Tuesday, July 31, 2018

open letter to my sixth grade self

Dear Cheryl,

This story takes place thirty years from now. Can you believe you'll ever be 41? You sort of almost didn't make it to that birthday, but that's another story. In this one, two board members at the organization you work for are Hillary Toomey. They think of you as a well-intentioned flea who is not great at gala event seating. They're not really concerned with you one way or another, but in their wake you feel small and frumpy and rejected. This is how you feel every day in sixth grade. You are too tall and have bangs that don't cooperate. You make jokes that fall flat. You are gay and trying not to be, because gay is just another way of doing everything wrong.

The Hillary Toomeys of your future like your coworkers, who are Bonnie in this story. Two different coworkers represent Bonnie--both the conscientious, imaginative Bonnie who will be your lifelong friend, and the sixth-grade Bonnie, who is wooed by the opinions and charms of the mean, popular kids. You wish the second Bonnie would have your back a little bit more, but she is muddling through her own insecurities.

If only your hair had looked this cool. (Photo by Annie Spratt via Unsplash)
Thirty years from now, you will wilt, at least initially. You'll cry into your lunch in the park and wonder what the fuck you're doing with your life and why you care about things that aren't on your official list of Things Worth Caring About.

Your therapist will suggest that perhaps you care because all this work drama taps into a younger narrative. Duh. That's what therapy is all about. You will spend five or six years talking about how (spoiler alert, and condolences) your miscarriage reminds you of losing your mom to your baby sister when you were three. It makes no sense. It makes perfect sense. It is something so young that you can only feel it with your body, which might be why you spend months diagnosing yourself with diseases you don't have.

This board member thing, this resurgence of Hillary Toomey, will tap into an older young narrative, one in which you are bowled over by the injustices of adolescent power dynamics, which are also the power dynamics of the world. It feels different. It doesn't live in your body unless you count the months you spend on-and-off binge-eating, which is also a thing you will discover a year from now, when you go on your first diet as a tall, skinny seventh grader who hopes that living on 900 calories a day will make your boobs disappear.

Or, you know, eat what stuffs down your insecurities and allows you to simultaneously reward and punish yourself. (Photo by Jon Tyson via Unsplash)
This is your survival toolbox as a sixth grader: parents who love you, a stable home life, academic ease. Those things aren't nothing. You will hear so many stories, later, of kids in violent neighborhoods with addicted parents who experience some "small" social slight--the nice family next door pretending not to be home so the kid wouldn't crash their dinner once again--and ricochet like a bullet into the nearest gang. These are kids who wanted to be loved and popular just like you. Yet because it's 1988 and you live in Manhattan Beach, you are terrified of them. You have nightmares about gang members waiting for you on your lawn. You have a lawn.

Your survival toolbox as a 41-year-old is even bigger: a family who loves you, a therapist who's been helping you work through this shit for 15 years, friends who say you're a good writer and a good friend. You're dumb sometimes, but you're smart enough to listen to them instead of yourself. You're smart enough to listen to your badass, down-to-earth coworkers, even if you're embarrassed by how much you need their pep talks. You're smart enough not to listen to the Hillary Toomeys, and to know that they and even Hillary Toomey are just an idea, just a projection of their own fears and inner sixth grade selves. Right? You're smart enough to know that, right??

We're all just sad little lava monsters.
Look, it's like the final scene in Moana, which you will watch almost every morning with your son, who says, "I was thinking just one yiddle bit Moana."

Moana sees that Te Ka, the angry lava monster, is actually Te Fiti, the green goddess of island creation. She says "This is not who you are" and Te Ka's fiery bluster fades to ash. She sees Te Fiti inside Te Ka ("the part when Moana is Te Fiti's therapist," as your esposa will describe this scene).

She can only do this because she summons the strength of her grandmother and her ancestors. The part where she sings "I will carry you here in my heart to remind me that come what may, I know the say" gets you every time, right in your green spiral ocean-heart.

In the wise words of Moana, you are everything you've learned and more, Cheryl. You are a nerd and honestly your hair still does weird things, but you are loved. Go get 'em.


Noriko Nakada said...

Love this so much. Moana has taught me so much! And Coco. Embracing the scary darkness. I mean, is Disney my therapist?

Cheryl said...

Seriously, the idea that "villains" aren't inherently evil but are inherently hurting is such an important narrative to put out there. I have seen Moana so many times now, and I'm not tired of it at all. I've only seen Coco twice, but I love it too. Disney has upped its game since our childhoods.

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