To Emma on Her 20th Birthday


Dear Emma,

“Let your soul stand cool and composed before a million universes.” –Walt Whitman

This I am writing to you for you to read on your 20th birthday. I chose this age because this is when you really begin understanding what it is to be a young woman, and I want you to carry this advice into womanhood. I found out late and I think it is important that you hold this close to who you are.

First of all, and ever so importantly, don’t be a “good woman.” Be your own kind of woman.  As you get older, you will learn “good” and “bad” are quick judgments.  “Re-examine all that you have been told…dismiss that which insults your soul.” Explore your sexuality and do not be nervous about it. Read de Beauvoir, Virginia Woolf, and Roxanne Gay, Allen Ginsberg—so many. Read every kind of religion and faith and science—from Buddhism to Islam, astronomy to Christianity, Taoism to neuroscience. Study. On your own. And learn the history behind you—mine, yours, ours, and the women we come from. We are survivors, in big and small ways, as you will learn about me as you get older.

Take care of yourself–mind, body, and soul. Love yourself. Break rules. Don’t let authority hold its sway over your instincts. Don’t break the law, but always trust your gut. Trust me on that one. Your body is your temple, your mind is just thoughts, not always your friend, not always your enemy, but what counts is your heart, and you my darling, have a big one. Follow your own rhythm. You do not have to get married and have children and the house and the career. This is just a picture painted for you on how you’re “supposed to” live. Do what you feel you need and desire. Men are not “others”, they are human beings with hearts and souls, fears and insecurities and passions just like you. It took me a long time to really understand that. But, as you know so far and as you will learn as you and I grow older, is my past was hardly conventional, and nowhere near safe.

Take care of people you love, but never put yourself second in your mind. Love yourself, honey. And if you fear you don’t, find out why.  Face every fear you have.  Fear will remain, but master it.  Face it head-on. “Courage is resistance to fear, mastery of fear—not absence of fear.”  Mark Twain. There are dark times in life, and you may lose your faith. But you will not lose love, I promise. And if it gets to a point where you feel no love and see only night, know that you are loved, and those loved ones will carry the weight for you when you can’t.  Trust them.


See the world, what you can of it. Sometimes, it’s ok to pack up and just go. Don’t worry so much, but be cautious, as you always have been my Tootie.

Write. Write your heart out, as you’ve always loved to do, even if it is just for yourself, and hold your privacy as a treasure. Writing healed lots of broken parts in me, and because of that I pieced back together bit by bit, and I am proud of where I stand. I have become a woman and I own myself.

If there is something deep inside of you that drives you, go towards it. Don’t be afraid. If you are a physicist or work retail—it doesn’t matter, as long as you are original. Think for yourself, question everything, as you and I always do. Know that you have it in you to do great things. I’ve seen it already.

You are a curious creature. And sometimes you are shy and sometimes you aren’t—I treasure that in you. You are blooming like a flower at twelve years old as I write this, and it is an honor to see.  It fills my heart so much, to see you healthy and loved and curious about learning and having all your friends. Don’t let the world stunt your growth. The real world is inside you.

You turned five when my battle with my past got what was left of the old me. Five was the age my abuse started in childhood, and when you became a little mirror image of that little me, I was desperate to keep you safe and protect you from the world. My PTSD was hard on you, and I own that. Worry, worry, worry as mothers do, all I have to do now to know you are okay is see your face when you walk in the door—flushed and sunned and bright, or laugh and dance with you in the kitchen, your relentless wit making me giggle even after you’ve left the room. Our late in the evening talks about friends and the confusion that comes with growing up–and there’s something in all this – you and I have made a small sanctuary over the years, and it is wonderful to come home to. Always make your home a sanctuary, wherever you are.

I bring up the PTSD because I want you to do two things for me. First, I want you to show others with mental illness or disorder the same respect and compassion you have shown me. In a world where people tend to treat illness or trauma as a fault rather than what it is and can be-a hard, admirable struggle. I want you to do that. Second, if you yourself should ever find yourself struggling with and feeling overwhelmed by something inside you, know that it is okay to be afraid at first, because it is scary. But also, know you have to face it—don’t run. Running only takes up your precious time as I have learned, and you will never outrun yourself.  I want you to know that you will get through it. You will learn from it and how to deal with it. Any circumstance that changes you can be also taken as an evolution into another stronger force, learning even more so who you are and what you’re made of.  You will have to make a choice if that happens—you will have to decide if you’re going to see the beauty and power and strength in risking change, making room for you to spread your wings.

Don’t fall asleep in your life.  Be as hungry for it at 20 as you are for it now at twelve. You are so hungry for experience and knowledge and excitement and nothing stops you. Don’t ever let that go. When you find yourself without an appetite, it is time to reevaluate.

I’ve never considered being a mother to you as work or a role. For me, it has been the greatest gift I could have ever asked for. You are loved, Emma. You are cherished and you are watched out for. And now, as you enter into womanhood, it is the time for learning to love yourself, cherishing yourself, and watching out for yourself.

So now go forth into the fray, and let the wild rumpus start.



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