Introduction by Carmen Gimenez Smith
My youngest sister killed herself about a year ago. At the time, I felt like I had been cast out in a slow-motion tailspin. She was only 21, and although she had been having trouble, our last few conversations had seemed optimistic, hopeful. For weeks I blamed myself, which is what every survivor does. I painstakingly reviewed every interaction we had, and then berated myself for what I did and didn’t do right for her. I brutally interrogated myself, and then withered beneath my own cruelty. I should have known better.
Among many things, I know we both barely tolerated ourselves. We were both sometimes awkward in the world, hurtful and needful, but the scale of our own self-loathing dwarfed the reality of how we were actually navigating the world. Shame perverts the soul, distorts it, and it kept us both from doing the right sort of work on ourselves, so that paradoxically we both got trapped in a paralytic amber. We treated ourselves very badly and rarely gave ourselves room to change.
I also know what happened to my sister because I was once my sister. We were cut from the same genetic cloth, both internalizing all the bad in our world as our fault, so I had great empathy for what she must have been feeling in the few days before she resolved to take her own life. I remembered being 21 and seeing self-annihilation as a practical solution to the difficulties I had, a course correction. But I didn’t do it; I’m still here. After my sister died, I thought a lot about how I managed to survive. Maybe as the daughter of a hustler, I learned to hustle love from people in a way that she couldn’t. Maybe it was just luck.
Most likely it was that I learned to surround myself by powerful and fearless women. Both in books and in life, I watched women who stopped at nothing, who disregarded the censorious voices in their heads, who took down walls and broke through ceilings and I aped them. Sometimes my mimicry was half-hearted but sometimes I let myself feel brave and worthwhile, and these little respites buoyed me through the most treacherous periods in my life as did the amazing women who were guided me and loved me even when I didn’t. Teachers and friends, and fictional characters and writers became a pantheon I drew from when I got lost.
If I could speak to myself at 21 or to my sister again or to any young woman mired in the mess of self-hatred, I would insist on perspective. It’s likely that I’ve made shitty decisions, or had shitty aspects to my personality, but I’m not an irredeemable monster. And even if I have been a monster, the hours spent cataloging my faults did nothing to change me. Self-love seems like a no-brainer, but it eludes so many women, especially loud-mouthed slightly mad women like me, so I would say, love yourself for part of the day. It’s corny, but it’s true. The little pats I’ve given myself on the back helped me survive and more importantly, gave me the buoyancy I needed to take risks as a human and as an artist. I’m teaching my daughter not to apologize for everything. Maybe she’ll grow up to be a little brazen, but she won’t grow up to hate herself.
The old chestnut about suicide is that the people left behind couldn’t have done anything to change the circumstances. Maybe this is true, but having been on both sides, I want to do something. I imagine this column on Her Kind as a place where writers can conjure up the young people they once were and sit them down for counsel. Maybe the advice is about acid-washed jeans or maybe it’s about the boyfriend who talked her out of going to away college. This space will be part-autobiography, part-self-help, and part drill sergeant, part mom, and part bestie. I’m inviting the women who’d like to have a word with the person they once were to do just that: offer wisdom, calibrate the compass. We can’t go back, but maybe we can help how others go forward and flourish.
Notes to My Younger Self
by Rachel Haley Himmelheber
My yoga teacher often closes class by saying, Enjoy your day, enjoy your body, enjoy your freedom of movement. I love my yoga teacher and the way he focuses on mindfulness and pleasure. He walks around praising what he seems to genuinely enjoy seeing: Beautiful mind-body connection. Lovely lines in that pose. He corrects alignments and then stands and admires the effect.
I love him, but my younger self would have hated him—too woo-woo, this attention on the physical, not an intellectual. To enjoy your body, that’s like using the word lovemaking, it’s like saying you’re blessed, or someone is your lover. I know my younger self; she liked bullies, she wasn’t into sincerity. Because it’s not even the language or the sentiment that would have really scared and repulsed my younger self: it’s the earnestness—which is to say, it’s the vulnerability.
I would have dismissed the idea of enjoying one’s body as sounding fluffy, but it was actually the exposure that I shrunk from.
I used to not live in my body at all. I stayed in my brain since that was the part of myself I liked, and I left only fleetingly to satisfy essentials. Hungry, horny, papercut?: fix it and rush back to thinking. I was like a housesitter with that bare-minimum sort of conscientiousness: I watered the plants when they drooped, picked up the mail when they couldn’t squeeze any more in the box, made sure none of the fish died. You’d pay me because it looked like I did a pretty good job, but I was barely even trying.
Always in my house now, somewhere, usually scribbled on a post-it, this message: Write and take a walk. It’s a missive from Feeling-Good Rachel to Feeling-Like-Shit Rachel. Things are terrible hopeless blah? This is what will help, if you’re brave enough to believe it for long enough to try.
Writing and walking and happiness—they’re a tangled trinity for me now.
I wish I’d started walking earlier. I’ve always been able-bodied and had the good luck of health. So I walked, but I didn’t walk. Not like I do now, and have done for the past eight years. It’s religion to me now. I sometimes miss a day. I rarely miss a few. When I do, I always start again. And it has helped my writing grow. My younger self was fine at composing, but revision was hard. Composing is wild; it’s 80 mph with the top down on a too-skinny mountain road. It’s got a soundtrack that varies in genre (heartbreak, rage, joy, lust, recklessness, despair), but never in intensity.
But walking. Stolidity, dumb one-foot-in-front-of-the-other, that’s what’s taught me about both the measure and the storm of revision.
When I walk, I feel both relaxed and invigorated. It’s a valium washed down with espresso, it’s champagne and cocaine. Cold shower and a nap. When I walk, I get the big ideas and the minutiae. I’m thinking, but I’m also moving.
When teaching revision, I often tell my students, your draft is smarter than you are. By this I mean, investigate your draft to discover intuitive moves that might benefit from analytical revision. And I also mean that a draft is greedy and consuming in what it pulls from you. A whole person composes a draft: logic, intuition, spirit, intelligence, a body.
We don’t know parts of ourselves, or we don’t use them, we can’t recognize them in our drafts. What we can’t recognize, we often lose.
A revision process can always get more careful; a sense of self can always limber and expand. I’d tell my younger self to enjoy her freedom of movement and walk more.
Rachel Haley Himmelheber is a fiction writer and a professor of undergraduate writing at Warren Wilson College.
Carmen Giménez Smith is the author of a memoir, Bring Down the Little Birds, four poetry collections— Milk and Filth, Goodbye, Flicker, The City She Was, and Odalisque in Pieces. She is the recipient of a 2011 American Book Award, the 2011 Juniper Prize for Poetry, and a 2011-2012 fellowship in creative nonfiction from the Howard Foundation. Formerly a Teaching-Writing Fellow at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, she teaches in the creative writing program at New Mexico State University, while serving as the editor-in-chief of the literary journal Puerto del Sol and the publisher of Noemi Press.