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A LETTER TO MY 13-YEAR-OLD SELF

Jennifer Mejia

 
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I’d be remiss if I began this “Heart & Soul” post today without thanking all of you for the overwhelming positive response and connection with last week’s “How Jenny Got Her Groove Back” post. I have always been someone who feels things very deeply, both joy and sorrow. For better or for worse. I’m not joking when I recall the days of crying when Frosty the Snowman melted or when the other reindeer poked fun at Rudolph. I was high on empathy then, and I believe it’s only gotten more intense as I’ve aged. Perhaps because through life’s experiences these past 44 years, I’ve learned that real life can be much more painful and challenging than not being invited to join in any reindeer games. I wrote last week’s post because in my heart, I know that too many others have endured pain and are clawing their way back, and that can be a very lonely place and existence. And I’ve always felt like I have a heightened sixth sense—that I can sense things about people, even strangers, that others can’t. 

For these reasons and then some, I felt compelled to share that post, hoping that I might connect with at least one person and that such a connection might help them understand that they really aren’t alone. I got so many comments on the blog, through social media, and even a few private messages, in which individuals felt close enough to me and trusted me enough to share their struggles and experience of working to get their groove back. Hearing their stories helped me. Not in the way that misery loves company, but rather in a way to know others struggle, some more than I have, and they’re making it. So that means I can, too. It also touched my soul to be a trusted confidante, to whom they felt safe to reach out and share parts of their life that hadn’t been shared with many. And although I didn’t write the post with this intention, the end result was that the overwhelming response has boosted my groove for many days to come. Thank you to every single reader, even if you didn’t comment. Thank you for sharing a part of my world and sharing some of yours with me.

For the past few days, I’ve been reflecting on my life. I’ve thought about how much has changed over the years. Some good. Some tragic. A lot has made me stronger. But a lot has challenged my faith and caused feelings of regret. You know that saying, “If only I knew then what I know now”? I started thinking of the things I’d tell my 13-year old self, if I could, after learning so many life lessons over the past 30 years. What are they? you might be wondering. As if you had to guess…I’m going to tell you. 

I’m proud to say that for the past 30 years, my life story tells that I actually “listened’ to much of this advice. But I’m not perfect, and truth be told, there are some things I’d happily do over again—in a very different way—if I had the chance. There are two points to be taken from this post: 1) If you have children of your own, I hope this is food for thought. Disclaimer: I am no parenting expert. I don’t have a Ph.D. And I am far from perfect in my own parenting. But again, those who can’t do, teach. And on some level, I think we all know what’s right for our family, even if we aren’t successful in practicing it every moment of our lives. A reminder never hurts. 2) It’s never too late. So if any of this resonates with you, it’s okay to put it into practice in your own life, even though you’re well past the age of 13. 

I chose the age of 13 because I feel like that’s the age when we, and those around us, start realizing we are no longer a child. And we can understand and make sense of many grown-up topics. But 13 was also an important age for me because it was around that time when I realized that my parents weren’t kidding about spending the rest of their lives apart. I “grew up” pretty quickly, and admittedly, faster than I would have liked. But fortunately for me, my parents and grandparents all set a strong example by the way they lived in the years prior to and after that life-changing event. 

My mother was and is a strong woman. She doesn’t take shit from anyone. She always holds her own. She plows through it all, however difficult. She’s never needed to rely on anyone, and that’s probably where I got most of my groove and the reason I’ve been able to work on getting it back. Her mother, my Nannie Redden, who I’ve blogged about before, was also a strong woman. Although she was born in 1926, at a time when most women might have simply sought to find a man to take care of them, she would have rather died than have that. As a teenager entering puberty, she picked blueberries and sold them to purchase her first bra and then created a pattern to make the rest. She always spoke her mind and took care of herself and her three girls. She never learned to swim as a child, so in her 50s, she took lessons and learned. After my grandfather passed, she didn’t need any help continuing on. She sold her house years later and built and bought another in her 70s. I miss so many things about her but mostly her feisty spirit and the fact that she took pride in caring for herself, even when she reached an age and health where she should have accepted more help. So most of what I’m going to say is about taking care of yourself and standing on your own two feet. Because in the end, it’s up to us. We aren’t entitled to anything. And as an independent woman who was raised by independent women, I can’t think of anything more frustrating than a woman who makes a choice to depend on others, especially if that other is a man, to get through life. So without further ado, in no particular order, a letter to my 13-year-old self…

1.    Learn to cook. This is and isn’t literal. The point is that eating is necessary for survival. And eating healthy is important if we want to hang around on this Earth a little longer. Being able to cook and feed myself and my family, especially my kids, means I can take care of a primary need. But of course, if you have the means to hire someone to cook or order out for healthy meals, that also does the trick. (Let me be clear that it’s ok to have your partner cook. My point is that you should be able to feed yourself and family if it’s up to you in the end.)

2.    Learn how to use a screwdriver and hammer. Again, this isn’t literal, but I’m trying to give you catchy ways to remember this stuff. Life happens and things breaks. Sometimes at 11 pm when no one is around and everything is closed. Learn how to fix things. Learn how to problem solve and remain calm through life’s unexpected curveballs without falling apart and becoming a damsel in distress. As a child, I remember my mom starting up the push lawn mower and cutting the grass herself if my dad was working late and she got sick of looking at an overgrown lawn. The point is, if you want something done, figure out a way to do it yourself, whether that’s actually doing it yourself or knowing the right person to call to fix it. Be resourceful. 

3.    Stay in school. As long as you can. And I don’t mean high school. Statistics exist that link education to career and financial success. Of course there are exceptions like Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg (who last I read was eventually going to get his degree from Harvard) and pro athletes, but they’re not the rule. Higher education almost ensures that you’ll be able to land and keep a job to support yourself without relying on others. And if you’re going to be in school, take it seriously. Higher education costs a lot of fricking money! Study so you get good grades. For the last two years of college, I lived in my sorority house where many of my sisters went out nearly every night of the week. I didn’t, and I don’t have any regrets about that. Sure, others had more fun, but I kept my eye on the prize. I’m fairly certain some thought I was too rigid, uptight and perhaps even boring, but I didn’t’ care. I knew there would be plenty of time to party. But I do have one regret, and hopefully there’s learning in that for others. In undergrad (and even before), I had dreams of becoming a dermatologist. I completed all of the pre-med courses required. And I did well. But my advisor and two personal physicians convinced me not to pursue a career in medicine because “you can’t do the same things at 34 as you can at 24.” Well, maybe that was true for them, but times have changed, and 34 is actually still very young. I say go for it, however long you need to stay in school because while some say life is short, it can also be very long. 

4.    Read. Everything you can get your hands on, especially non-fiction. It opens your eyes to the world. It’s how you develop your vocabulary. And if nothing else, your SAT scores with thank you! Which goes back to #3. 

5.    Know how to “balance your checkbook.” I put that in quotes because that’s the simplified version and again, sort of a silly way to remember it because who still balances a checkbook these days? (Mom, don’t get upset…I know old habits die hard and you still do that.) But what I really mean is that you should understand and take control of your finances. It is never too early to think about saving for your future, and in fact, the younger you are when you begin, the better off you’ll be. Understand the different ways to invest and the risks involved in each. When you’re younger, you can take more risks. That doesn’t mean you have to back the truck up on the latest tech stock, but you should know how to diversify and have some safe and some riskier (i.e., potential for larger payoff) investments. When I was 24 years old, my college boyfriend’s father introduced me to a mutual fund that tracked with the S&P 500. I made my first investment of $5,000 and then purchased additional shares every month for quite some time, which ensured I was averaging my cost basis so it wasn’t always at the high or low of the market. In total, I probably contributed about $13,000. A few months ago, 20 years later, that investment was worth $56,000! As a single 24-year old woman, I started investing in my future, even though I didn’t have much more than that $5,000 to my name at the time, and it paid off. 

6.    Sisters before misters. I have a 21-year-old nephew who once said, “Bros before hoes.” Now before you go getting all upset about him referring to females as “hoes,” stop yourself. He’s one of the best guys around and said it while laughing, knowing it’s simply an expression, and an effective one because it’s tough to forget and makes the point, which is: Take time to develop and nurture friendships vs. spending all of your time with a boy. Because the truth is that boys will come and go but friendships can last forever. And you’ll need those friends when things inevitably go south with a boy. The reality is that most people these days don’t end up with their high school boyfriends or girlfriends. People grow and change when they go away to college, get their first jobs, and experience life on their own outside of the town where they grew up. But I still have girlfriends from my childhood and college days. Most of the guys are long gone. (Thank goodness that’s the case for many of them!)

7.    Travel. Like reading, it opens your eyes to the world. It helps you appreciate diversity instead of fearing it. And if you can’t afford to travel, read about other places, cultures, and religions. In your community, seek out others who are different and come from other places. You’ll be surprised by how much you can learn and how much it opens your eyes to new and different perspectives. 

8.    Never, and I mean never, be ashamed or embarrassed of being you. Be your authentic self. Believe in yourself. Be optimistic and stay positive that you will work it out, whatever it may be. However challenging it may be.

9.    Spend a dime to save time. If you can. But if truly necessary (not just because you’re being cheap), spend time to save a dime. Time is something we can never get back. And although money can’t buy happiness, it can make some things easier and less stressful. So when you approach a situation or problem, think about all of your options to spend your own time laboring and whether or not it makes sense to spend money to save your sanity and time, which can be used on other things that are more important and/or can bring you more joy. Run the dishwasher, even if it’s only half full at the end of the day. Hand washing it all takes way too much time, and honestly, I can’t imagine that it actually saves that much money. (Thanks, Mom, for always running the dishwasher every day, sometimes twice a day!) The point is to value your time and learn to prioritize. But also recognize when there are times in your life when you need to tighten things up a bit, and that may require more of your time to save money for the essentials.

10.  When you look at the behavior of others, learn to differentiate between ability and laziness and apathy. When my sister dines out, she will actually tip a server more if they deliver poor service. Sounds ridiculous, right? But she only does it if it’s clear that they’re trying their best and just not able to meet standards. Her rationale is that others won’t be that empathetic and understanding and the person won’t be recognized and paid for their sincere efforts. But if they’re rude and/or seem apathetic and lazy, her rule doesn’t apply. I have high standards and expectations of myself and therefore of others. But I’ve learned (and am still learning) that some people really are doing their best and can’t always cut it. I’ve worked, and am still working, on becoming more patient in those situations. But for those who make a choice to coast along and feel entitled, expecting the rest of the world to carry them, well, I don’t have much sympathy or understanding. (And if you’re going to dine out, tip the server. That’s how they earn a living. If they come to your table and deliver or remove something, even if it’s not full service, they deserve some sort of a tip. If you don’t want to tip, stay home! Sorry…I had to add that while we were talking about tipping because it’s a hot button for me.)

11.  Always express love and appreciation when you feel it. Good people in our lives are people to be treasured. And we should never underestimate the importance of telling those who matter most exactly how much of a difference they make in our lives.

12.  Try to see the best in others when it’s clear they’re trying to make you happy. It’s often easy to feel frustrated when someone else doesn’t meet our needs, and I’m talking emotional needs for the most part. But it’s important to recognize and appreciate their efforts, even if they’re not quite hitting the mark. It doesn’t mean you need to spend the rest of your days with that person, especially if it’s someone you’re dating, but we should be kind and considerate of their feelings if they care enough about us to try.

13.  And lucky number 13, when choosing someone to share your life, find someone who gets you. Find someone who complements you. NEVER someone who wants to change you. A few weeks ago, I was talking to a college friend of mine about “life.” And I joked about how he was damn lucky that he didn’t marry me because he would have likely killed me by now. And he replied, “I don’t think so. I get you. I always have.” Now, I’m not saying I regret not marrying him because I think he’s perfectly matched with his wife, and there were reasons we were friends and didn’t commit to a lot more. But my point is that it’s important to have people in your life, especially your partner, who truly get you and appreciate you for all that you are. The good and the “we might be able to do without that.” No one is perfect, but there is such a thing as being perfectly matched with the right person.

I’m stopping myself at 13. That’s the magic number in this post. And realize that when I blog, it really is stream of consciousness (I think that’s the appropriate term.) It’s whatever flows when I sit down. So don’t go crazy on me if I missed something. ;-) Just leave a comment here, on Instagram, or Facebook, for the rest of the world and for me to see. Because we’re all in this together. And some days, I still feel like my 13-year-old self, learning things all over again and doing my best to navigate through this crazy thing called life.