A letter to myself at 18, as told by Regina Spektor lyrics.
Enjoy your youth sounds like a threat. But I will anyway.
I recognize your immediate desire to run away with disgust at the utter thought of my writing to you from three years in the future. This is totally corny, I know, and when I typed the words “Dear Jac” I felt every inch of my body cringe. You have always been an easy target for teasing and posting this on the Internet is like willingly placing ammunition in your enemy’s palms. Plus, I know that time capsule you buried in third grade somewhere in the Roanoke Avenue Elementary School playground that was promised to you upon high school graduation has yet to be dug up, and this has left you with a heightened cynicism and some serious trust issues regarding sentimental materials of this category.
Somedays aren’t yours at all. They come and go as if they’re someone else’s days.
And yet, here I am, three years your senior, feeling compelled to write this cringe-worthy letter anyway. You left home for the first time just six weeks ago. You are currently a freshman at a tiny school in the suburbs of New Jersey where you do not belong. You are trying on everything this campus has to offer—from frat parties in graffitied basements to salsa dancing lessons in the Student Center—to see if you can make a home for yourself here. I am proud of you for giving everything the old college try but honestly, none of it is going to work. It is only October so you have not yet reached your breaking point, but it’s a bad Wednesday night because you have a midterm in your Western Civ class tomorrow and for the first time in your life you just skipped a concert you bought tickets for months ago.
May I propose a little toast to all the ones who hurt the most?
It was during the second half of the summer that you decided to buy two tickets to see The Band Perry at Roseland Ballroom on West 52nd Street in Manhattan. You bought the tickets mostly as a sign of protest: you were having many (appropriate) doubts about choosing to go to a school two hours outside of New York City, which is where you originally visited colleges. You promised yourself you would figure out New Jersey Transit and get yourself into Manhattan by the time this concert came around in mid-October.
It’s the night of the show when you realize that you don’t know how to get to the train station and your sister can’t miss her night class to go with you and you have to study for your midterm and you were disappointed by The Band Perry’s second album anyway and you feel like you have failed.
It’s like forgetting the words to your favorite song. You can’t believe it. You were always singing along.
I’m writing to let you know that this is going to trigger some of the most difficult months of your life thus far. You are about to approach what you will refer to gratuitously but seriously as “The Great Dichotomy.” You will be faced with decisions that feel huge and permanent and pivotal and scary and like mistakes waiting to be made. And you are not wrong. But you are going to be okay.
It’s so much easier than you think, you try so hard. And every time you get it wrong, you get it right. You get it wrong but you get it right.
I am writing to you from a night in mid-October of your senior year of college after seeing Regina Spektor in concert. I realized in the first few moments of the show how much your life will change in the next three years. It took me twenty minutes by subway to get back to my apartment tonight and you are going to be okay.
Right now it feels like everything in your life is being torn in two. You’re trying to find balances: between who you were in high school and who you should be in college, between New York and New Jersey, between living with your parents and living with roommates, between all the different majors you’re considering, between the anticipation of what’s to come and a relentless longing for everything you’ve just left behind.
Someday you’ll wake up and feel a great pain and you’ll miss every toy you’ve ever owned. You’ll want to go back. You’ll wish you were small. Nothing can slow the crying.
You are not a fan of who you are becoming in this place. You are snapping at people who don’t deserve it. You are struggling with a deep homesickness that comes not only from missing home but from missing any place in the world that feels like you belong. You are no longer listening to country music and starting to feel distant from yourself.
A little bag of cocaine, a little bag of cocaine, so who’s the girl wearing my dress? I figured out her number, it’s on a paper napkin, but I don’t know her address.
You are visiting the counseling center on campus and hiding it from everyone. You are suffering with anxiety that manifests as extreme insomnia then falling asleep during classes and academic events where the adults in the room scold you. You are crying on the phone with your mother while sitting on the steps outside the health center. You are starting to believe that happiness is maybe a myth and definitely not something you personally are capable of achieving but you are going to be okay.
And I’m crying for things that I tell others to do without crying.
You are vying for attention from a boy who doesn’t respect you enough to believe you should have control over your own body. You are dressing in clothes that after this year you won’t be able to look at again without immediately feeling a deep sadness in the pit of your stomach (long green earrings, a knee-length white knit sweater, a turquoise cardigan and worn slippers). You are deleting pictures from your Facebook of your high school graduation and senior prom because everything inside of you feels too raw and vulnerable and shameful to be presented to the public.
The piano is not firewood yet. But a heart can’t be helped and it gathers regret.
You are resenting almost all of your professors and saying that you don’t believe in academia. You are writing page-long paragraphs in Word documents saved simply as “thoughts.” You are reading a lot of Sylvia Plath. You are losing your grip. You are going to be okay.
Rummaging for answers in the pages.
You don’t know it yet, but you are going to navigate The Great Dichotomy every single day for the next six months and each battle will feel like a breaking wave at the Shinnecock Inlet rotating your body around in a perfect circle under water and knocking the wind out of you as you reach up into the air to grab your dad’s hand. Each time you step from the hallway of your residence hall into your common room you will face a floor-length mirror in which you will not be able to recognize yourself for a while. All the fragments of the person you want to be, currently swirling around in the sweetened milk at the bottom of your bowl of dining hall Cheerios, will come together to form the person I write to you as today. You deserve to know that the woman you feel yourself becoming right now is no indication of the woman you will be three years from now.
This is how it works. You peer inside yourself. You take the things you like and try to love the things you took.
I want to assure you that next year you are going to make a home for yourself at a different school and in a small dorm room on Broadway. Your new university will not be perfect but eventually, after many months of doubts and regret, you will be confident in your decision to leave the place that never felt like home and you will finally feel like you are in the right place for you. You are going to learn that you are kinder than you thought, and you will spend many days proving this to yourself. You will learn how important it is to be good to people and try your hardest to perfect this like a skill. This is an ongoing lesson. You are going to change your major a few times on paper and a million more times in your head until you finally settle on Communication Studies with minors in Arts & Entertainment Management and Women’s & Gender Studies and you are going to love it. You will start researching graduate programs and you won’t believe your own voice when you admit to yourself in the spring of your junior year that you maybe, really, totally, a little bit, most likely, maybe not though, possibly, sort of, kinda, definitely want to get a Ph.D.
All the lies on your resume have become the truth by now.
In your sophomore year you are going to start a blog and at first you will write formal reviews of the music you are listening to but your subject matter will morph over time (due to positive encouragement from your friends) into more personal posts about the way that music has been chronicling your life for as long as you can remember. You will spill your secrets into 11-point font in a Google Doc and insert corresponding lyrics in italics at the end of each paragraph. This writing style will feel natural to you because you have been processing your thoughts through music since middle school. The eighteen-year-old who feared vulnerability too much to post pictures from her senior prom will write a blogpost about crying at the gynecologist at age twenty-one.
I’ve been staying up and drinking in the late night establishments, telling strangers personal things.
You will learn that longing for boys you don’t know is a waste of your time and this will leave you lonely for a while but it is during this time that you will learn to fill your heart on your own and this is a skill you will feel lucky to have had to develop.
Gargle with peroxide, a steak for your eye. But I’m a vegetarian so it’s a frozen pizza pie.
At the end of your junior year you will go on an interview for a job working with first-year students on campus. When you are asked questions about your freshman year, you will realize how far you’ve pushed down these feelings in an attempt to forget them. It will be hard to present your sadness as a selling point to a stranger but even harder to remind yourself of how broken you felt that year. You will get the job.
Someday you’ll grow up and then you’ll forget all of the pain you endured. Until you walk by a sad pair of eyes and up will come back all the hurt.
When you take on this job you will feel yourself develop what you refer to—once again, gratuitously but seriously—as “The Transfer Student’s Burden.” It feels ironic but somehow fitting that you end up with a job that asks you to help freshmen transition to college—clearly this is not something you were great at. You desperately want to make sure these students don’t feel as lost as you did at their age but, much like with the White Man’s Burden, you are not needed as much as you think you are.
You want to help but there’s just no way ‘cause you won the war so it’s not your turn but everything inside still burns.
You, in just a few months, during the spring semester of your freshman year, will watch the movie (500) Days Of Summer with your roommate. Regina Spektor’s contributions to the film’s soundtrack will remind you how much you loved her last two albums when you were in high school. The former you listened to when you were fourteen and Kellie drove you both to school every morning. You’d fight over what time to leave the house but forget your bickering as soon as “Dance Anthem Of The 80’s” came on and you were analyzing what exactly Regina meant by the boys and the girls watch each other eat when they really just wanna watch each other sleep. The latter album was released when you were sixteen and constantly driving around with a trunk full of Latin textbooks on your way to tutor a few younger students. “Jessica” still reminds you of Thursday afternoons and an FM transmitter and first declension nouns and the crowded parking lot of the Riverhead Free Library.
There’s a small town in my mind. How can I leave without hurting everyone that made me?
Watching (500) Days Of Summer will lead to your impulsively downloading all of Regina’s earliest albums, released when you were too young to understand them. You will show up late to your Political Science class because you refuse to walk across campus without these albums acting as emotional armor.
You’re using your headphones to drown out your mind.
Eventually your unconscious decision to stop listening to the country music you were loyal to for many years will not feel like you are losing a piece of yourself. You will actually be gaining a more conscious ear that is an integral part of the woman you will become. You will find your niche within the words of female singer-songwriters and turn to them for comfort—Regina leads to Sara leads to Ingrid leads to Kate leads to Lily. Their writing is enough to push you through most of the rest of the year and will help guide you through The Great Dichotomy. I must warn you that when you listen to these songs in February, on a Long Island Railroad trip home for a funeral, they will not be enough.
Jacqueline was being such a big girl with her cup of tea looking out of the window.
Regina Spektor opens her show at the Town Hall on West 43rd Street on October 17th, 2016 with “On The Radio.” Her dark curls and red lipstick immediately remind me of all the YouTube videos of her performances I watched in my dorm room my freshman year. That year plays on a loop in my mind as the setlist progresses but instead of being nauseated by my memories like I was on that job interview, I am given an opportunity to appreciate where I am right now, in this moment. I am able to come to terms with all of the mistakes I thought I made and see how every choice led me to the life I have now. Right now, I am content. And I used to think that was impossible.
You are going to be okay.
I love Paris in the rain. I love, I love, in the rain,