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Open Letter to Patti Smith, Day 11

Sometimes the people you grow up with become porn stars, which you don’t find out until one day at your government job, their name pops into your head, so you find their website with a search engine, flaring red when you see the life-sized picture of their privates. Or they grow up to be be gangster molls/drug mules, which you find out one afternoon over a rainy lunch in Georgetown, your former gangster moll/drug mule friend having gone into early menopause because of cancer. Sometimes they don’t grow up at all because of leukemia and they are the first dead body you see, after your seventh-grade self stops by the house of your friend who lives near the McDonald’s to raid her parents’ liquor cabinet for a few sips of whatever’s in the bottles before you traipse to the funeral home with the rest of your school.

I grew up expecting to be nothing. Not actually nothing, but I expected life would just happen to me the way it always happened to me. That is, life would act, I would react, and we’d continue this tango till whatever happened next. At 18, I imagined—as I told a college professor who asked—that in my future there was a house with an eat-in kitchen with me at the table working on a filmscript and chocolate chip cookies in the oven and my kids and the neighborhood kids running in and out. I’ve only recently realized that I never got as far as picturing the husband in that scenario. Only the cookies and the table and the kids and the script, which I was working on by hand because that’s the place I always returned to.

My father said once I was so smart I could have been anything I wanted, even a lawyer. There was no pride in his voice, or regret, it was just something he said, like reporting the weather. He also said that I was too smart to be as fat as I was.

My mother’s dreams for me went as far as her not wanting to be embarrassed by me. By what I was wearing. By how loud my laughter was. By her being not late for church but late for how early she wanted to be at church because I was getting dressed too slowly, three-quarters asleep after weeks of late nights and the opening night performance of the shows she never went to see even if I had a lead and the cast party and her insistence that God didn’t care about my excuses for why I should not go to church.

I tell the story of how I ended up with the job I have now forgetting immediately after each time that the woman who spoke up and badgered her bosses and did extra research and planted seeds with whoever she could to get what she wanted—to be a full-time writer, to work with social media—was me. I did not see this future for myself. I saw a secretary who wrote poems and maxed our her credit cards to go visit a college friend once a year and buy fancy cocktails for a week before returning to answering phones.

I didn’t know that I could see talking to Kerry Washington on the phone one Saturday morning as I stood in my kitchen beaming and trying to remain professional. Things like that didn’t happen to girls like me, girls to whom life just happened. Things like that still don’t happen to girls like me even though they do actually happen and I’m the only one continually and utterly surprised when they do.

I am trying to grow up now to be the woman I never expected, the woman who didn’t seem inevitable but who I’m learning to call into existence. I am growing now into the woman I never expected, the woman who didn’t seem inevitable but who I’m learning to call into existence. I am calling the woman I am into existence.

 

Open Letter to Patti Smith, Day Two

I go overboard.

Twenty-seven years ago I watched a production of Terence McNally’s Frankie and Johnnie at the Claire de Lune night after night recognizing myself in the moment Johnnie admitted, “I hold on to new things too hard…” the same way I recognized myself in Jane Eyre hiding in the library from the anger and meanness of the house where she lived.

I fling myself headfirst into the joy of a new friend, my admiration boundless, relentless. It’s something to do with how I haven’t yet unlearned what always seemed to be true: that nothing good lasts. Not because all things good and bad end, as I now know they do, but because I fervently believed (I fervently had to believe) that there was something slippery and dark in me that didn’t deserve to hold onto people or to have people hold onto me. I know differently now yet feel the same as then.

 

I forget I have more of value to give of myself than just devotion, that I don’t have to earn my way into getting someone to stick around. I forget that it is not a question of whether or not I deserve to be liked, much less loved. I forget that I should pause to recognize myself in the moment when Mark Darcy tells Bridget Jones, “I like you just as you are.”

I forget too that there’s nothing wrong with going overboard once no laws are broken, or no bones are broken as I fling myself full-body into whatever my newest affection. Who doesn’t want to be extravagantly admired, at least for a little while? And since I no longer do the thing where I show up at someone’s house as they’re sitting down to dinner and insist on waiting because the joy I feel when I’m near them trumps all common sense…?

I am not saying any of this well and I confess I’m annoyed at myself for feeling that I owe anyone–myself included–an explanation. Sometimes I just want to feel–wildly, boundlessly–without wondering, “Too much? Too much?”  I don’t expect to be entirely free of everything that was broken in childhood. Why would I want to be when it’s the broken bits–for better or for worse–that make me who I am? What I do want to be entirely free of is feeling bad when those broken bits surface, especially since these days, at worst, they may cause someone else a paper cut or too, a small price to pay for connection.

I want to hold onto new things too hard, and have that be the exactly right thing to do.

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