Monday, February 24, 2014

18 Wishes

When Paula's daughter Taylor turned 18, I wanted to give her a special gift - one that commemorated her milestone birthday with something that would last longer than a purse or a pair of shoes.  So I wrote her a letter.  Sure, I threw some cash in there too.  But a year and a half later, living independently in Tahoe and shining in her first "real" job, Taylor recently told me that the letter was one of the best gifts she's ever received.  She still revisits it.  (I'm pretty sure she isn't talking about the cash.)

With her permission, I'm reprinting the letter here.  Reading through it again, I find that I'd still do well to listen more attentively to my own advice.

July 2012
Dear Taylor,

It’s not real leather, but here is my gift to you.  For your 18th birthday, I give you 18 wishes- things that have served me well in life as I’ve traversed almost 30 years since my own 18th. 

I hope you like it.  If I had to sum it all up, my wish for you is joy.



#1: Use your body.  Maybe going running between a 5:30 AM meeting and the kids’ breakfast isn’t everyone’s idea of a great morning.  But look at the number of 6AM spin classes, 7AM yoga classes, cyclists hitting the road before the crack of dawn… you might say I’m crazy, but I’m not the only one.  It is gratifying and energizing to use your body – especially while you’re young and largely injury-free.  Exercise is not only life-giving, it’s also a natural upper.  Psychologists recommend regular exercise as treatment for depression, anxiety, stress… you name it.  It is the one activity I never regret, no matter how much I drag myself kicking and screaming into a workout.  My wish for you is that you use that beautiful, strong, capable body of yours to its full potential.  Sometimes, when I’m running or cycling, I do a ‘body scan’ – a meditative exercise that focuses attention sequentially on each area of the body.  Not only does it pull me back out of my head and into my body, but when I am in pain, the body scan helps me treat it with equanimity – and it helps me realize that there are so many parts of my body that magically, wonderfully, joyously work, all the time.  Give yourself this gift.

#2: Own your future.  Everyone has hardships in their life.  For some, it’s stark: war, homelessness, sexual abuse or physical disability.  For most of us, it’s more subtle.  Whatever ghosts we carry with us, they can be demanding.  Trying to ignore them usually spirals into anger, substance abuse, social isolation or depression.  It’s not healthy.

Recognize if and when these ghosts are tugging at your wrist.  Don’t let them keep you from your dreams.  You have a palpable energy and a personal radiance.  You can power your future with those assets.  At some point, the world expects you to look forward, no matter how bad a situation you were in, no matter how much your ex hurt you, no matter how hard your life has been.  There are people who overcome their circumstances, and there are people who blame them for their misery until the day they die.  My grandfather was a Holocaust survivor who lost his 4-year-old son to the war.  He witnessed countless atrocities and went on to save lives as a cardiologist in New York.  My former colleague is on the other end of the spectrum.  Whatever comfort he gets from the refrain “it’s not my fault”, it doesn’t make his life any happier.

Approach your life with resolve.  Be kind to yourself when your past gets the better of you.  And then point yourself toward your dreams and work like hell to achieve them.  Whether you achieve them or not, knowing that you made the effort will be your reward.  As my friend Susie likes to say, “All the divine can ask of us is that we try.”

#3: Revel in the natural world.  You live in one of the most beautiful places on earth.  The weather is perfect almost year-round, there are beaches and mountains within an hour’s drive, and even within the concrete jungle of San Jose, you can find flowers, trees, birds and insects everywhere you look. 
Get out of the city and sink into silence whenever you can.  Do it while you’re young, you don’t have kids and your body cooperates.  When you can’t get away, look for opportunities to walk.  You see things when you’re walking that you miss when you’re in a car.  The other day, I was walking from the train station at Belmont to my office – it’s a 20-minute walk over an ugly stretch of Ralston Ave that crosses 101.  I was in a funk for no reason other than being wrapped around my own axles.  I looked up and saw this beautiful tree, right as I was stepping onto the highway overpass.  It was covered in these little yellow fuzzy balls – like tiny tennis balls, but stunningly pretty.  It made my day to stop and look at it.  

We miss so much because we’ve got our faces pointed at our phones and our heads stuck in our own small lives.  Don’t forget to look up.  Every time I do, I’m amazed by how much beauty a moment can hold, even in the most unlikely places. 

#4: Read.  A love of reading can be your best friend.   Diving into a book lets your mind travel when your body can’t, engross yourself in someone else’s life when your own life is bringing you down, focus your mind, spark your imagination, inspire you to feel, give you empathy for things you will never experience directly… at the loneliest times in my life, reading has given me some relief from the weight of my own emotions.  There are few things I love more than losing myself in a book so good that I genuinely miss all the characters when it ends.  

It’s a joy that you can carry your entire life.  No level of physical immobility, poverty, or isolation can ever take reading away from you.  The library is free.

I’ve never had much of a memory for history or geography, but through other people’s stories, I’ve time-traveled to ancient Mayan cultures, modern-day Afghanistan, post-Civil-War North Carolina, high-society Savannah, the Japanese internment camps in Washington state, Myanmar… the list goes on.  

There is another reason to read: it makes you a better writer.  Do not underestimate how valuable this will be in your future.  By reading, you enrich your use of language and develop an appreciation for style.    The English language is so deeply textured; it can give voice to the subtleties of anything you’re feeling if you develop your own vocabulary and style.    Just look at how many greens there are in the woods.  Could one word possibly do them justice?  Most people can’t come up with two.

#5: Become financially literate.  Money can’t buy you love- but for better or for worse, it does buy just about everything else.  To travel, to continue your education, to do most of the things you want in life, you need money.  And that means you need to understand how to budget and to save.  There are basic concepts of financial literacy that will make your life so much easier.  You’re a smart girl.  You have the aptitude to be responsible and intentional with your finances.  It will make your life so much less stressful.  It will put your goals within reach.

I gave your mom the name and number of a gentlemen who does pro bono financial literacy sessions with teens, young adults, and even adults.  He was in retail banking for decades.  It won’t cost you a dime; he does this as a volunteer.  I hope you’ll contact him.

#6: Look for the spark.  Somewhere, at some point, you’re going to find a kind of work that is so engaging you hardly notice you’re working.  It may or may not be work that pays you.  It may be work for your mind or your body or both.  This is described as a state of flow.  Notice it when it happens.  You may not be able to take action on it right away, but tuck it away.  Look for the opportunities in life that ignite that spark.  What do you care about so passionately that you can muscle through the bad days?  When do you feel as if the hours are flying by?  Don’t worry if it doesn’t come to you immediately.  Don’t worry if the jobs you have to work as you’re getting started don’t ignite anything.  And don’t expect to feel that way all the time.  But don’t forget about it, either.  And when you find it… figure out what’s standing between you and it, and set out to defeat whatever is holding you back.

#7: Travel.  I should have put this at the top of my list of wishes for you.  There is no substitute for seeing the world in person.  You can’t experience the world through headline news; it’s intentionally heavy on shock value.  Traveling outside the country will open your eyes and change your perspective indelibly.  

Start a piggy bank today.  Put in a dollar a day for travel.    It doesn’t have to cost a fortune.  When I was living in an old walk-up apartment with two roommates after college, making $28,000 a year, I went to Egypt and Israel.  The next year, I went to Greece.  I bought all my furniture secondhand, rarely ate out when I didn’t have a coupon… but in total, I’ve been to 18 countries.  I would not trade that for anything else in the world.  

Travel on a shoestring when you’re in the third world; you will be closer to the pulse of life that way.  Stay in the youth hostels and meet people from all over.  Get on a plane with your Lonely Planet and just see what awaits you.  I promise, you won’t regret it.

#8: Keep learning.  I can’t urge you strongly enough to consider your education incomplete.  There is so much more for you to learn, so many ways for you to grow and extend yourself and look for that spark.  Yes, school can be expensive – but it’s still one of the best investments you can make in your future.  The reality is that college opens doors.  Some of those doors can be pried open, with considerable force, if you don’t have a degree.  Others are rather firmly shut. 

By accident of birth, I was on a college track from the time they cut the umbilical cord.  It was never a choice I had to make; it was an assumption.  You are faced with a choice – about whether, and when, going back to school is right for you, and if so, what kind of school.  My wish for you is that you keep all options open for yourself.  The choices you have when you’re young aren’t always available when you’re older.

You’re graduating into one of the toughest economies in recent memory.  It is increasingly hard to earn a living wage with a high school degree.  You’re bright, you’re energetic, and you have the E.Q. to be a great team member.  Don’t let a stunted education stand in your way.  Learn all your life.  The opportunities are still out there for those who have the drive to go get them. 

#9 Approach life with gratitude.  Gratitude has physiological benefits.  It is calming.  It makes you happy.  Medical research shows that grateful people actually take better care of themselves, have better immune system function, and cope better with stress.  

As you said yourself, you don’t know what you’ve got ‘til it’s gone.  Your life is full of blessings.  Find a moment every day to calm your mind, put the phone down, close your eyes, and just breathe.  In that moment, you’ll realize that you are healthy, safe, and loved.  Don’t ever take those three things for granted.  

One of my mantras is “assume good intent.”  If you get hung up on all the irritating (and in some cases harmful) things that people do out of ineptitude or carelessness, it feeds a ball of anger and resentment inside you, and it can really fuck with the pursuit of happiness.  Let it go and accept that most people, to the best of their ability, probably do mean well.  Even people who want to ban gay marriage truly believe that they are doing the right thing.  Without exonerating inaction, if you can shift your focus away from righteous indignation, you’ll have the latitude to feel gratitude.  And it is one of the best feelings in the world. 

You can choose to take gratitude further with practices of devotion, like yoga or religious ceremony.  There are so many paths to a spiritually rich life.  But all it takes is that moment – long enough to take a deep breath – to say “thank you”.  It doesn’t even matter who “you” is.

#10: Don’t bow to dependency.  I spent most of my late teens and early twenties with an alcohol problem.  As a shy and awkward teenager, I discovered that alcohol gave me license to behave outrageously.  I deliberately abused it to do the things that I knew I shouldn’t do, and to loosen the stranglehold of my shyness.  I did so many bad, irresponsible things when I was drunk.  It’s hard for me to think about, even now.  I saw myself as ugly and unlikeable, and when I drank, I separated from myself. I got high for the same reasons.  Trace it back to abandonment by my dad, trace it back to whatever you like… it doesn’t matter.  The result wasn’t pretty.

Getting high or getting drunk every day isn’t recreation; it’s dependency.  You have to ask yourself what you’re depending on it for.  I excused my alcohol abuse in college because I was a straight-A student.  So did most of the world around me.  But as much as I muted the pain when I was drunk, I exacerbated it when I wasn’t.  At some point, after being date-raped while unconscious, it finally clicked for me.  I didn’t blame anyone but myself.  I wish I could have those years of my life back to live over again.  I’m lucky that I was able to get over the addiction and find my own way to soak up the sun.  I love my life, even when it is hard, and I appreciate it.  I still deal with the anxiety I’ve had my whole life, but head-on, not sideways.  I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Look dependency in the eye.  If you ever find that you're using drugs or alcohol to suppress boredom, mask depression, or dull pain, or if getting high lets you put off dealing with the hard stuff, be honest with yourself about it.  You don’t owe that to anyone but yourself.  

Don’t shortchange how much beauty there is in life when you’re not seeing it through a filter.  It can be hard when you’re 18, but trust me that it’s out there.

If you should find at any point in your life that you need help- and that is a decision only you can make – there are many, many people who will welcome you with love, acceptance and empathy.  I am one of them.

OK, that’s enough prattling on.  Here are the eight runners-up:
#11 Repair the world.  Make it your personal responsibility to make the world a better place.
#12 Put effort into every part of your life.  The things that you’ll most value in the long run are the things that challenge you.  In the immortal words of four-time NBA MVP Dr J, “Being a professional is doing the thing you love to do — even on the days you don’t feel like doing it.”
#13 Treasure the moment.  It is all we have.  Give it everything you can.
#14 Don’t lose hope.  The world is a scary place right now.  I don’t know how it’s all going to turn out.  But I do know what will happen if we all give up and take the “life’s a bitch and then you die” mentality.  That much is predictable.
#15 Assume good intent. I mentioned this above.  But it’s important enough that it merits its own line.
#16 Dance whenever you can.  And do it as if no one were watching.  In fact, do it when no one is watching.  Dance like Leah.
#17 Don’t sweat the small stuff.  (And it’s all small stuff.)  A friend of mine had a book by this title in her bathroom.  Truer words…
#18 Feed the kitties.  A long time ago, I got a greeting card that contained this quote: I once asked a four-year-old what the secret to life was. “Feed the kitties,” she said. “Feed the Kitties”. It’s good advice.  Feed the kitties.  They will always make you feel appreciated.