By Dorinda Fox
I am spoiled rotten by living in Florida, because I originally wrote this while eating a cheap prime rib lunch in a restaurant on the Flagler Beach pier. I had a window seat and it was a beautiful day along the Atlantic Ocean. Little kids were running in the waves watched by parents pulling cold ones from coolers between their camp chairs. One elderly couple walked hand-in-hand through the waves. I would soon drive down the road to walk alone along the beach at Gamble Rogers state park. The beach is my church and I needed the sermon of the waves that afternoon.
This is a personal essay but I think pertinent for those teaching first year students who walk in the classroom the first day hopeful but scared and who bring emotional baggage from home with them.
I was heading home from Jacksonville. My daughter had been accepted to the University of North Florida (UNF) and it was open house day for the parents. Her father and I are rarely in the same room, and I promised myself that I would bite my tongue off if I had to so it would be a good day for her. We also rarely agree, but would both like her to go to UNF. I did bite my tongue a lot but can never really make such events stress-free for her. I was being too quiet and she knew why. She was aware that the UNF hoodie I bought for her was a bribe. It was inappropriate for me to tell her that I found the electrical engineering professor who discussed robotics to be “hawt,” but he was Irish and gorgeous and he made friggin’ robots. She said she agreed with me totally, but had noted he was too old for her. It was a Galway accent too. Not Dublin. I know the difference now and just . . . damn.
An amusing articulate but frighteningly cynical attorney friend of mine does not think much of marriage. He refers to the institution as “monotonous monogamy” and reminds people that familiarity breeds contempt. My ex and I had 20 years of familiarity that bred hip deep contempt, and it is no fun for any of us to wade through that bullshit. Nor is it fair for them. I do admire my daughter for doing the best she can in a bad situation because being 17 is hard all by itself.
So I was feeling guilty about being part of a situation that causes my daughter pain when I got back to the hotel. I did what any sensible person would do to deal with guilt. I went to the Bob Evans next door for French Silk pie. I do love pie.
I was eating pie and worrying about my daughter when I saw the most beautiful sight. There were three 10-year-old girls out with the birthday girl’s family for a birthday dinner. In North Florida, nothing says celebrate like chicken and dumplings, fried cheese, and loaded baked potatoes. The girls were all dressed in identical polka dot dresses, fake leather page boy caps, and leather ankle boots. The girls were giggling and dancing their way through the restaurant much as my daughter would have done when she was 10. Their total confidence and joy at being alive was a shining light in a dark night of the soul for me.
One of the reasons I spend so much time thinking about and seeing stand-up comedians is because the comic balances out the tragic in life and I sometimes have a need for that. I had a ticket to see a comedian named D.S. from Washington D.C. at the comedy club located in my hotel at 10:00 that night. My room was close enough to the club that I could hear loud laughter from the 8:00 show. However, it was not enough that night to combat the emotional fatigue that accompanies being “the mother-who-screwed-up” in my daughter’s eyes. I just did not want to think about it anymore and went to sleep at 9:30 with the sound of laughter coming through the walls.
So as soon as I finished the key lime pie (I do like pie) then I was off to try to walk away the guilt caused by knowing my daughter was just like those 10-year-old girls before her father and I decided we had generated enough contempt and needed to get out.
It is a state park so the stretch of beach is long, but it could never be long enough.
My daughter is 17 and will be barely 18 when she begins college.
I belong to a writing group and one exercise earlier this year was to write a letter to our 17-year-old selves. Perhaps there is something of value in this for my now 17-year-old daughter.
Dear 17-year-old me,
In about a year when you are 18-years-old you will fall in love with a pure heart and one serous mind. You will spend your life trying to find that again. One of your life’s blessings is you don’t marry that man so you and he cannot disappoint each other over the years. You will both have that golden time when it was love. So 30 years later he is a phone call away 24/7 and when he says “I love you” he means it heart and soul. That is golden. Always.
Your biggest regret will be never having his child.
However, you will have other children with a much lesser man who are still beautiful, smart, and wonderful children who will make life wonderful . . . and make life sad. They can’t help it because they don’t know how to do all this right either, and they were kinda hoping you might show them how. Many days you won’t have a frigging clue. They are smart kids who realize, that and it scares them.
Your mother scares you in the same way.
You wanted to be different than your mother and you are still trying and it pisses you off big time when other people don’t get that and sling the insult, “You are just like . . . “ as if they were throwing acid.
Your hope will be that when your children get older they respect you for not pretending to know what the hell you were doing. Those who seem to know are pretending. And when the pretense fails much hurt follows.
Stop being so afraid 17-year-old me and 47-year-old me. You are always afraid and of the same damn things. What will I be when I grow up? Will someone love me?
Some days you will get it. It is all a process. In flux. You will get the love you want and it will be glorious. Then you won’t get the love you want and it will hurt. Then you will. Then you won’t. It is endless.
You will learn you have no control over when you get and when you don’t. When that sucks ass and it often will find a beach. Walk along it. Think about the map of the very large country in which you live as you walk along the beach. You are small. The world is big. You are on the edge and over that water are whole other countries where people are walking and looking over the water thinking the same thoughts. Move to Florida so you can get in the car and drive less than hour to that beach. It will keep you sane. It will be your church.
Right now at 17-years-old you are afraid that others won’t like or love you if you are not nice enough. Get over it. You can be nice. You can try hard. You can love sincerely. People are fickle. They can be friends, family, lover, or co-workers and whether they like you or not loving you back up to them. You have no control over that. And it hurts like hell when they don’t. It hurts a lot.
Someday you will get very sick for a long time. It will be a gift. That illness will cure you of the illusion of control over anything or anyone.
The friends, family, lovers, or co-workers who remain were forever. The others were for a time in the past. That was what happened. Waste of time to cry over it.
I can only tell you about today with any clarity.
You will go to a meeting in the city where you lived as a child. You will stay in a lovely old hotel with an 80-year-old elevator that has to be run by an operator in a uniform. That hotel has a cozy little bar with fireplaces and beautiful couches and chairs and needlepoint on the walls. You will go to the meeting and see your incredible boss who climbed mountains of administrative paperwork to make it possible for you to have health insurance after your COBRA ran out. He will hug you when you walk in and hug you before you leave and say, “Take care.”
Whenever you make a comment in the meeting he will announce to those attending on Wimba, “Dorinda Fox said something very smart.”
You will go to a play at a small theater in DuPont Circle where Irish playwrights are celebrated and see a one-man show about a Kansas tabloid journalist who finds out that he like everyone else has a soul despite his best efforts to be an angry bastard. After that you will go to an Irish bar near the Metro station. It is cold and you will ask for a hot whiskey and lamb stew because you went to Ireland in December and that is where you think you belong. You briefly met someone who might have that heart and mind, and that memory tastes like warm Jameson’s.
You will go back to the hotel and work for several hours teaching classes online. You will go downstairs to sit by the fireplace quietly drinking a glass of wine listening to two elderly gentlemen hotel guests recall old times and sing a Boy Scout song, “I would rather wear a Fleur de Lis than be the Prince of Italy.” One of the elderly gentlemen is accompanied by his frankly elderly retarded daughter who sings along and then tells her dad about what she made in arts and crafts on Wednesday.
I cannot tell you about tomorrow.
Dear 17-year-old me you will realize that it is likely you will never know what you are doing or why you are doing it.