Dear Teen Me:
You do not have to be good. You don’t have to try so hard. You don’t have to stay so very still inside that box that you have built up for yourself.
Life is meant for living.
You want to be something, you wish not to disappoint, you aren’t as smart as you think you should be, so you try harder. You hand your schoolwork in early, so terrified of being late that you do not dwell with it, do not take the necessary leaps of faith, the risks, the late-making dares from which you might actually learn. You train so hard at the skating rink that the joy-freedom-glory-rush you once found in that ice and those jumps and those spins and that footwork has been lost beneath the righteous weight of discipline. You have grown so concerned about getting it wrong, doing it wrong, being wrong, falling (it is black, you think, or it is white) that you have grown blind to the vibrancy of grey.
Fall down. Get up. You’ll be okay.
Soon you will hear someone close to you call you fat, and you will stop eating, or you will hide what you eat, or you will be ashamed that you do, in fact, sometimes eat.
Soon you will find yourself at a university so preposterously ill-equipped for that wild rumpus—minor scandals, major deviations, brackish waters—that you will choose not to navigate, but to run.
Soon you will walk for miles alone in a city, looking for the scrappery of poetry, for fragments you can bind, for ways of feeling whole.
Don’t stop eating. Don’t run. Don’t get lost inside the broken things. Don’t choose solitude as your religion.
The world is wide and glorious and strange; it is a spectrum. Lend it more of your love.
Prepare—here is what I mean to say—for love. Prepare for the husband you will choose, the son you will adore, the young people who will—surprising you, storming you, blasting through your fine defenses—make room for you in their hearts. Prepare to return to that college campus from which you often ran and stay—a teacher now, passing the stories of real living down. Prepare to write the stories that are true, or feel true, or might have happened, or would have happened had you allowed them to. Prepare to open your own arms wide and your own heart to the stretches of forever.
Prepare to open a page of a Mary Oliver book and to read the poem “Wild Geese.”
Read it to yourself.
Read it to them.
Live it. Live it now.
You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert repenting….
Beth Kephart is the author of more than a dozen books, including the National Book Award finalist A Slant of Sun, as well as many critically acclaimed novels for young adults including UNDERCOVER, HOUSE OF DANCE, NOTHING BUT GHOSTS, THE HEART IS NOT A SIZE, YOU ARE MY ONLY, and SMALL DAMAGES.
In addition to being a National Book Award finalist, Kephart is a winner of the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts fiction grant, a National Endowment for the Arts grant, a Leeway grant, a Pew Fellowships in the Arts grant, and the Speakeasy Poetry Prize, among other honors. Kephart’s essays are frequently anthologized, she has judged numerous competitions, and she has taught workshops at many institutions, to all ages. She has also teaches advanced nonfiction workshops at the University of Pennsylvania.