so much better. It’s going to be another 15 years till you really understand how far you’ve come from that supply cabinet, but when you do you’re going to wonder how you became the luckiest girl in the world. You are going to move around, and meet people who open up your eyes and your heart. You are going to find the most wonderful friends, a few of them will enter your life just one year from today. These people, they’re going to treat you with so much love and compassion. They’re going to wrap their arms around you at midnight when you’re crumpled over in a foreign country, heartbroken, and trying to breath through the tears. They are going to pull you onto the dance floor and sway around with you, making ridiculous faces, and not trying to be even remotely sexy. They’ll visit you no matter how far you move, they’ll rescue you at 2am when you’re stranded and humiliated, and they won’t ask questions on the ride home. You’ll be challenged by them, angered by them, tickled, and kissed by them. You’ll move out of your parents house and watch as they sit on your sofa, drink your wine, and laugh at your jokes. It will be the most complete you’ve ever felt in your life.

I’m only 24, and that might seem old to you, but it’s not when you get here. I wish I could tell you more about how we end up in this house you call your own, and what we’re going to do with our lives, but that uncomfortable feeling of not knowing is important for you to retain. That’s what keeps you moving. That’s what gets you this place in your life where you feel so blessed that if you died tomorrow you’d have no regrets. Right now it might feel too far away, and there are a lot of things we want that haven’t happened yet, but I’m working for you kid. I’m trying to get those dreams to come true. You know the ones I’m talking about. So sit tight, fight back, and don’t be bitter. Everyone gets what they deserve, and you will too.

With all my love,

 

Lili, age 24.

Dear Friend, how are you?

Think about how many times a day you’re asked how you are, and how many times you respond truthfully. I can’t say for certain, but I imagine that you, like me, rarely answer anything less positive than “fine.” “Fine” is the closest I can get to saying how I really feel, which is “not fine.” Do I want the barista to know I’m not fine as they hand me my coffee? Do I want my classmate to feel obligated to delve into my personal life? Do I want you to take it upon yourself to cheer me up? No. So I say I’m fine. I would say “I feel crappy” if I thought it would get the same nod and smile that “Good thanks” receives. Nobody asks “why” when you say you’re happy, they only ask “why” when you say you’re not.

I’m not ashamed of the fact that I’m not okay all the time, I’m reluctant to talk about it because everyone reacts like there is something wrong with me. I’m pretty sure I’m the only person in the world to be freaking out because I don’t understand how the world is working around me. If you think about it, if you’re really honest with yourself, do you have any idea what the hell is going on half the time? Are you confident in your choices? Do you feel in control? Now ask yourself, how are you doing? If the answer isn’t “fine”, well, that’s okay. I don’t think I’d have been so unhappy for so long if I had known that it is natural to be confused, to make mistakes, to be stumbling over myself while I navigate the four-thousand forks in the road of my life. Maybe if we were comfortable admitting that to ourselves and each other it wouldn’t feel so bad to feel bad. Maybe we wouldn’t look for comfort in things if we could find solace in friends and lovers. I know I’d have felt a lot better sooner if I had someone who I could be weak in front of without fearing that they’d see me as a weak person.

Writing so openly has made me okay with feeling weak, and in my heart I know I have strength in equal measure. In the same way that we need sadness to understand happiness, we need weakness to understand strength. I write because it makes me feel less separate. I write because I know these experiences are not mine alone. I write because I hope you, my friend, know I understand how you feel even if you’re not willing to share as publicly as I am.

Next time we see each other, let’s just say “It’s good to see you again.” You’ll tell me how you are if you want to, and I’ll do the same. We can talk of things beyond ourselves, and that will be good too. And if you need to be weak, you can be weak with me. I won’t ask questions, but know you can speak freely. I will listen because I understand and I care.

With love,

Lili

To a Friend

Dear Friend,

You are searching my face for signs. A slight nod, a creeping smile, perhaps a hint of sadness or a gleam of enlightenment. Is it validation enough? Have I confirmed that, having been heard, you exist to someone other than yourself? You throw words in my direction, every contact a check mark on a cosmic tally. How we count. And, in counting, estimate our worth.

You have been heard, you have been seen, you have been counted. You are known, your are there, you are. What more do you need from me? I sit with a function not a purpose. I sit not as a person in my own right, but as a confirmation of yours to exist.

And I will be that person for you. And I will be that person for you because, in this way, I exist too. No, not complete, but completing you. Breaking apart into supple fragments, I insert myself into the lives of others. In this way I am never whole. But, in this way, I am never left behind. You can carry me with you, if only as a memory, the person I was for you. And so, I can live a thousand lives and be validated by a million faces that look into yours. I’ve been somebody to somebody. And if you never see me, all the time looking into my eyes, it’s because I’m just a mirror you’re reflecting on.

Sincerely yours.