a letter to my eighteen year old self

dear (18 year old) isabel,

in twenty years you are going to be planning a party, to celebrate being cancer-free. you are going to be choosing a dj and champagne and hoping the weather is nice so people can be out on the balcony and enjoy the skyline late at night.  and when you plan, your mind is going to start wandering through time, wondering how any of this happened and you have come to here,  settled in your skin, changed and whole.

and in this, you will realize that you are not just celebrating being cancer free. you are saying thank you and honoring the last twenty years, everything that has happened. because it all brought you to here. and here is so, so good.

so then here i am, and the whole time i’m sending out invitations and hunting down sparklers, i keep having conversations with you, telling you things twenty years later. i think maybe this party is really some kind of love letter to you. and that this is what i’m trying to say.

when you are trying to decide something, unsure which way to go, resting between yes and no, choose whatever feels like freedom and devotion to life.

wear whatever you want to wear.

you will never understand what happened those years. and at some point in time, it will become ok to let go of the need to know, and tell your own story.

your hunting heart. your greenhouse heart. your heart of heat and seaweed and thunderstorms, deer antlers and atlases. you can trust it. i promise.

there will be lots of people and camps of ideology that will tell you what you should or should not do with your body.  opinions about things like hair removal, weight, health, fitness, beauty, societal norms, rebellion, reproductive rights, virginity and sexuality and whether or not it is vain to bleach your teeth. what you need to know is that it doesn’t matter if someone is telling you that you should have certain body measurements in order to be more desirable to others or telling you that you should protest oppressive norms by refusing to shave. body policing is body policing, no matter what voice and platform it comes from.  your body is your own, and you get to decide. “because i want to” is a good enough reason, and honestly, you don’t owe anyone any explanations at all.

simply loving the body will be one of the most radical acts you will know in this lifetime.

when you are 25, go to kopi café and start writing. you will meet a persian artist, in the process of becoming an american citizen. it will take you many years to understand in its fullness, but he will forever change the direction of your life and your experience of being in this world.  

those hours spent baking pie and writing your own dictionary and dancing in your living room are always worth it.

when you first make the choice, and it all comes crashing in, it will be so horribly hard. but do it anyway. i swear to you, it is the best thing that ever happens to you. get a job that supports you and sustains you. pay your own rent and feed yourself. when you have this, you will know an entirely different kind of agency. you will know that you are making choices from desire and love, not fear or financial dependency. you will know then what it is, to write in a room of your own, for your life to belong to you.

if and when you need help, ask.

you are not confused. you are angry. you are hurting. you are ecstatic. you are content. you are legion, space enough to hold so many things, let them come and go in their own time and way. pretending you are confused will paralyze you. being wildly honest will set your free.

return to the ocean as often as you can. she will always be there for you and no matter how lost you become, she will remind you of who you are.

you will do everything it takes to get better, to choose sanity. some of what you do will be horrible, almost unthinkable. but all of it is the pull toward life. 

the things that keep coming back, in dreams and stacks of library books and destinations you travel (knives. ink blots. smoke. myth.) listen to them. follow where they lead. they will bring you endless creative joy, and a life of meaning.

no is visceral and to be trusted.  you can believe it, its uncompromising completeness. and consent is not an afterthought. it is foundation. how it feels in the body. in the quiet and slow heat, falling into rhythm with the want of yes, how it comes all on its own, lucid and unguarded, with skinned knees and handfuls of violets.

love who and how you love. period.

some things it is worthwhile to learn and know how to do. how to check the oil in your car, how to buy a car, how to navigate public transportation. when to leave a business partnership, a lover, a party.  how to mix a cocktail and make soufflé and hulu hoop.  how to use a power drill and paint your own apartment and love what is aching and beautifully real. the way you like to be touched. your own creative cadence. the reason for your rebellion. how to give a toast, and tell a story, and stand full and still in your power.

walk away from bullshit. it’s not something you can negotiate, reason with, understand, make better.

work is work. life is life. it’s all whole. and all of it can be changed at any time.

you will meet an older man. he will tell you lots of stories, and become a good friend to you. before you say good-bye to him for the almost last time, he will tell you these words, “whenever and wherever you can, be happy.” he knows what he is talking about.

feminism is not a dirty word.  if you find yourself in bed or in business or in partnership with someone who uses it as an insult (and they also use the word bitches here), you are one hundred percent right. trust yourself, and get the hell out of there.

travel. to places inside and out. see things. let yourself be affected and changed.

some people will tell you something and then act very differently than their words. if this happens often, believe the language of their behavior and not their mouths.

when you wake up from surgery and they tell you that you have cancer and have removed entire organs from your body, your first instinct is completely right.  it’s going to be ok. and you will tell yourself that you only have this response because you are high on the morphine drip. but i’m telling you now that you are right. it is going to be ok. and while we’re talking about it, other people’s stories about the loss of your uterus belong to them and you are not required to agree or share them.

over the years, your body will be treated like parts, diseases, treatment plans. let them do what they need to do, but remain ruthlessly devoted to your own intact psyche and self, even if that means doing things no one else will understand.  you will, i promise, come through the fire, burned and still rising.

it is ok to let go of what is not working. when there are moments where you know you are being asked to play the martyr, when resentment starts to creep inside and decisions now taste like tar in your mouth, remember that there is no virtue in needless suffering.  

there are things you will be unable to stop, prevent, control, fix, make better. you will not always get what you want. and, as you already know, the most horrible and violent things can and do happen, and already have.  someone will at a later date tell you not to trust anyone, that the world is out to get both of you.  stand up from the table, walk out the door, and don’t ever come back.  choose your own way. feel all the feelings. feast on your life. it is the only way you will be free.

we very well may consciously or unconsciously seek out certain experiences and environments and kinds of people, to try to reconcile ourselves to the unknowable things or master the unresolved things. and none of this means you are ever responsible for someone else’s bad behavior.

there is, sometimes, a compulsion to clean up the stories after the fact. revisionist history to tell a neater, sanitized, commercially popular and sell-able story.  tell the most real story instead.

have integrity with your word. say what you mean. show up when you say you will show up. be clear on the agreements you are making and respect yourself enough to follow through.  you can always change your mind. and if you do, then say so. let your word, your life, mean something.

because, this is your own life. we very likely only get one. and this is it. this is yours.
and though there is so much we don’t control. and though life is painful and leaves us bruised and marked and scarred sacred, none of this is a problem to be solved. because its just life being life. and you, in so many ways, you get to choose what you want. so choose what feels good. choose to be here, all the way. choose what makes you go to bed satisfied, glowing with the aftermath of work well done and coconuts smashed open and words still writing themselves in all the invisible places. be willing to fall in love with life as many times as it will let you. love for the terrible darkness and the glittering mystery and simple wild. because the living is the prize. in the way that plans are fantastic, and you are really good at them, but there is no prize at the end. because yes, you will learn again and again. the living is the prize.


i’m telling you all these things now. but the truth (and we both know it) is that i only know them because of you and the risks you took and the ways you loved and the caves you crawled into and that night when you were laying out on the roof of the car and you made the silent vows to your own self that it would kill you to break. i write and talk to you in my head as if i am somehow reaching back in time, as if to impart some kind of knowing. but it is you have been the one teaching me.
so thank you. and here we are. let’s have a party.