A Message to My Boyhood Self

I asked novelist Craig Clevenger what he’d say if he could travel back through time and to give himself some sage advice. His response was gut-wrenchingly beautiful. And here it is:

I don’t know how long this little wormhole/space-time rift/whatever will stay open, so I’ll be as fast as I can, but I have to be a bit cryptic so as not to crush any butterflies. The clock is ticking so listen up. I’ll start with the easy stuff:

Please, eat some vegetables. Stretch regularly and practice mindful breathing. All of those, every day.

Cultivate focus. This will take time and effort, but everything else will stem from your mastery of focus. Everything.

Don’t worry about being cool. High school’s going to suck but that’s okay because you’ll learn not to look back; the best part of your life should never be behind you (hint: it won’t be).

Adults say your idealism will fade as you get older. They’ll be wrong, and you’ll be proud of that. They say your intensity will diminish with time, and they’ll be wrong again. But you will learn how to direct that intensity; you’ll turn your furnace into a welding torch and make beautiful things with it.

Don’t trust any adult who says, “You remind me of myself when I was your age.” They’re probably lying, and probably after something they know better than to ask for. And here’s a secret about adults: we’re all faking it. We’re the flight attendants and you’re the passengers, but neither of us can fly the plane. We’ve been in the air more, but that doesn’t make us any better at it. We know you need food, blankets and something to read, but when lightning hits the engine, the best we can do is keep it together and hope you don’t figure out how absolutely terrified we really are, because your safety is important to us.

Quit apologizing so much. Save it for when; you’ve done actual harm. That voice in your head, the one that tells you what you’re doing wrong and what’s wrong with you? Next time it speaks, write down what it says verbatim. Ask yourself, is this how I speak to people I love? Is this how they speak to me? Then burn whatever you wrote. Check it: that inner voice is not yours. It’s the miserable, angry echo of the adults who speak to their own selves that way and who happen to hold sway over you. For now. They won’t much longer.

Eat vegetables, stretch and breathe. Don’t drink unless you can enjoy yourself sober. Don’t drink with anyone who can’t do likewise.

Write thank-you letters. Exercise. Move. Use the body you have, preferably outdoors. Don’t fear getting old. Many of your friends and loved ones in the coming years will no longer be alive when you read this. Relatives, classmates, coworkers and lovers of yours will be cut down before their prime. So quit fretting about age because you’ll have more of it than some of those close to you ever will.

Maybe she likes you, too; maybe she’s afraid you won’t ask. And when you ask, ask. Be clear and confident about your intentions; maybe and sometime are neither clear nor confident. No person or thing is out of your league. Not one. Out of your league is a myth created by people who make money by convincing everyone in the world they’re unworthy of everyone else. If someone does believe they or what they have to offer is above you, out of your league, then they’ve bought a very expensive lie. Move on; good people await you.

Don’t confuse the above with entitlement. Your entitlements are only as real as the obligations to them that you honor.

Eat vegetables. Stretch. Breathe.

Midnight oil is a biohazard; learn how to manage your sleep.

Drink lots of water.

Ditch shame but embrace humility.

Look people in the eye when they speak to you. If you catch yourself thinking of a response before they finish, take a breath and ask them to repeat themselves. Then pay attention the second time.

Take a breath before saying anything. Always.

Say please and thank-you. Be polite, whether or not you have something to gain. Those between you and the person you want to meet or the place you want to be—the people answering the phone, opening the door, handling your luggage, taking your order, listening to your problem, cleaning up after you—they are more powerful than the person, more important than the place. Especially if it’s a place you’re trying to leave. So be polite.

Clean up after yourself.

Tell friends and loved ones good things about themselves, and don’t wait for special occasions to do so. You cannot measure the lasting good this will do. You can set the tone of every interaction you if you take the initiative. Compliment strangers—men and women alike—and not just on their appearance.

Get out of your comfort zone and stay out. But don’t confuse adventure and fulfillment for daily peak experience. Sometimes taking a risk and following your passion means, as one writer told me, “spending many years alone in a room doing work that no one on earth can assure the worth of.” The work itself should be sufficient reward. If it’s not, then you’ve misunderstood your calling.

Vote. Recycle. Conserve water. Save your money. Don’t buy what you don’t need (and you need far less than you think).

Ditch guilt but embrace accountability.

Eat vegetables, stretch, breathe, and move around outdoors.

Travel, but take the guidebooks with a grain of salt. Always carry a knife, kerchief, and something to write with. But quit taking so many notes. You can document an experience or you can live it, but not at the same time. You’ll remember what you need to and if you don’t, you were away from the typewriter for too long.

Making your mark on the world isn’t the same as making a difference. To paraphrase an ancestor of mine, the world should be better for your having lived in it. You’re going to get hurt, heartbroken, rejected, and fall on a number of misfortunes in years to come.

Make your injuries smaller by making your world bigger. So travel. Read. Volunteer. Get out of your own head, out of your comfort zone, and expand your world. Go live your life.

I’ll be waiting.

o O o

Craig Clevenger wrote The Contortionist’s Handbook, Dermaphoria and the upcoming Mother Howl.

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