A Letter to my Littlest Sister, the Other Bookend

Sunday, June 4, 2017

Today my littlest sister graduates from high school. I remember calculating how old I would be when this day arrived, and thinking that 34 years old was as close to death as one could be. But now it’s here, and the only thing that is reminiscent of the shadows of life, are the spanks I’m wearing underneath my dress.

As Piggy (MaryAnna) dons her cap and gown of Princeton Tiger red, I’m reminded of my own high school graduation from the very same stage. I was pretty nervous, as I was required to give the welcoming speech as class president for the graduating class of 2001. My speech was light and jokesy, and contained a short litany of tales intertwined with teenage angst from my four years in high school. I thanked my parents then went and sat down. I shudder to think about it now.

At that age, the tether to the past is strong in a sense, because it’s our only reference point, and the skill to look into the future and imagine the ups and the downs of life is barely developed (if we’re lucky). The scope of what we can see is only what peering through a keyhole might allow.  I can say with certainty that most of us had no idea what to expect from the world, or how life can change in a blink.

So if may, I’d like to re-write that speech for my 17 year-old sister, as she stands on the precipice of what is the infancy stage of adulthood.

Dear Pig,

It is with great privilege that I speak to you today, as it is clear by both of us being here that we’ve made it to the point my younger self only dreamt of. Now that I’m older, but still in the adolescent stage of adulthood, I’d like to impart some wisdom I’ve acquired since my 16 years out of high school.

To be specific, I’d like to reflect upon two topics as vast as the universe itself. Time and love.

For the first, it was Buddha who said, “The trouble is, you think you have time.” As you get older, you’ll know more about what this means. You’re about to begin an adventure at college, the same college I went to, and I hope it will be the time of your life like it was for me.  I remember Mom and Dad dropping me off at the dorm, awkwardly meeting my first roommate who thought I was the biggest freak for having a statuette of the Virgin Mary and a lock of our dog’s hair. Yikes. And then before I knew it, I was dropping off the keys to my last apartment. There were so many memories in between, and I wish I had taken more time, just a little, to look around and realize that these times will never be able to be recreated. Trust me, I’ve tried. So do many other mid-20-somethings, early 30-somethings. There is only one time in your life where you’ll have the stamina and the flagrant irresponsibility to dance until your manually straightened hair is curly once more. There is only one time where you will dance with wild abandon on top of a speaker and kiss the boy you’ve been crushing on for days. Yes, days, just a few unrespectable days. Your body will only be able to tolerate such times 3 nights in a row until you’re about 21, then its game over. Try as you will, once you’re done with college there will seldom be a night with your friends like the ones you had at the UW, so take a moment each time you’re with them, to look around and absorb it all.

Don’t wait to start taking care of yourself. Start yesterday. We never really learned how to cook or how to exercise outside of sports. But smart people have been doing both for years. Don’t wait until you’re 29 to learn what a carbohydrate is. Your body is strong, but fragile, and Piggy, Taco Bell is not your friend. Treat your present size 4 well, because if you don’t — WARNING, WARNING, there will be another digit before or after that little 4 in no time. Start to make friends with whole foods and regular exercise. You see us struggle with Spanx and bras that double as parachutes. This doesn’t have to be you, too. You’re already active, so just make it a part of your life like brushing your teeth. Before you sign-up for a glass-blowing class, take a cooking class instead. Please. You’re kidneys and your heart and your bowels and your brain and everything else will thank you and be around a lot longer.

Next, there’s only so much time to cultivate and nurture certain relationships we have. For example, if someone would have told me that I only had so many years left with Nana, I would have been singing along with her every single time she asked me to. I wouldn’t have been so scared to talk to Grandpa about his experience in WWII, or just talked to him more period. You have one grandma left, and she’s not getting any younger. I wouldn’t have included this as advice if I wasn’t given the cosmic gift of living with her for a whole year. I got to love someone so much who was here and a part of me all along. It makes me wonder who else in my life I might be neglecting at this very moment who is a kindred spirit to me. We’re all guilty of this, but don’t let time make a fool of you when it comes to the woman who could tell you stories about working in downtown Chicago with a dashing Russian prince, or exactly how to cut a tulip, or how to make Lallee’s famous soup that really smells bad, or what to look for in a man. Yes, I’ve gotten this sage advice a time or two. If she’s on track with Lallee, we’ve got another solid 8-10 years with Grandma, but even this isn’t enough time.

You don’t need a million friends, or a million “likes” on a posed picture. You need a small group of close friends, the kind of people who will have your back in a knife fight. These are the relationships in your life that you need to work hard to nurture. Remember birthdays, anniversaries, the morning of a big interview, etc. I’ve been immeasurably blessed to still be so close to kids I grew up with, immeasurably blessed. I’ve gotten to watch them become parents and dance with their kids at weddings. There is nothing cooler. So nurture the friendships you know will last a lifetime.

Get rid of your grudges. They are no good to anyone. Unless the other person murdered one of your family members in cold blood, you have no good reason to hold a grudge. Only weak people hold grudges. Yeah that’s right I said it, if this offends anyone, too bad. Only weak people carry things around that should have been dropped off a bridge to the bottom of the river a long time ago. Alexander Pope said, “To err is human, to forgive is divine.” Everybody in your life, and I mean everybody you ever knew or will ever meet, will make a mistake. Including you. But it takes a special person to forgive when an offense is rendered, however small or however big. Your life does not have to consist of a series of bad things you won’t let go of. This is a recipe for a poisoned heart, and ain’t nobody got time for that.

Don’t make promises you can’t keep, to others or to yourself. For example, I once said that I’d like to live a life without regrets. Well don’t we all? Newsflash, I’m only 34 and I have a plate full of regrets. Whatever, you live and you learn. Instead, the promises I’ve rewritten for myself are to be as genuine as I possibly can be and live as a person of integrity. And these are two things I will never fully master and will have to work on until the day I die. If I make mistakes, I own them. If I screw up, I learn from it. If I don’t like something, I say I don’t like it. If I love something, I say I love it. If you say you’re going to be somewhere, be there.  This is hard for both of us, I know, and I really actually sucked at this until about 5 years ago. But if you commit yourself to being genuine and living with integrity, you shrink the space for negativity and inauthentic experiences.

Use your words. There’s never going to be a “better time” to tell people how you really feel. Remember? The trouble is, you think you have time, but you don’t. For the love of God don’t over-analyze every situation until you no longer remember what you wanted to do and why you wanted to do it in the first place. If you have something to say, then say it! If I learned one thing from my in-patient geriatric rotation with the dying is there is nothing that tastes so bitter as the things we do not say. Life is short, how many times have you heard me say this? Don’t be afraid to really let people know what’s going on in your head and in your heart. Your head and your heart will thank you for it.

Allow yourself to be happy. We both suffer from Catholic guilt, even Grandma thinks she’s definitely going to spend at least a century in Purgatory, and she’s like the holiest person I know in real life. I sometimes still get caught in the net of not letting myself be happy if I know that others are suffering. But this is wrong. The best thing we can do to show gratitude for the good things that happen to us, is to enjoy them. So when good things come your way, don’t wait for the other shoe to drop, and don’t feel bad that not everyone has the same good things. Just be thankful and share the goodness when and where you can. Hafiz said, “Ever since happiness heard your name, it’s been running through the streets trying to find you.” So don’t hide from it, let it find you and wrap you up with sunshine. And spill some of that sunshine on others when you can.

Be kind. You get nothing from criticizing someone’s outfit or hair or whatever. Absolutely nothing. Everyone that will cross your path has something going on, even if that person is just a plain old bitch. Everybody is bearing a cross. Give your kindness to people unabashedly, like Beka, even with just a smile, or a “Hi, how are you?” You may have noticed that people don’t make a lot of eye contact these days. Be the one to bring eye contact back. Make it sexy again. Be that millennial in class who is not staring at their iPhone. Surprise the hell out of your professors by looking up when they walk into the room. Who knows what you could be missing when you’re staring at a 2 x 5 inch trap of consciousness? Be present. And be kind.

Lastly, and most importantly, to the matter of love. I remember vividly stealing you out of the hospital crib the morning after you born. I remember looking at you with what I know now was pure awe and wonderment. Like even better than the first time I saw the Grand Canyon, or the Rolling Stones in concert. Moments like these are gifts straight from the hand of God himself. Someone once told me, that you see God when you look into the face of someone you love with all your heart. Oh my goodness, no truer words were ever spoken. These are moments where time actually does stand still, and the love you feel spills out of your skin and covers every surface within a million mile radius. I’ve had several more moments like this with you and others, like holding your hand as we walked in the dark from the school up to the church in your sheep costume. Or walking in to the room after Alex had Lyla and seeing her and loving her, but looking at you and Ray and feeling something that maybe a mother might feel. Let yourself have moments like these, as many as you can muster. And don’t be afraid of them! Freud said, “We are never so vulnerable as when we love.” This is true, when we love as big as we do, it’ll make a loss all the more painful. And truth be told, there is nothing on earth I fear more. But we’ve both suffered losses, and we know that it in no way lessens the love that was once there. Not even a little bit. So be strong and be brave in your pursuit of love. Because there is nothing greater.

So Pig, to end things, remember what Jack Kerouac said, “Be in love with your life, every minute of it.” We’re like two bookends, you and me. And the saga of a lifetime lives in between, am I right? We’ll keep it together, one way or another. Get to living, kid, and be in love with every minute of it. I love you. Congratulations 🙂



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