Dear Young Dumb Self,
Remember the Oreo demonstration? You were in third grade. It was the year that your beloved teacher, Madame Henry, read Charlotte’s Web out loud. It was the year of Skip-Its and Earth Club and Northern Getaway and disc-shaped pizzas served on Tuesdays. And it was the year of the Oreo demonstration, an unimportant event which would nevertheless wind up stuck in some tacky crevice of your memory for the rest of your life.
All the kids in your class were counted off into two groups. The kids in one group—your group—were each handed an Oreo while the kids in the other group moaned and sulked. That Oreo, seasoned by your classmates’ envy and by the baffling but occasionally rewarding behaviour of adults, was delicious.
But then the adults turned to the other group and did something even more baffling: they handed out whole bags of Oreos. It’s hard to believe this now, but that’s what happened: everyone in Group Two was given his or her own bag of cookies to do with as each saw fit. And what each saw fit to do was to smirk and brag and gobble those goddam cookies, fistfuls of them, right in front of us.
It was some kind of lesson in sharing, I think. We were meant to understand that if we had shown generosity with our single cookie, then that generosity would have been shown to us later, when our luck took a nosedive. Or maybe it was to demonstrate some global truth about privilege and injustice and distribution of wealth. At the time, all I knew for certain was that the cookie I’d so enjoyed had turned to chalk in my mouth. The prospect of an Oreo hadn’t even occurred to me ten minutes earlier. Now I was certain I’d die right there in Classroom 3B if I didn’t find a way into that other, exclusive, unfathomably fortunate group.
I don’t have to explain the metaphor, do I?
So. Let’s ignore the second group for a minute. Let’s look at what’s been given to you. It’s your Comfort List, the one you recite like a spell each time you reach for someone’s baby or open a wedding invitation:
Friends. Family. Home. Writing. Career.
Some people would cut off their arm for a list like that. Each item is present in your life with enormous, bewildering abundance. Each is a magic, double-stuffed, regenerating Oreo that you can gorge on as much as you need to.
You can’t help staring enviously across the room, can you?
The other day, you walked by a mom who was screaming at her kid. Sit your ass down like I told you! Small, sweet-faced boy wobbling on skinny legs. And shut up!
Your whole self contracted into a tight, dark, impenetrable ball of judgment and envy and self-pity. Why her? The Comfort List went up in flames. Here is this awful woman screaming at her lovely boy, damaging him, resenting him, while you are walking around in a miasma of unspent romantic and parental love. You just need a place to put it.
And then, roaring up within you, a familiar volcanic fear: what if you never find that place?
And within that fear are other fears. They’re nested like Russian dolls, one inside the other: what if you settle for the wrong man out of haste and longing? Or, worse, you give up too soon on the right one? What if you’re so busy judging those poor, harried, unsupported single mothers who happen to reach their natural breaking points in a public place that you fail to recognize and correct your own shortcomings?
You know that there are many things you can control in your life. How you spend your free time (lurking online), what you read at night (currently The Secret of NIMH, which you conceal below your copy of George Eliot in the hope that someone other than yourself might soon be poking through the titles on your bedside table), which scented shower gel you’ll buy (Satsuma until the end of your days). But the things you do not control: hoo, baby. They rear up, don’t they? The things you do not control behave like a pack of wild mustangs, a cornered wolf, a Bermuda triangle: when they become apparent, all you can do is grab something sturdy and hope you aren't obliterated.
In those moments, Young Dumb Self, I want you to remember four things.
1. Instead of hating your lack of control, take pleasure in it. Powerlessness and freedom are synonymous in this case. All you can do is let time pass. Even Young Dumb Selves—the youngest, the dumbest—can manage to do that, right?
2. Friends. Family. Home. Writing. Career. With enormous, bewildering abundance.
3. Being in a relationship is hard—this, you know from experience. Being a parent is even harder—this, you’ve had reported to you. So you owe it to your coupled, spawning, euphoric, exhausted future self to enjoy the hell out of all this freedom, all this open air, because one day you’ll need to draw great lungfuls of oxygen from its memory in order to get through each wonderful, dizzying day.
4. Fuck Oreos. They cause cavities.
Old Wise Self