To my sixteen-year-old self.

Dear 16-year-old-Allegra,

Hey. Take off your headphones and stop listening to your punk-pop for a sec. It’s older-and-wiser you, and I’ve got some things to say.

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See? I’m totally legit. Eventually you master the doe-eyed stare without looking like a zombie, I promise.

You’re at a pivotal moment in your life when you’re starting to plan for your future. It is scary as hell. You’re going through this identity crisis and you keep claiming that you’re trying to “find yourself”—a worthy goal!—but you are losing track of the things you love and hold dear in the process.

You are all in flux, so I am here to offer some assurance—and some friendly, big-sisterly advice on a whole host of topics :] First up…

The people around you.
In six years, you will be able to count the people from high school you regularly keep in touch with on both hands. I know that you are frustrated with everyone calling you an angry feminist and nobody understanding why you are so committed to the things that are important to you, but you’ve got to recognize that the things they love are no less important. You need to seek out the best in people, rather than simply writing them off as shallow or unenlightened because they do not like the things that you do.

You are very much an island, and that all will change when you move away to school. You know that girl who sits next to you in economics class, Ashley? The one who’s always very happy and giggly and you think is airheaded and boring?

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This is the two of you in five years. This girl will change your life. She will be a friend for you and a shoulder to cry on when you move away for college. She will travel to London with you in 2011, and watch over you when you’re thousands of miles from home. She will introduce you to other folks whom you wouldn’t have considered befriending either, and they will keep you well-loved and well-fed and well-cared for. You spent all that time rolling your eyes at her, and at so many other people, in high school—but you were wrong.

You can find friends—great, irreplaceable friends—in the most seemingly unlikely of people. You claim to have such an open-minded philosophy, so live it!

Your family.

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Relationships with your family are tough. You feel like they don’t understand you, and they probably don’t because it’s been a while since they were 16 years old and their hormones were a-raging. Interactions are particularly tough with your dad, because you feel like he puts a lot of pressure on you and doesn’t appreciate and share in your little successes.

It will take most of your first year of college before you realize that your parents have raised you in a way entirely antithetical to many of the teenagers surrounding you, and that that was actually a good thing. Because your dad never let you miss a homework assignment, you will have cultivated a conscience that will not let you accept failure as an option. Because of this work ethic, you will be able to achieve things above and beyond what you ever could have conceived of in high school.

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You and your dad bash heads so much because you are cut from the same cloth. You are similarly minded in that you are crafty and stubborn and have the memory of an elephant—you never forget. Instead of being angry when you run into confrontation, why not seek out commonalities? And your mom is an individual whom you should always strive to emulate, because she is giving of herself and her time and her talents in ways that are unparalleled. It is their work that has made you into the individual you are today: you are an amalgamation of all those who came before you. Honor that lineage.

Boys.
Man, you have dated a whole bunch of losers lately. You have dated, and will continue to date boys—not men—who will either push at your boundaries, or try to draw boundaries to confine you. Both kinds suck a lot.

Remember that guy who wanted you to compromise on what you were willing to do in bed? Remember that other one who told you that you were definitely going to hell for your desires and beliefs? Neither of them had any right to do that, but you lived and you learned after the dusts of the breakups settled. Now you know that nobody should seek to change you: to want to do so is to do violence to your identity.

Sixteen-year-old Allegra, you do not need to define yourself in relation to how others treat you. To feel the need to attach yourself to another person to find self worth is to be insecure with your body, your mind, and your spirit. You are your own entity: independent and mighty. In the words of Shakespeare: “though she be but little, she is fierce!”

And because you are so fierce, and so important, I need to tell you one more thing: you should never make someone your priority when you are merely an option for them. Relationships are most fruitful, most comforting, most successful when they are equitable—that is, when the two parties involved give and take equally. Your partner should value your talents and show appreciation for them accordingly, and they too should have opportunities to share what they love with you (whether that’s playing the guitar, or running marathons, or playing full costume Dungeons & Dragons, or…). They should value you, and communicate that value verbally and often—and if you don’t want to do the same for them, then they are not worth your time. Period.

Your mental health.
At this point in your life, you know in your heart that something is wrong with you. You are beleaguered by chronic feelings of depression and anxiety (even though you do not have names to call these feelings by, you feel them no less poignantly). I have good news and I have bad news about those feelings of terror and hopelessness that you have been getting every couple of months since you turned fourteen.

The good news is that there’s gonna come a day when you feel better. In fact, there will come days when you feel great.

The bad news is that before that day comes when you feel better, there will be many days that come when you feel worse.

In fact, you will feel so terrible that you will want to die. Do you think you are emotionally volatile now? You will hit twenty years old and all of a sudden your body will not be able to contain the heaviness of your soul or your anxieties about your future anymore. You will spend days unable to get out of bed. You will spend hours on the floor of your shower, trying to collect yourself and stop weeping before class starts. You will spend an inordinate amount of time eating plain oatmeal, bite by tiny bite, attempting to sustain yourself as your weight drops lower and lower and you retreat inside of your own doubts.

At twenty, you will finally seek the help that you have always needed and deserved. You have never been, and will never be, undeserving of help and of love. After six years of living with a body and a mind that were revolting against you, you will finally seek out that help, and it will save you. You are strong. You are brave. You are tough.

You will go through lots of therapy and medication and mindfulness and meditation. I am sad to say that this darkness will never go away, but your relationship with it will change. It will help you learn to relate to others, and to engage them with empathy.

Empathy is probably the best advice that I have to give you. Be happy, and be kind. You are a deep and pensive and very broody young woman, sixteen-year-old Allegra. You are an old soul, and that is admirable, but just because you don’t want to be childish does not mean that there is not value in being childlike. You should let yourself feel joy when you are joyous, and sadness when you are sad. As the poet Mary Oliver says in “Wild Geese,”

“You only have to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves.”

You have to take care of yourself. You have to give yourself time to laugh and to rest, as well as to study and to work. Learn to let things go, and to say “Enough for now. This is what I can do today, and that is enough.”


And a self-congratulatory note.
You’ve got a lot of hate and pressure in your life right now, so here’s some good stuff. Remember how you’d get picked on so much for being weird and nerdy and a total misfit? Over the next six years, you will…

  • Graduate from MSU (which, contrary to popular belief in 2007, was a much better choice for you than UM) with a 4.0 GPA. Remember how being 36th in high school made you so sad? Last spring you were first in a class of over six thousand students.
  • You’ll also give the commencement address.
  • Michigan State University will also put you on their homecoming court. Seriously. I’m not even making this stuff up. People really like you for some reason…
  • …And then they’ll pay actual money to keep you there for two more years for graduate school. Your life is bananas, really.
  • Travel to so many places and go on so many adventures. You’ll drink margaritas and roam the streets of Mexico, watch Shakespeare in London, climb the Great Wall of China, and more.
  • Publish poems and essays.
  • Make the church, and the world, a more inclusive place for queer, gay, lesbian, bi, and trans* people.
  • Date lots of boys. Like… a ton. And you will feel very fulfilled by this, and you’ll realize that that doesn’t make you a whore! Feminist liberation is very exciting.
  • Finally get the haircut that you tore out of YM magazine when you were ten years old. And it. Looks. Awesome.

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So chin up, 16-year-old Allegra. You’re one smart, tough cookie. I promise that you can and will make your way in this world—and while you will certainly stumble along the way, at least you will have plenty of exciting stories to tell.

Love,
Allegra, Age 22

Allegra graduated in May 2013 with a dual degree in professional writing and gender studies, and is pursuing a master’s in rhetoric and writing. She’s into queer theology, sex theory, and a whole host of other things that are impolite to speak of at the dinner table.
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Restless Life Syndrome.

My ex-boyfriend is a preacher.

He is not my only ex-boyfriend to have established a vocation in ministry—the first had a stint as a Catholic seminarian, but that’s another story for another day—however we remain on good terms and surprisingly theologically compatible.

I surprised him on a Sunday about a month ago, driving 20 minutes off of the freeway to pay a visit to his tiny country church. It’s a freestanding brick sanctuary with five rows of pews and no parking lot, bordered by a cemetery on a hill. You know, the kind of church you see in period pieces on the Civil War or life on the Yorkshire moors.

But, really. This is what it looks like. Photo © billkimandthecats on Flickr.

But, really. This is what it looks like. Photo © ‘billkimandthecats’ on Flickr.

My stories of my ex are typically marked by my characterization of both of us as awkward twenty-somethings, but watching him lead worship was something of a metamorphosis. In front of the congregation, he turned from a bumbling former sweetheart into a silver-tongued orator. Standing at the altar, he presided over the service with grace and good humor.

I resolved that either the pulpit was magic, or—a much more likely explanation—that my friend had truly begun embodying his calling. As Rilke wrote, he had made peace with the unsolved questions of life, and was now “living his way into the answers.”

I listened very carefully to his sermon, and it struck a chord with me. He spoke about how we all have things that hold us back in our lives—personal, professional, spiritual hangups—that keep us from living fully and unreservedly. So many people bury themselves in work or toxic relationships or vices and find themselves stuck. My ex-boyfriend, the preacher, explained that his hangup was quite deceptively simple: inactivity.

It has taken me over a month to write this post. It has been sitting unfinished in the queue since the middle of July while I have watched innumerable episodes of The OC, cooked many a gourmet meal for my housemates and our guests, and read pages upon pages of stupid books that I have no intention of really remembering.

Have I felt like I have done much of anything during these days of watching and cooking and reading and sleeping and sitting and wondering?

No, not really.

For me, this has been a summer of inactivity, and it has made me feel small and fruitless. I have become mired in my idleness, and it in turn has rendered me restless and tense. It is a funny thing how overworking and underworking can beget the same results. It is another funny thing that folks from your past can pop back into your life at exactly the opportune moment to teach you these life lessons, and force you to recognize that you do in fact need a vacation from your vacation.

Today I started my first year of graduate school, eager to break my cycle of sluggishness. I read ahead. I ate a good breakfast. I picked out my clothes and put on my makeup and did my hair. And I went to class and I had more fun than I had experienced in weeks because I was so excited to have something to do. I was excited! You should do things that excite you, because sloth (and its accompanying friends, doubt and discontent) is a parasite that will otherwise feast on your dwindling motivation.

Side note: Okay, my new house was also infested with fleas when I moved into it at the beginning of the month, so that’s a thing too. Have you ever faced a flea infestation? They are soulless bastards, and I have found sadistic delight in drowning them one by one as I encounter them.

This wasn’t the cheeriest of posts, which was one of the many reasons why I was reluctant to ever publish it. I’m feeling much happier now that I have meetings and classes to vary my days with, as well as the words of an old friend to think about whenever I start to feel the old lethargy creeping in.

Maybe I should take long Sunday drives more often.

Allegra graduated in May 2013 with a dual degree in professional writing and gender studies, and is pursuing a master’s in rhetoric and writing. She’s into queer theology, sex theory, and a whole host of other things that are impolite to speak of at the dinner table.