Letter to my Teen Self

The usual genre of this list is “Advice I’d like to give my teen self” or “15 things I wish I knew when I was younger.” But we’re changing the assumption that our teen selves weren’t already strong and cool. In fact, we think they maybe even knew more about some things than we do now. Here is our three part series, Letters to my Teen Self, imagining a back and forth exchange between our past and present selves. 

To: 15 year old Talia, Oakland, CA

From: 29 year old Talia, Brooklyn, NY
1. You are not naïve for believing in a better world. The adults who say so are confused. I try to learn from your commitment to justice every day.

2. High School is the real world. The friends you make are real, the emotions you have are real, the beliefs you fight for are real, the legs that carry you are real. The purpose of childhood is not solely to prep you for the real world because you are already in it. I know adults say scary things like “You think this is hard, just wait ‘til you’re older!” But they’re just having their own feelings. It’s true, life changes, and change is hard sometimes. But I’m now realizing that you actually work harder than I currently do. The greater task is to learn to stop working, to draw boundaries, to be flexible when appropriate and take care of yourself.

3. You don’t have to please everyone all the time. It’s okay to turn homework in late sometimes, it’s fine if someone doesn’t adore you. For a young Jewish girl, getting people to like you can feel like a matter of survival. But this is misinformation. Getting sleep matters more than straight A’s. Prioritizing the A above all else starts to make you believe your own body is second to (someone else’s definition of) success. You don’t have to believe it.

4. You are not alone. You never have to suffer alone. You can build a whole crew to call on whenever things get hard. You can cry your eyes out and then laugh ‘til your sides split. You can be pissed off and tell people about it. You don’t have to look nice or happy all the time. You can say “Help!” and expect people to come running. You can say “I’m scared!” and expect an embrace. You can say “I’m so proud!” and expect a huge celebration.

5. Things are less scary than you were taught. The adults around you love you and don’t want bad things to happen to you. They may have exaggerated some of the dangers around you, or forgotten to present them with a rational perspective. They said things like, “never talk to strangers” when what they meant was, “I really care about you.” It was the best they could do. There’s a lot of ick, but there’s also a whole lot of good people wanting good things for you. You’re smart enough to suss out what’s safe and what’s not. Trust your gut.

6. I can’t thank you enough for the friendships you are forming. They continue to save my life again and again. I so appreciate how you make time for your friends everyday. I am trying to be more like you.

7. I am re-learning to meet people different from me, like you used to do when you were little.  It used to be easier to make friends with kids who were from different backgrounds. It’s gotten harder. It’s not our fault. Systems of oppression, like racism and classism, are designed to keep people apart. Let’s refuse to collude. Let’s go after friends of all kinds, learn how to be each other’s best allies and how to hold on.

8. You’re a damn good listener, and that’s a powerful tool. But here’s the secret: you don’t actually have to listen to everyone. It’s not your job as a female.

9. Your body is awesome. It will fluctuate in shape and size and that’s just what it is.

10. Don’t worry so much about eating health food. Try to just listen to your body and eat things that taste delicious. The rest will fall into place.

11. You might never stop questioning your sexuality. It’s not a question you are ever obligated to answer.

12. Being messy or disorganized means nothing bad about you. You’re good. End of story.

13. I love that you write poetry and stories whenever you want to.

14. Whatever happens dude, you’ll figure it out.

15. And again- thanks for all you’ve taught me.

For more “Letters to my Teen Self” see here.

On Self Care and the West Coast Port Shutdown

“Here’s where I’ve come to,” I explained to Paul Kivel (my activist mentor), “In the realm of Self Care.” Paul and I were checking in over the phone. I’d been going non stop from meeting with Jewish Youth for Community Action (JYCA), to board meeting, to music rehearsal, to Occupy assembly to Occupy protest… and so Paul had started encouraging me to sit down and do some reflecting on this illusive topic: Self Care. Two words that have haunted me for years (though “haunted” seems a little dramatic).

When I hear those two words I picture: wealthy women dipping manicured hands into luscious coconut cream and paraffin wax, cucumbers over their eyes, an unnamed person rubbing their feet, as a small breath escapes their lips forming a frozen comic book bubble above them reading: “I just needed a little Self Care.

I also picture activists who needed Self Care, who went inward, and then never seemed to return to the movement.

Capitalism tells me Self Care is going shopping, is getting drunk or hooking up with someone, is eating to the point of discomfort, is watching TV ‘til my brain feels like birdfeed and burnt out firecrackers… all because I needed to “let loose” and “have a little fun.” All because I just needed a little Self Care. When I look at it this way, I can’t tell how coconut cream, going inward and birdfeed equals the collapse of capitalism. Sounds more like collusion. Sounds like systems of oppression running just fine. I’m trying to bring this shit down, not fuel it.

The day before my phone check-in with Paul, the Occupy Oakland camp was raided for a second time, and there was a 4am call for support. I thought: I should go. Then I thought: I’m exhausted, I’ve been worried about getting sick and I have lots of work. I’m staying in bed. So I slept. It was later that morning when I finally took Paul’s advice and sat down to do some writing before giving him a call. I wrote, “I guess I made the Self Care choice by continuing to sleep…. But it seems like the Self Care choice for everyone should have been to stay home. How was 4am healthful for anyone? And so does the movement depend on some people not following Self Care practices? And then why should I be one of the people who gets to take care of myself if not everyone can? And how does Self Care make sense for a movement, when it depends on some people not actually paying attention to it?” I wrote and wrote, but could not arrive at an answer.

“Here’s where I’ve come to- in the realm of Self Care,” I told Paul on the phone.

“You have to see it as over a lifetime,” Paul said, “It’s not just one 4am protest, or one meeting, or one action. It’s the whole movement over a whole lifetime.”

We talked about the ebbs and flows of a movement, the ebbs and flows of our lives, and what each of us has to give. For some, being a parent is the top priority during a time period, and parenting in and of itself can build towards justice for future generations. And when their child grows up, the parent can refocus their energies to contributing in new ways. For others, creating posters for events and email blasting all of their friends is more healthful than actually going themselves. Self Care, Paul reminded me, isn’t just a bath and tea candles. Sometimes Self Care is actually showing up. For some, getting to support Occupy Oakland at 4am was completely thrilling. It gave them energy and passion. And maybe they even had time later to go home for a nap. For those folks, showing up was Self Care. When each of us thinks about our goals, passions, capabilities and roles, we get to show up at these Self Care times.

“Besides,” Paul reminded me, “The day before the raid, you were at Occupy Oakland supporting youth to lead an Adultism and Youth Empowerment workshop. Youth Empowerment is one of your main roles in the movement. That is what you are showing up for.”

And for me, youth work is energy-giving.

This past Monday was the West Coast Port Shutdown to show solidarity with workers’ rights and against the corporate greed that drives this hyper-capitalist system. There were two picket shifts: 5:30 am and 5pm. JYCA youth planned to have an evening contingent.

I spent a while thinking about that 5:30am shift. If one of my main roles is youth empowerment, then it was important that I be awake and energetic enough to bring JYCA in the evening. But as I thought, I kept feeling drawn to the 5:30am shift, to the idea of seeing the sunrise over the Oakland port picket line. And, I realized, I would have time to take a nap before 5pm. Could it be, in this case, that showing up at dawn actually was Self Care?

The night before the port shutdown I laid out my clothes. I set my alarm for 4:40am. I packed oatmeal in a Tupperware. In the morning I headed out towards BART, noticing how empty streets feel like an extension of my bedroom: my bed, my closet, my carpet, my front door, the cement broken by tree roots, the storefronts and their “closed” signs, the dirty white of the crosswalk, the ticket gates, the BART train… I arrived in West Oakland and found a friend with a nuzzle-able cheek. I clenched her hand and we started marching. Other faces, familiar from the past few months of occupying, early-morning fuzzed around me. Knowing smiles were shared as we groggily chanted: “We! Are! The 99%!” And the sun began to spill out over our picket line.

Later that morning, I did get my nap. As my toes thawed out under a blanket I started to dream. There I was, back at the port. The sun-spill even more golden than in real life. Our picket line circled and we chanted loudly: “We! Are! Fully Alive! We! Are! Fully Alive!”

Update 10/15/12 Just read this blog post by B Loewe at Organizing Upgrade that I think gets at some of the systemic issues involved with the feelings I was grappling with. Loewe’s point is a good one- if what we’re striving for in justice is a sense of community and connectedness, why would “self care” be the goal, instead of “community care?” But many, including  Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha at brown star girl, have accurately pointed out how this rhetoric privileges able-bodied people. What do you think?