Friday, February 1, 2019

Five Things I Wish I Could Tell 26-Year-Old Me

I'm 36 and I have been sharing my thoughts and decisions publicly online for over a decade. I've published six books during that time (four of them memoirs) while I've kept this ultra-personal blog. Which means I was my most vulnerable and open with strangers before I knew who I was, what I wanted, or had any measure of self esteem. Oh boy.

Writing was not something I ever intended to do professionally. It was something I did for compulsive fun. I started blogging in my mid-twenties because it was a way to keep in touch with family and friends after starting out in the real world, post-college. I never stopped writing after that. So now ten years of my life has been recorded here for you to read. You probably know people with marriages that have been shorter. Hell, maybe you've been in marriages that have been shorter!

Please, stop and imagine if you wrote down your innermost thoughts and feelings with total strangers at 26? Who were you then? Did you do or say anything you regret? You're probably a totally different person than you were then. So am I.

Which is why I never go back and read the blog. It's hard to do both as a writer and as a grown woman. I can't help but cringe at the boldness and certainty, much less the prose. The internalized misogyny and homophobia towards myself is so clear it's heartbreaking.  I wish I could travel back in time and hug her and tell her that she's going to be okay. Things won't get easier, but you'll get tougher and smarter. You'll learn how to be a homeowner. You'll learn to love yourself. You'll have to go through a lot of winters, run a lot of miles, and gain a lot of scars first - but you'll get there.

Here are the five things I wish I could go back to tell the 26-year-old me.

Listen

You're a single, young, woman sharing her personal and financial choices with strangers. Most readers are going to be helpful and supportive. Others are going to see you making the same mistakes they did and their words will come across as critical or negative. You're going to mistake a lot of attempts to help you as judgement. You're also going to mistake a lot of support as permission. Neither is the full story and you won't be able to negotiate any of this yet.

You are becoming an independent person (who has never been independent before) without a partner to share in the decision making with. You are also doing something very new; sharing the process of making a life with strangers. You won't know how to cope with the deluge of opinions and ideas.

Please, Jenna, understand it's okay to be doing what you are doing, but take a little more time to see things from outside your own limited experience and circumstances. I know this isn't possible for you to do now. You have blinders on so tight, darling. But once you have that ability it will make life a lot easier, even if it means less exciting.

Stop Apologizing

You are going to assume you need to constantly apologize for your life. This will be reinforced a hundred ways. Your candor and vulnerability will be appreciated by some, but others will see it as weakness and grant them subconscious permission to treat you like a child that deserves to be scolded

Remember that almost everyone is going to see you as someone without agency. By not having a man or family included in your story you will either appear broken or brave - but both views will be based on internalized misogyny that whispers what you are doing isn't normal. Young women are not supposed to avoid marriage and children, buy land and houses alone, and focus on what they want to do with their lives as individuals. You will be seen as selfish, ruthless, or both.

People will either applaud or disdain you for biases they don't even realize they have - including you. You will feel shame for not having a husband or children even though you don't want them and never did. And later you'll feel even more shame for pretending you did. That will weigh you down and hinder you in ways you can't imagine. It will mean horrific choices about love and romance because you will be desperate to feel accepted and wanted in a world that never seemed to do either. I am so sorry I wasn't braver, sooner.

You are going to let people say awful things shrouded as advice. For example, one day a woman will offer to pay to have your border collie spayed because she "cared about the breed's integrity" and didn't want me breeding my low-quality bogs. Jenna, your dogs are none of her business, nor is their family planning! Boundary crossing like this will happen over and over. You'll get slammed with scolding that rarely happens face to face and would have never happened if you were standing next to your husband in public.

Here's what it all comes down to: You don't have to be sharing your life. People don't have to read it. Every single interaction with you is because you chose to share it and people chose to read it. If writing about this farm ever makes life less joyful than not writing about it; STOP.

There's going to be so much kindness. You won't be able to handle it.

People are amazing, Jenna!

Sharing a dream online is going to attract others that can relate to your passions and excitement for an authentic life, whatever that means. You'll meet a lot of people and start a lot of friendships. Good gods I can't wait for you to meet Patty and Mark, Miriam and Chris, Tyler and Tara, Greg and Joanna, Dave, Leah, Kathy and Mary, Elizabeth and Weez! So many others I didn't just list but they are coming and so supportive of your story! You will have people to call for help and people to run to help. You will be enveloped with love and support.

There will be letters and packages sent to your home. There will be emails and articles and blog posts celebrating you. People will contribute to your writing, send Christmas cards, call you to help thaw pipes or figure out electric fencing problems. One of the main benefits of being so open means it allows a rush of kindness and people and opportunities!

Bad news, you will not be able to manage this either. You are 26 now and barely able to manage your office work, farm, blog, social life and family. You are dealing with serious food and body issues and anxiety and hair loss. You have the dangerous mix of very low self esteem and very high self confidence and people will read that need for acceptance and gregariousness as being more emotionally and socially available then you ever could be. There is not enough energy to keep track of the people that come into your life. Burst of friendship and then fizzles of entropy will be normal. You will feel awful about this and deal with it in unhealthy ways. Like dive into the world of Prepping and Survivalists because it enforces your need for isolation and escape. Or worst, still trying to date men.

And after you quit that office job you will be dealing with anxiety and loneliness and some mornings barely be able to get out of bed, but YOU WILL. That farm is farm counting on you. You don't know this yet but some of the decisions people will scorn you for the harshest will be the reason you get through the hardest times. A dark horse, talons, and time will save you from the worst depression you ever experienced. And while you are shaking from tears at 3AM too afraid to knock on your guest room's door to talk because you're scared of depending on another person for comfort, some one out therewill assume you are living in an ungrateful paradise and there's nothing you can do about it.

There's going to be so much cruelty. You won't be able to handle it.

A few people are going to hate you for reasons you will not understand for a decade. They will obsess over your life like a personal Kardashian, watching every choice and purchase and decision. They will expand pictures of your animals, body, and home to look for clues you are a bad person. They will assume the absolute worse about everything you do and ignore anything even remotely positive. And their reasoning for doing so is because you were dumb enough to share your life online - and by the way -  you don't deserve it in the first place.

Never has it been easier to hide behind an anonymous handle online and disdain a public person. It's why sites like GOMI are thriving. I know you are hurt by and scared of these people, but please have compassion. People that choose to troll anonymously are not happy people. They are just as scared as you are and just as vulnerable. Those comments are their form of free therapy. They're just people. You know how after a horrible date or fight with your mom you sit down watch 5 episodes of Gilmore Girls and polish off a bottle of Cabernet? That's what 99% of them are doing with a snarky comment. You are their Stars Hollow and wine. Watching a 20-something's train wreck is a delightful distraction from judging their own.

To be blunt, some people are going to hate you because you let them in and then you let them down. You became someone they cheered for and then you fucked up, or weren't grateful the right way in the right amount of time, or changed in a way that felt like a betrayal. And unlike their real life friends and family they can talk to about this sort of thing, you are a character with a plot twist. They can say things about you they could never say to sisters, or spouses, or their mothers and they need to do that.

Right now someone is reading this that doesn't like you and wishes you still allowed comments on the blog so they could tell you how awful you are instead of doing the dishes, eating a salad, drinking a glass of water and going for a walk or calling a friend. You can not help that. Trolling is the scavenger culture of the internet. It feeds off the carcasses of other's because it has no idea how to hunt for their own lifeblood. It's not going anywhere.

Keep Going

I know how for many years everything you do will seem like a mistake. You've spent all of your twenties and most of your thirties making bold decisions towards the life you wanted and then feeling the need to explain and/or apologize for them. But you are not that girl anymore.

You are going to become a woman who has managed to remain self-employed on her own farm for nearly 7 years. You are the woman who bought this farm by herself and managed to keep it out of the bank's grasp for a decade (and I promise they are trying very hard to get it back).

You're going to raise food for friends and neighbors. You're going to keep bees and grow vegetables. You're going to learn to breed and herd sheep. You'll learn to milk goats and make soap and cheese. You'll learn to play instruments, fly fish, hunt, and shoot arrows! Jenna I know this sound crazy but in ten years you'll ride fast horses and train wild hawks!

And here's the best part, you're FINALLY out of the closet and allowing yourself to fall in love! And it's because of those years and experiences I just listed! All of that growing food and growing up has chiseled away the parts of you that allows hate in. And that isn't about blind pride or achievements - it's about learning to forgive yourself and love yourself as the woman you. Easily the hardest accomplishment of your entire life.

Listen here lady, keep going. When animals die, keep going. When storms hit, keep going. When the bank drives by to knock on your door, keep going. When people send the state police to your door because you wrote online that a chicken died in the night, keep going. When she doesn't like you back, keep going, When you scream into the dark, keep going. When you feel so lonely and yet unwilling to receive love, keep going.

You are going to be okay. I know because I've been here the whole time.