Every year on my birthday I have the same thought: this is the oldest I’ve ever been and the youngest I’ll ever be again.
It sounds pretty dramatic (which comes with being a writer, I suppose), but I also know it’s true. I have always been painfully aware of my body and how it is changing and aging. Birthdays began making me nostalgic and existential rather young. I compare who I am now to who I was then. In the in-between, I am reminded of things I didn’t know I’d forgotten.
Over this summer I moved into a new place, and I had to clean out the bedroom I’d been sleeping in since I was a child. It had changed so much over the years, and as I looked back and cleaned out, I saw all the different versions of myself that I had displayed and packed away: all my drawings and paintings, stuffed animals and old toys, cards and notes from past birthdays, graduations, Christmases, and Valentine’s Days. I even found my very first laptop, which was a treasure trove of old writing and photos. I forgot how long my hair used to be and how cute my clothes actually were.
I went through fifteen years of journals, starting with my freshmen year of high school. While I cringed at this stage of my youth—at how terrible my teens actually were—it was like a piece of myself was returning. I remembered all those entries. Some of the stories I read through came back to me with startling force—the emotions I felt during them weren’t as strong, but I recognized them. It was like different parts of me were waking, parts that had drifted off to sleep without my noticing. I couldn’t believe how much I’d forgotten.
In those journals I talked about my crushes and my family. About horrible fights with my mother and sister that left current me feeling completely ashamed. I couldn’t believe how much clarity I was seeing myself with; at times it felt a little frustrating. What good was this insight all these years later? I couldn’t go back and tell fourteen-year-old Kathryn that her hormone-fueled attitude caused her parents very real pain and exhaustion. What good was it knowing how that friendship worked out, or that I really was better off not dating that guy, if I couldn’t go back and warn her? I was looking back and seeing myself as the little sister I couldn’t protect, and I realized there’s a futility in reading through diaries and journals—of seeing life as it was and not just how you remember it. There’s a level of truth that time tends to unintentionally erase.
I read through entries that brought so much embarrassment. Others made me want to cry and hold and comfort younger Kathryn for the way she disliked and second-guessed herself. I wrote down every detail of my life—every hurt, triumph, frustration, and beautiful moment. Reading it all was like crawling through tunnels in my own mind and peeking into rooms that had been shut for ages. There was so much dust, so much stillness. I don’t think I’ll ever get over the strangeness of forgetting my own memories, recalling them, and realizing that today I am not the same person who went through those experiences and felt those feelings…but I know her. I know every iteration of her.
In that knowing I found an abundance of grace. It was easy to feel shame and embarrassment over my teen years. It was easy to be crushed and heartbroken by the weight of my depression and anxiety in my late teens and early-to-mid twenties. To see my own struggle reflected back at me with such raw truth was almost too much. It was too naked. But it helped me look back at all those Kathryns—14, 17, 19, 21—and feel the love for her I was always missing in those moments. I was able to look back and see myself with a compassion, acceptance, and kindness I’ve only been able to offer to others.
My birthday is this month, and as I embark on the last year of my twenties I can’t help but look at that particular summer memory—packing up my room—as a benchmark. Though it’s hazy, I can almost see myself, another fifteen years from now, looking back on that very moment—thinking how young I was and how sad—thinking of all the things I wish I could tell her about, assure her of, and warn her against. Of how much love I’ll see her with from new, older eyes. But maybe I can do that now before this life becomes another. I can bring that love, acceptance, and compassion to myself today. I can realize that while I am the oldest I’ve ever been and the youngest I’ll ever be again, the Kathryn of right now is as deserving of hope as my future, and as deserving of grace as my past.
What about you? Can you extend the grace of hindsight and the hope of foresight to who you are right now without belittling who you were then? Can you rest in the present with all the love, hope, and compassion you give everyone else—and give it to yourself?
I hope you can. I’m trying to.