I would like to tell five year old Caroline that in twenty years you will sit cross-legged on your bed and run your still small fingers through your still tangled hair and you will absently pick at a scab on your knee until it bleeds because you are thinking about other things, the way you always have. You will hum less and dance less. You will want eleven children less, being one of the few girls whose maternal instinct wanes as she matures. You will care more about who that faceless, nameless husband figure will be, but you will still worry about sharing your bed every single night someday.
Five year old Caroline was shy and stubborn and smart. She preferred to bite her big sister rather than debate her. She was a ballet dancer, with more exuberance and dedication than real talent. Her parents were married to each other and sometimes her daddy performed puppet shows with her stuffed animals, or hid her barbie dolls all over the house just to make her laugh. She preferred to read two books at a time and her favorite tape was The Teddy Bears Picnic.
In kindergarten, the teacher asked her to count as high as she could. Caroline kept counting until the teacher said “Stop, stop! Enough.” Sometimes it makes me sad to think about her, chubby-legged and tall for her age, and absolutely convinced that learning would always come easily and pleasurably. Convinced it was that simple - you just keep counting until they tell you to stop, never struggling to find the right numbers or worrying about where they come from.
The lesson I am trying to learn this week and last week and probably next week, too, is not that there are so many things I don’t know (although there are), but how to be comfortable with that knowledge. Sometimes I try to think of all the things five year old Caroline didn’t know yet, things that she would one day struggle to learn, accomplishments she would call her own. Caroline, one day you will write poetry and it will be beautiful. You will make movies and cocktails and mistakes. You will learn how to kiss and it will be as easy as counting, but much more fun.
It feels good to look back at her. It’s the only time I feel wise these days, comparing myself to myself. The truth is, I don’t feel bright anymore. I don’t feel clever. I don’t feel like a fast learner, and I don’t feel like the five year old girl who knew how to count number after number until someone had to tell her to stop. Most days, I feel embarrassed. Most days I feel slow. Most days I stumble in my high heels, or over my words on the telephone. I blush when I make mistakes, which is often.
My parents can’t see it. I call them on the phone and they hear the voice of that five year old girl - so much promise, so much enthusiasm. They can’t make sense of this tearful twenty-five year old. They bristle at my self-doubt. My dad says “You can’t cry at work, Caroline,” and I almost hang up on him because I’m just as stubborn as I ever was and I’ll be damned if anyone tells me where I can cry. Sometimes crying in places you’re not supposed to is the last defiance of the overwhelmed.
And so I’m learning to be a person who does not know things. I am learning to ask questions and not hate myself when the answer comes back sharply or impatiently. I am trying to be patient with myself. Maybe you never get comfortable with the not knowing. Maybe you learn how to live uncomfortably and that is a form of wisdom in itself. You remind yourself of what you have learned since age five. You start by ticking off the things you know for sure, one after the other. Some days you just have to start counting until they tell you to stop.
And then you just keep going.