Truthfully, I haven’t written anything personal since last year at this very same time. But because my daughter’s birthday comes around every year, and I’m keeping this tradition alive, here are my 15 random thoughts for her 15th birthday …
1 – Welcome to the Freak Show.
You are intimidated by the world, and the people in it. You close yourself in your room, turn off the lights, and sink into the music you love. You feel different, misunderstood, awkward, shy, scared, and about a thousand other emotions you think I don’t understand.
Since most of the time I appear confident and I push through challenges like a bulldozer in high gear (which is not always smart, btw), you think I don’t understand all the anxiety that keeps you locked like a prisoner inside your own head. But now let me introduce you to this girl …
This is Jamie Klinger at the age of 15. She read a lot of Shakespeare, wrote a lot of bad poetry, and she loved the rock band, Heart—which explains the hair, sort of. She had close friends, but deep down, she too felt different. She couldn’t quite put her finger on why she felt different, but she just knew her brain wasn’t wired like everyone else’s. She didn’t believe she was smart, and she felt like a freak.
But here’s the thing about that girl with the big hair—she grew up. In time she learned that despite all the disguises we humans use to hide who we are, deep down we’re all the same. We’re all shy. We’re all afraid. We’re all self-conscious. We’re all vulnerable. At some point, we all feel like freaks, and most of us are.
So, just be a freak, and wear the title like a badge of honor—because it is. Someday you’ll pass on your freakish knowledge to someone else who might desperately need it, and in doing so, you’ll make that little freak feel less alone too. So, welcome to the Freak Show, Kiddo. Trust me, you’re in great company here.
2 – Mind the gap.
The subject of college has made this list every year since you were seven years old. It’s a topic I have always been firm about—until now. The world has changed since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, and it will continue to change. You asked me recently how I’d feel if you decided to take a year off between high school and college because you have no idea what you want to do with your life. My reply at the time was that this was OK with me—as long as you have a job. However, now that I’ve had more time to think, I’d like to rephrase my answer.
First, let me reiterate that I am, and will always be, an advocate for education. I will always believe that even if you don’t use a lick of what you learned in college in your professional life, having a higher education is still beneficial, and so is the college experience. But I also know that knowledge is gained in other ways. Sometimes real knowledge can’t be found inside a classroom or even in a textbook. Real knowledge is often found through experience. The world is a big place, and there is so much you can learn from traveling, exploring, and soaking in all this world has to offer. So, if a gap year is what you need, take it. But just remember to mind the gap, no matter how big it is, and then fill it in with all the things you learn from amazing experiences along the way. (Just please be careful too, OK?)
3 – Art is a privilege (and a chore).
Elizabeth Gilbert is one of my favorite authors. She has a lot of interesting theories about creativity, and what it means to truly live a creative life. Most creatives, like us, struggle with our self-esteem. We often think we’re alone in some kind of mystical quicksand—but we’re wrong about that. The truth is, there is no mystical quicksand. Sometimes we just get too close to our art (no matter what form it takes) and we begin to believe it’s a sacred thing. As Gilbert explains in her book Big Magic, this way of thinking is just plain dumb. Art just is what it is. Sometimes people get it, sometimes they don’t. The biggest mistake you can make as an artist is to think you’re divine or that the world owes you something, because I’m here to tell you, it doesn’t. To be creative means you have something other people don’t have, but that alone doesn’t make you talented. Talent comes with hard work, which can sometimes feel like a chore, but chores teach you to stay humble and grounded. When you get to that point when you respect your creativity, and you’ve worked hard to build your talent, that is when the real magic happens. It might not always be what you expect, but it’s magic just the same.
4 – Surrender to your mediocrity.
Since we’re on the subject of creativity and talent … I’m a firm believer that all humans are good at something. There is talent in all of us, whether or not we choose to recognize that talent and nurture it is another topic entirely, but deep down we’re all special in our own way. However, even though we all possess these so-called “special things,” we’re all still simultaneously and mind-numbingly mediocre at many things.
Cheryl Strayed, who will forever be high on my list of favorite writers, has an interesting view on mediocrity. She believes that even when we work extremely hard and achieve great success, we can still easily tumble off that precipice and roll right into a dark, swirling cesspool of mediocrity (I’m paraphrasing, but stick with me here). If we’re not careful many of us stay in the cesspool and flounder, or worse, we swim in circles trying to escape the big scary thing called mediocrity. All we end up doing though is creating a bigger, darker, vortex that’s fueled by fear. Everyone does this, no matter how talented they seem to be. As a writer, when Strayed gets stuck there, instead of wasting more time struggling, she just stops fighting the mediocrity all together. And a funny thing happens when we embrace our biggest fears—we open ourselves up again to the true greatness we possessed all along.
I’m telling you this because you continue to struggle with your own imperfections as an artist. But here’s the thing, your imperfections are as important as your perfections. Imperfection and perfection will always exist, but the key is to keep them equally balanced and parallel. So, as Strayed also so eloquently explains, instead of fighting mediocrity, just give in to it and offer it a seat at the table. And remember, when you have nothing to fear, you have nothing to lose either.
5 – Stay kind.
Not everything needs a long explanation. At only 15 years old, you are one of the kindest people I know and you’re never an asshole. (OK, you’re almost always never an asshole.) Hold on to this, please. The world will always need more kind people like you.
6 – Stop rolling your eyes at my advice.
You can do hard things. I stole this line from Glennon Doyle, and I made the mistake of using it on you this past year. You rolled your eyes and told me to never say that to you again. I laughed at the time, but I knew it was one of those moments where you saw me as the cheesy mom rather than the cool mom. I admit, you were justified in that opinion. Yet, as annoying as you find that phrase, it is still unequivocally true (and Doyle has the bank account to prove it).
The truth is, hard things are only hard when we make them hard, and we’re good at sabotaging ourselves this way. When we believe we can’t do something, we let our brains get in the way and then we replace intelligence with fear—or worse, laziness. So, do me a favor—when it comes to difficult situations, don’t overthink. Overthinking always makes something small seem so much bigger. I know anxiety is real, and I know it’s crippling, but someday when you’re older and I’m only around in spirit, the words “you can do hard things” might come back to you at a time when you desperately need it. This time I hope you don’t roll your eyes though, because I’ll be dead and that would be rude.
7 – Work, work, work, work, work, work.
You started your first job this year. Congratulations! It’s a small job, but a dignified one, and you’re learning a lot about yourself. You know that if you dread work, it shows, and then you do a shitty job. But you also know that when you approach work with a good attitude and look forward to the things work can do for you, monetarily speaking, you understand it’s value. But here’s the other thing about work—when you do it well, it can pay you back in even better ways. With a job well done you feel a sense of pride and accomplishment and you hope others notice your efforts. Sometimes they do, sometimes they don’t (and that’s a harder thing to explain), but a job well done, whether others notice it or not, is still a job well done. Whether your job is big or small, it’s still important, so be mindful of it, and always do it with the right intent.
8 – Don’t step in dog poop with bare feet.
I’m using this as a light way to approach the delicate topic of politics. As we witnessed the insurrection of our nation’s capital this year, you learned that political opinions are volatile. The truth is they will always be volatile—on both sides. My advice to you on this is to always, always, always approach politically charged conversations with an educated opinion, or don’t approach them at all. If you cannot have a calm, insightful conversation with someone who does not share your political view, then that conversation is not worth having. Period. Getting wrapped up in political conversations, or any other thing that is beyond your control, is like stepping in a pile of dog shit in your bare feet. It feels disgusting and even when you wipe it off, the smell of it lingers for a while. The best way to avoid this is to put on your shoes and try to put your best foot forward—without being a dick.
9 – Use your analogies, metaphors, and similes wisely.
In the example above I used an analogy to explain politics. Truthfully, dog shit has nothing to do with politics, but by comparing the two, and providing further explanation, you understood the comparison was less about the words and more about the point I was trying to make, right? A metaphor, on the other hand, is a type of analogy, but it has a more direct intent. Now, in staying with the political example above, if I had said, “Donald Trump is a pile of dog shit,” this is a more direct statement. Dog feces and Donald Trump don’t actually share the same physical characteristics, but my opinion on the subject is hard to miss, right? However, let me be perfectly clear, my choice of words does not make my statement true; it only delivers my intent, or in this case, my opinion. Now, to take this one step further, if I had said “Donald Trump is like a steaming pile of dog shit,” this is neither a metaphor nor an analogy. Because I inserted the word “like” this statement is considered a simile.
Why is any of this important you ask? Because effective communication relies on the proper presentation of the message. Knowing when to explain your message, when to be direct, and when to make a comparison between two unrelated things will almost always ensure comprehension of your message, even if it is only your opinion and nothing more.
10 – Don’t be the Edible Woman.
Margaret Atwood is an amazing author that I hope you read sometime soon. Of course, The Handmaid’s Tale is Atwood’s most famous novel, but another story I find fascinatingly brilliant is called The Edible Woman. In this book Atwood’s main character, a young woman named Marian, seems to have her life in order, but just when the topic of marriage and family begins to surround Marian’s life, she loses her shit—like a lot. Driven by metaphorical cannibalism (as if she’s eating away at herself), Marian completely stops eating. I won’t spoil the plot for you, but this book was written in 1969, which goes to show how long women have been struggling with societal expectations. I know you struggle with this already, even at 15. So, let me be blunt, there are so many things I want for you, and of course, I want grandchildren, but what I want should be of no consequence to how you choose to live your life. We might not always agree, and that’s OK, but don’t ever let yourself be eaten up by what I (or others) want or expect from you. Choose your own path, and please eat nutritious and flavorful food along the way.
11 – Own the narrative.
Joan Didion. Another brilliant storyteller I hope you explore soon. “We tell ourselves stories in order to live,” is the first line to Didion’s book, The White Album. It’s a simple statement, but one of the many things that makes Didion so brilliant is her ability to say powerful things in a simplistic way. Here’s why I bring this up:
Think about all you know about yourself, and then think about the story you would write about your life so far, if you were asked to write it. Would it be the whole truth, or would there be things you insert or intentionally leave out? Sometimes leaving out unnecessary details is fine, but other times it creates a different angle, which allows room for speculation. When you allow too much room for speculation, others can begin to spin your story in a totally different direction. The best way to avoid this is to own your narrative. When you own the narrative, your angle is the only one that counts. Sometimes it’s easy to fall into a false narrative, but just remember, your truth is your truth and it only belongs to you. Never let anyone else tell a story that only you can tell.
12 – The Crocodile Hunter is your spirit guide.
Believe it or not, you and The Crocodile Hunter, Steve Irwin, will forever be connected. Why? Because you were born on the very day he died. Before September 4, 2006, I didn’t know much about Steve Irwin other than he had a mullet and TV show where he would frequently wrestle alligators. It wasn’t until Irwin died that I learned he was much more than just a weird Australian dude who said “crikey” a lot. Turns out, he cared deeply for animals, which led him to become a zookeeper, wildlife expert, conservationist, and environmentalist all at the same time. He was a fierce advocate for nature, as well as a devoted husband and father. All in all, he was a good man, and probably someone you would have admired.
To be honest, I don’t think it was an accident that you were born on the same day Irwin died. When the universe takes something from the world, I believe it also finds a way to give something back. Your love for animals is so present, and not everyone would take the time to rescue birds, frogs, or mice—but you do, and it’s one of the many things I love about you. Is Steve Irwin your spirit guide? Maybe he is and maybe he isn’t, but I think his spirit definitely lives on in animal lovers like you.
13 – Sometimes it’s just too hot to wear a hoodie.
Your generation is different than mine. Though I don’t always want to accept the fact that I’m not as young as I used to be, I do understand that age can cause general misunderstandings between generations. For example, you don’t understand how I made it through college without the internet or Google, and I don’t understand how you don’t know what the Dewey Decimal System is. You don’t understand why driving a car is appealing when you can easily have your mom drive you everywhere, and I don’t understand how you don’t realize that at some point, your mom is going to stop running to the store at 10 PM on a weeknight because you’re out of Cheerios and almond milk.
I think you get the point here, but despite our many differences I think we manage to co-exist just fine. However, one thing that will perpetually baffle me is the wearing of a hoodie on a 95-degree day. I really hope this is something that goes away by the time you turn 16, along with your repulsion for driving.
14 – Dreams not chased = regrets.
I don’t think I need to explain this one much … again, you are so very gifted and artistic, but sometimes I think you’re afraid to dream. Don’t be. Dream big, no, dream HUGE, and then do everything you can to make those dreams come true. Sometimes you might fail, but the easiest path to failure is quitting. We all have regrets, because regrets are part of life, but just make sure your regrets and your dreams always travel in opposite directions. And, if they ever walk hand-in-hand, grab your dreams, hold on tight, and get right back on the highway. It’s OK to leave regret behind to fend for itself, trust me, your load will always be lighter without it.
15 – The teaching goes on.
You’re going to think this one is about me teaching you, but it isn’t. This one is about all the things you teach me. This year more than ever, I let work get in the way of doing the things I love, and in the end, it turned me into someone neither of us liked very much. But this tradition, these letters to you, always bring me back to the center of what is truly important—and that’s you. That’s why I’ll keep writing this list every year, no matter how long it gets. Yes, it might be stupid, and even somewhat repetitive, but this practice reminds me that despite every worry, every disappointment, and every frustration life can bring, the best thing in my life will always be vividly clear. You are the best part of my day, every day. If in the years to come we stop remembering how to talk to each other, I hope you’ll open these pages and know that no matter how much of an asshole I might be at times—I love you so very much, and that (unlike my hair color as I get older) will never change.
Happy 15th birthday, Bug, I love you!