This is how it will go.
You will be young, and so small. If we have to get specific, we could say it was sixth grade. Your friend Maggie could tell you about that year—she was your only friend, all year. You wore jeans cut off at the knees with bandannas tied around them, Punky Brewster-style. You wore tie-dyed shirts you had tie-dyed yourself, and weird thrift store sandals and you wrote all over your backpack in marker. You hated everyone in your class (except Maggie) and they hated you (except Maggie).
Sixth grade was the only year you weren’t in the smart class. Your school was unapologetically, brutally hierarchical, and placement tests determined your spot in next year’s classes: the smart kids, the mediocre kids, the stupid kids, the literally mentally retarded kids—a totem pole with white faces perpetually on top. Darker shades were much bigger in population but rarely represented in the top half. Those were your options, and obviously you fucked up that one day in fifth grade, because the first day of sixth grade found you clearly in the mediocre class. Your teacher was an idiot, your classmates were cruel and closed to you. You would ask to go to the bathroom and would sit outside the smart class and try to soak up smarts and try not to cry.
You and Maggie would walk home from school, trying to teach each other how to smoke cigarettes—a skill you still haven’t mastered. Mary DeLeon stole all your stickers one day, then when you tried to ask for them back she said she was going to beat you up after school. You ran home through the alley and along the canals, and the next day you laughed about it, but she was rough and hard, and you were terrified of her every day.
All the typical shit.
You wore your strange outfits, crazy concoctions of mismatched socks and found hair barrettes, and your classmates continued to laugh at you. You had DARE that year, and your stomach tightened every time the officer came into your classroom. His descriptions of junkies and the world of drugs were completely false, and the proof was in your living room every day. There was a confidential note box on DARE days where you could write a question the officer would answer. You always thought about telling him about the plants in your father’s garden out back and the neat white lines on the mirrored coffee table, the young Australian couple your father found on a golf course who lived in the shed and smoked crack, the trips to mysterious houses after school with your father on your bike. Instead you and Maggie wrote a note about the officer always being late that was supposed to be funny but fell flat as you saw that he was actually hurt by your disrespect for him.
Blah blah. Childhood.
You hated your teacher and pretty much everyone in your school, you hated your household and most of your family. You read books and went on bike rides, and that was sixth grade.
One day the taunts about your outfits got so bad that your teacher had to address the class directly and explain that some people felt “unique” and wanted to express their “uniqueness” through their outfits. It was condescending bullshit, and maybe that was the day, or maybe it was another day. At lunch one of these days you were sitting under a tree—no shit, it’s not that I’m saying I am actually the incarnation of Buddha, but this is seriously how it happened, not a banyan tree, most likely an ornamental orange tree—and it hit you. And it’s cheesey and silly and there is no way to adequately explain how important it was, but: the idea swum right up and lit up your brain and took your breath away:
I am aware. I am here.
It’s the most personal thing that’s ever happened to you.
It was an actual wall inside yourself, in that you physically felt yourself moving over something.
One minute you were on one side: miserable. And the next you were over it: aware. Here. “Here,” as in: in your head. Not “here” as in: the town you grew up in. It was the most important distinction imaginable at that time in your life. Here and not here. Here, instead of here.
I am aware, and awake, and myself, in the deepest, darkest, most wonderful sense of the word.
That was it, but that was enough.
In a few years you would read Walden, and it again sounds slightly ridiculous, but transcendentalism is what would get you out of your childhood. I don’t have to be here. I am aware of myself as both a physical being and as a freefloating mind in this universe, and that’s all I need.
So, this is how it goes.
It’s, what, maybe twenty years later, and you are in a self-reflecting frame of mind. You’ve spent thirty years plus one year on this earth, and here is what you know of this world. You started knowing what you know that day at lunch under the tree. Here’s what you would say to that twelve-year-old that day:
Your beliefs are shaped by your experiences of the world, so it’s important to keep having experiences and testing and reaffirming those beliefs. The important thing is not to get stale or comfortable. Keep moving.
Your people are artists in the widest sense of the world, and your people are worth holding onto, so be sure to hold onto them. Lavish them with everything you have. The rest of the world will disgust you, so it’s vital that you have a nourishing community that you can stand.
You will always make people angry or disgusted or repulsed or annoyed or some combination thereof. You will always talk too much and too quickly and about things often no one wants to hear. Even your bestest friends will sometimes need a break from you, which is why it’s vital that you stay friends with yourself.
It’s important to stay wild. Even when you own a house and have to pay taxes, you have to find ways of being wild. The trick is finding the balance between nourishing wildness and grounding creature comforts. Be ever alert against swaying too far to one side or another.
People will not understand you, and this is as it should be.
As long as you stay aware and present inside your own internal world, it will be fine.
It’s 4:30 am in my dark sweet house tucked into my mountain town, thousands of miles from that parched, sun-scorched mega-city I grew up in and have never been back to. I’ve got sweet friends I clutch to me when the world gets too ugly, a job I get to make up as I go along, three cats and one beautiful lover sleeping in the bed next to me, good food, and strange and lovely outfits to put on every day. I sometimes wonder: would I have any of this if I hadn’t had that day under the ornamental orange tree? To what extent does an awareness of one’s most deep and personal self contribute to their ability to enjoy life?
Does it matter?