16 Things I Wish I’d Known at 16

Photo by RaeAnna Stephens, with permission

an open letter from grandmother to granddaughter

Hello there, self of 1975:

1. You are lucky to be here. Sure, you’ve been through some sad stuff already. Money’s scarce. Your parents have a lot of flaws, but they love you. Not always the way you want them to. They’ll never be exactly who you want them to be. But you will find this is true of everyone you care about. Everyone. At every stage of your life. There is no perfect love. There are no perfect people.

2. Gossiping and criticizing others (in your head or out loud) is a waste of time. The worst thing is that criticism grows inward — you will become hypercritical of yourself, creating more damage than others’ gossip could ever do. Stop it as soon as possible.

3. Replace criticism (and condemnation) with curiosity. Don’t assume malicious motives or feelings. Ask more questions of others and of yourself. Curiosity leads to more information, understanding, and creative ways to solve issues.

4. Life is not a competition, despite what you’re told. The more you focus on what you are drawn to, what makes your mind explode with happiness, excitement, interest, or wonder, the less you will worry about what others think or how good you are in comparison to them. Oscar Wilde said, Be yourself. Everyone else is already taken.

Photo by Jodi Barnes

5. You’ll never be liked by everyone and that’s a lousy goal, anyway. It sounds harsh now, but don’t waste time on other people if you really don’t enjoy their company. Life is short. We never know our expiration date. Save time pursuing your happy mind explosions (see #4), and set aside time for people you want to get to know better and for those you already love. It’s not selfish; it’s wise.

6. Despite what you’ve been taught at church and at school, you are not special or more worthy than anyone else. The paradox you’ll fully realize when you’re well into adulthood? Life itself is a fucking miracle. The fact that life exists; that you were born, that all animals, plants, the very earth we inhabit still evolve despite heaps of neglect and abuse… that is beyond special. It’s sacred.

7. Perfection is a lie. A straight-up Disney myth. The corollary is that you never have to get it right on the first try. No one ever does. And that’s not just ok. That’s brilliant. Take advantage of becoming more skilled through practice.

8. You were born female in 1959 so accept the reality: You will never acquire enough beauty, charm, smarts, savvy or skills to stand on equal ground with a man in this patriarchal system. The worst two things you can do?

a. Believe that you alone can change the system by being excessively good, talented, or persuasive. You need other women and men to help fight that fight. (Also see #5 to make time to find them.)

b. Refuse to buy into patriarchal, racist systems. Don’t grovel to be ‘the best woman’ candidate. Don’t view other women as enemies. Be the best human being you can, which includes standing with and speaking up for others. You have privilege because of your skin and the education you will achieve. It’s paramount to listen and learn, not always lead. Also, do not overdo (see #9).

Photo by Jodi Barnes

9. TAKE CARE OF YOURSELF. This does not mean a spa day. This means take time to sleep. Eat real food (don’t count calories or skip meals when you’re hungry). Take regular walks, ride a bike, do yoga, stretch, dance. Don’t use that hour before midnight to perfect that paper or presentation (see#7). Rest, recharge. Value your own life as much as you value others’ and your need for achievement. You are not what you do. You are not the artifacts you produce. You are a spiritual being housed in a body that requires care.

10. There is more than one person who would make a great life partner. There is more than one shot at a best friend. I know you’re a total romantic, but love isn’t something that happens to you. It’s something that happens because you commit to do it. It’s a verb. It’s hard work. And sometimes divorce is a good thing — especially when you are honest, curious and collaborative (see #3).

11. Don’t be afraid of doing something different. Try it if you find yourself drawn to it. Routine comforts until it begins to rub. Pay attention, explore.

12. Conflict is inevitable; violence and silence are not. I know your discomfort with conflict is real. But if you rid yourself of a few myths (being liked by all #5 and admitting that you’ve confused being good/perfect #7 with an absence of conflict), you will see that avoidance and passive aggressive responses are not good strategies. Instead, ask questions (i.e., #3: what do I want?) and ask the same questions of others (what do you want?) and can we together make things better? How? The risk is that you will be rejected, yelled at. Usually not. Like a muscle, you’ll gain strength and grow leadership skills.

13. Beware the single story of your life. Actually, the many stories you have been told about your temperament as kid that get woven into memories, then memories of memories of memories. You do not dishonor your past when you explore possibilities that look nothing like the child-you. You, like everyone, are a life in progress (see #11).

Photo by JB Maddox, with permission

14. Money is a lousy way to measure happiness. It may be the absolute worst way. You need a basic level in order to meet basic needs. Beyond that? Acquiring stuff equals paying for the space and care of said stuff. You will make an annual income of $1500 and $150000 within the same decade, so believe me, don’t follow the money; follow the meaning in your work.

15. Doubt and faith are both important. Not knowing if there is a god and refusing to believe in one who would send billions of people to hell is an honest place to be. Pushing back on the notion that one is good or evil. You will wrestle with religion and try to hide this struggle for decades. Don’t buy into others’ fears and try to understand that they believe it’s their duty to save you from the lake of fire. Your devotion to love, peace, empathy, justice, and human welfare is a fine faith that fits you.

16. Always make kindness your default. Especially when you are stressed, in conflict, or extending yourself to the brink of resentment. If you can’t be kind, ask yourself what kindness you need. More sleep? A little solitude? A friend who will listen? Some food? (See #9… it may be the most important one of all.)

With love — JoJo

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