I regret nothing
Hi friends. A quick preamble to what I’ve written below to say another big thank you for being here, for reading any of the words I choose to share. There are SO MANY NEWSLETTERS these days (it honestly feels like everyone is writing on substack at this point), so I sincerely appreciate each of you for taking the time to read mine. ❤️
When I was 23 and still getting my post-undergrad legs beneath me, a generously intoxicated friend told me her parents hated me. Which was both funny and heartbreaking. I was doing the best I possibly could and I was also lost and struggling with my mental health and in the throes of an eating disorder and felt completely directionless. And I was a little bit slutty and probably drinking too much and I was very very poor. But I was also a kind person and a supportive friend and I was loving and compassionate and my life might have been a mess (still sort of is) but that meant I never would have judged you for yours being one, too (still very much true).
At 23, I didn’t like myself at all. Hearing that my friend’s parents hated me — not because I was a bad person but because I was a young person who didn’t yet know who she was or what she wanted to be — only reinforced my warped sense of self. Looking back now (as a 41 year old who might know more about who she is but is still very much figuring the rest out) I think 23 year old me was a hoot, was someone to love, was a person who was so often barely getting by but who still put so much good out into the world. She was bushwhacking her way through outdated cultural and religious and familial expectations. She made some mistakes. She did some regrettable things. But she was brave and she was persistent and she was making the best possible choices based on who she was at that moment and what she thought she understood.
I have so much love for that younger version of me. There was so much she didn’t yet know and she was afraid of so many things, but she was also more courageous than she ever gave herself credit for being. She feigned certitude in most circumstances, but I know she secretly envied her friends who knew what they wanted to do with their lives and set about doing it as soon as possible, friends who had careers by 25 and clear plans for the future and rapidly growing retirement accounts and long-term goals they were aspiring to achieve. I know she felt like she was perpetually falling behind, like she was somehow less worthy (in general but also) of care and compassion, less impressive as a person and — by extension — less deserving of love. As though love is always contingent upon one’s ability to impress. But she was also passionate in her aimlessness and she was bold and sometimes reckless and she created so much out of so little. And she was depressed and self-destructive but also somehow still exuberant, which feels more impressive to me now than any seemingly successful thing she could have possibly been doing instead.
Heather Havrilesky wrote that: “EXUBERANCE is vulnerability and wild hopes and boisterousness and longing. Exuberance isn’t following one strict road map forward, chiding yourself every second of the day for not doing it right . . . Exuberance is honesty and willingness. You don’t have to be better to be exuberant. You don’t have to be successful or even solvent to be exuberant.” And also: “Status is the enemy of exuberance.” To which I say: !!!!!
The way she describes living exuberantly (please go read the entire essay) makes me see younger me so much differently. It makes me see current me so much differently. It makes me imagine future me differently, too. What if exuberance — or something like it — is the true measure of a good life? Not exuberance in the sense of being always and invariably happy, but exuberance as in profuse and luxuriant growth, as in unrestrained joy, as in unrestrained grief, as in desire and abundance and unfettered enthusiasm, as in bold and wild and uninhibited, as in awestruck, as in fully immersed in whatever life you are living in whatever moment you’re in.
These days, I actually do have a retirement account and a career I’ve somehow created. But these certainly aren’t the most interesting or even the most impressive things about me. And I’d say they have come — at least in part — at the expense of my own exuberance. In my attempts to become a more serious person, AN ACTUAL ADULT PERSON WHO TAKES HER LIFE SERIOUSLY, I have in many ways forfeited the boldness and the brashness and the sometimes ridiculousness that once so beautifully colored my life. I have become more timid and more restrained. Terrified of losing the relative stability it feels like I finally have. (Is this just growing up????)
But — as I keep being forced to learn — stability is always tenuous. ALWAYS. At any moment, something can destabilize your life. A car accident (or two!). A pandemic. A chronic illness that arises out of nowhere. An expected move (or four!). CANCER.
I struggle to find the balance between my desire for continued and future stability and my need for joy right now. It is not an easy equation to solve. My mom died seven months before she was set to retire. Seven months. She had big plans. She was going to live by the ocean. She was going to learn how to surf. She was going to be a little reckless and bold and ridiculous. She couldn’t wait. And I couldn’t wait to watch it all unfold. Which now (obviously) can’t happen. But it does make me look at the math a little differently, you know? And wonder what I am unnecessarily sacrificing today in the name of a tomorrow that might never be. How often am I trading my vitality for some imagined sense of security? In what ways am I (both consciously and unconsciously) perpetuating worn out cycles of shame? In what ways am I still attempting to impress my way into love? Where am I making wise choices and where am I behaving afraid?
Our culture celebrates extravagance over exuberance and too often confuses one for the other. It rewards us for feeling ashamed because shame keeps us compliant, it keeps us craving what we’re told to crave, chasing what we’re supposed to chase. But shame is not a virtue. Or a guarantee of anything good. It stifles, suffocates, cuts us off from connection. It convinces us our messiness and our missteps are always moral failings. And, sure, maybe sometimes they are. But more often than that they’re not. Bob Ross once said, “There are no mistakes, just happy accidents.” And I know he was talking about painting, but this applies to so many things.
He also said: “You have to allow the paint to break to make it beautiful.”
Maybe I am the paint. Maybe you are, too.
A short list of things that brought me joy and/or made me think these past few weeks:
1. Shark Heart: A Love Story by Emily Habeck
2. The Mothers by Cheryl Strayed:
3. Emi Nietfield on the Everything Happens podcast with Kate Bowler
4. Values by Lauren Hough
6. The books I wish men read by Holly Whitaker
8. Trying to let my own grief soften me to the grief that is everywhere all the time instead of allowing it to harden me against the world.
9. “We tell ourselves stories in order to live...We look for the sermon in the suicide, for the social or moral lesson in the murder of five. We interpret what we see, select the most workable of the multiple choices. We live entirely, especially if we are writers, by the imposition of a narrative line upon disparate images, by the "ideas" with which we have learned to freeze the shifting phantasmagoria which is our actual experience.” ~Joan Didion, The White Album
Take care of yourself out there. Take care of each other.