Dear 20-year-old self,
I remember the day you knocked on the door of the artist. You were a college student, and you were taking a child language acquisition course. When the professor had given the assignment to find a child to observe, you asked, “How do I find a child?” The people you knew were little older than children themselves, and you didn’t know anything about your professors’ private lives. Your linguistics professor hooked you up with a family visiting from Great Britain, a psychologist, his artist wife, and their baby.
You were uncomfortable meeting new people. You never told anyone that—it seemed so stupid that even having to make a phone call to a stranger made you break out in a cold sweat. You’d never learned how to ask for help, and always felt like there were rules that you didn’t understand.
In response to this disconnected feeling you had, you armed yourself against the world. You wore unconventional clothing and got “half a haircut”—long on one side, short on the other. You conveyed a clear message that you were angry, unapproachable. After you broke up with a boyfriend, he told you never to stop being disgusted with the way things are—that, he said, is your best quality. (Good job breaking up with him, by the way!)
Like many 20-year-olds, you had spent your last few years at war with your own body. You knew you could never measure up. Other girls responded with anorexia or bullying other girls; you responded with an avoidance of anything that could be called “pretty.”
Though many other experiences have faded from your memory, the time you spent at the artist’s house with her baby has not. The little girl was adorable. Her favorite word was “PUSH!”, which she would say with great relish when she opened a door.
At one of your visits, you wore a ripped t-shirt that said “Bauhaus,” the name of your favorite band. The artist asked if she could paint your portrait wearing that shirt. She was probably intrigued with the ironic juxtaposition between the art movement and the modern angry girl. You thought that sitting for an artist would be a weird thing to do, and you were interested in collecting weird experiences.
That portrait ended up capturing you in greater detail than any of the photographs of that time possibly could. Not just the visible details are there, but the stubborn, set look on the face, the tense hand, the makeup like armor.
Oh, 20-year-old self, I wish I could go back and answer the questions you never knew to ask. I wish I could tell you that it would all come out OK in the end. You’d learn that life happens easier when you approach new experiences with a smile. You’d learn that your physical self was just about as perfect as it would ever get, so you should enjoy it while it lasts. You’d learn to treasure kindness as an attribute both to nurture in yourself and to seek in friends.
Of course, I know that even if I had a time machine and could go back and say these things, there’s no knowing if you’d listen, or more importantly, understand. We live in a culture that worships youth, but I have to admit that if I had to stick at one age forever, I’d choose now over then. I have in no way achieved the perfection that you thought you could force yourself into, but that doesn’t matter anymore.
After all that effort, I just had to give up and be myself, for better and for worse.