What you wish you’d known when you were 10

{Mom and me at my fifth grade promotion, 1996}


When I was 10, I was captain of the safety patrols. My hair was thick and tangly, and I wore red Sally Jesse glasses. I had already outgrown much of my wardrobe and was actually borrowing blouses from my tall, pretty mother. I was on the math team, wore multicolored moccasins I picked out from Kmart and was obsessed with tornadoes.

I had a wicked crush on a boy named Matt who was “dating” a pretty curly-haired girl named Andrea, and I fell asleep at night praying he would eventually like me back. Despite my crush-to-end-all-crushes (Jessica Darling-style), I thought kissing a boy would be gross — and couldn’t actually imagine doing such a thing. I had friends who were just about as awkward as I was, and we agreed that kissing was really disgusting.

My fifth-grade teacher realized I liked to write, and she read one of my short stories — “Night Of The Twisters,” title shamelessly ripped off from the Devon Sawa made-for-TV movie of the same name — to the class. Though I was proud of my work, I was embarrassed when Mrs. Smallwood tried to read lines like, “Get away from me, you morian [sic]!” aloud. I’d actually meant “moron,” which was some pret-ty unkind language for a 10-year-old, but we didn’t have spellcheck in 1996. “Morian” it was.

On Monday morning, I got a really interesting call: a local elementary school asked me to be their keynote speaker at a fifth-grade promotion ceremony in June. The event’s theme, “Turning the Page,” dovetails nicely with my job as a newspaper columnist — and the school’s vice principal was actually my second grade teacher (she of the “I’m proud of you” note). Without thinking, I agreed to come and speak — and have already drafting my five-minute speech. I’m a teensy bit nervous.

Despite the fact that I have approximately .4672 ounces of patience in my entire body, I’ve always thought teaching would be a really rewarding profession. (The teachers out there might be cutting me the eye, but I’m sure it is sometimes — right?) In my daydreams, the opportunity to help kids seems awesome. I think about how much my own teachers inspired me, and the chance to encourage other kids at such a tumultuous time could make a difference.

Of course, the story has already been written — and I’m a writer. I wouldn’t — and couldn’t — have it any other way, but I still jumped at the chance to live out my teacher daydream for a few minutes: speaking to today’s youth and encouraging them to be brave, bold and kind.

I know it’s, like, 10 minutes of the kids’ lives — and that much of my own, too. But I remember my fifth grade promotion ceremony like it was yesterday, and I definitely remember all the people who encouraged me to do great things as I grew up.

As the Rod Stewart song I always have stuck in my head goes, “I wish that I knew what I know now . . . when I was younger.” So here’s the question I have for you, friends: given the chance, what advice would you give your 10-year-old self?

Like any commencement speaker, I want to be inspiring, pithy, funny and . . . quick. No one enjoys some long-winded old bag talking endlessly about the “good old days,” and I refuse to go down in flames. Those 10-year-olds are going to be give me a standing ovation.

Unless, you know, I suck.

So please help me not suck.


What advice would you give
your 10-year-old self?


‘Home Alone’ wisdom: Or why you should go ahead and use those crayons. Or wear the Rollerblades.


Of all the seasonal movies I remember loving as a kid, “Home Alone” — and its awesome successor, “Home Alone 2: Lost In New York” — stand above all the others. Though I’ve always considered myself a weird, too-philosophical-for-my-own-good sort of kid, “Home Alone 2” really helped solidify my role as an obsessive thinker.

I’ve heard some wise things in my day. Beyond the customary books that topple over with their enlightened principles, religious overtones and inspirational advice, I’ve formed my own mantras for getting through the day with (most of) my sanity intact. My favorite is “Be Here Now,” a thought expressed on a print I recently bought and plan to hang in my room.

No philosophical uttering has impacted me more than the thoughts of one Kevin McCallister, though. The warm words he exchanged with a bird lady in the rafters of a symphony in New York City have never left me. Lost and away from his family over Christmas, Kevin is shuttling around the Big Apple blowing his dad’s cash on private ice cream bars and plotting the downfall of two bumbling crooks still smarting from having been outwitted by the little guy the previous year.

When he’s not craftily getting out of crazy situations, Kevin is befriending random folks — and is totally wise beyond his years. Any 10-year-old able to check into the Plaza Hotel and keep up the charade for days isn’t your average dummy.

So I shouldn’t be shocked when Kevin teaches the brokenhearted woman one of the most important lessons of my young life.


Bird Lady: I’m just afraid if I do trust someone, I’ll get my heart broken.

Kevin: I understand. I had a nice pair of Rollerblades. I was afraid to wreck them, so I kept them in a box. Do you know what happened? I outgrew them. I never wore them outside. Only in my room a few times.

Bird Lady: A person’s heart and feelings are very different than skates.

Kevin: They’re kind of the same thing. If you won’t use your heart, who cares if it gets broken? If you just keep it to yourself, maybe it’ll be like my Rollerblades. When you do decide to try it, it won’t be any good. You should take a chance. Got nothing to lose.


I spend a good deal of time sifting through options until I reach just the right conclusion. Sometimes I’m so afraid of making a wrong decision that I do nothing — itself a choice. I try to be practiced and careful. Measured. An example of careful planning.

But that can be exhausting.

When I was 10 myself, I got an art set for my birthday. At least, I think it was my birthday — I’m not even sure anymore. We’ve gone through our childhood belongings countless times, donating to charity what we no longer want or need, but somehow this set has survived every purge.

Opening it for the first time and gazing in at the neat rows of colored pencils, pastels and crayons, I was euphoric. The possibilities! I thought. The beautiful possibilities! I was so enamored with this set that I never wanted to use it, and I certainly wouldn’t share it with my little sister. She just didn’t have any respect for my belongings, you know? (Younger siblings rarely do.)

When I wanted to color or design an art poster, I reached for my well-worn boxes of Crayola Crayons rather than the gorgeous, clean kit at my elbow. The colored pencils stayed sharp. The Crayons were unbroken and pristine in their packaging. Water never struck the watercolors, and no page was ever adorned in acrylic smears.

Everything was new, clean. Perfect and unchanged.

Years went by. I stopped coloring. Though I often talk about how I can’t wait to have kids so I can do stuff like draw again, guilt-free, it’s all a very long way off.

I think of coloring and I smile: I mean, who can dislike the electricity of changing a black-and-white image to Technicolor? It’s like owning the first color television on the block. Discovering Lucille Ball is a redhead. Following Dorothy as she swirls from Kansas and lands in effervescent Oz.

And then I thought, Why am I delaying my happiness? Why am I denying myself the free, innocent fun of something like coloring? Who cares if I’m 26. If I’m an uncoordinated artist with no talent for art. If I’m awful at staying in the lines and developing color schemes.

I wanted to color.



Katie found my art set, tucked inside a neat shelf in my mother’s crafting room. I’d purchased a set of color-your-own postcards on a whim this month and wanted to work on my project while watching “Christmas Vacation.” My fingers were itching to color, to blend hues and textures, and my sister slipped me a grin when handing me the set. “Well, you could always use this,” she said.

I opened it again — 10, 15 years later. The markers, usually the first to fade and wither, were my first target. I dotted the back of my left hand with purple circles, testing to see if they would still work. They’re all still capped. The markers mark. The pencils and crayons are still sharp, the ruler still nestled tight in its bed.

My set is clean and orderly. Planned. And though my instinct was to keep them just so, I swallowed it down. I fought it.

Why shouldn’t I wear my Rollerblades outside?

Why shouldn’t I press every Crayon down to its oily beginnings?



I colored one postcard, then another. Then I found a Christmas coloring book and drew in that, too. I pushed hard on the pencils, dulling them, and sketched long lines across blank sheets of paper. I mussed them up. I used them. I used them in a way I would never allow my measured, careful 10-year-old self to use anything.

It felt so good.

It’s almost Christmas and I’m tired, stressed, a little worried. Sometimes so much seems beyond my control — hard to explain, hard to process. Like everyone, I have the slivers of fears that wake me up at 5 a.m., tossing and staring at the shadows on my ceiling.

But I know one thing, something stronger than I’ve ever known: I don’t want to be the type of person who only wears her Rollerblades in the cushy comfort of her childhood bedroom. I don’t want to unearth an art set in two decades to discover I never created any art at all.

Use the crayons. Ride the bike. Take the trip. Eat the expensive chocolate. Drink the fine wine.

Enjoy your life.

“Embrace the bonfire,” a classmate wrote in my high school yearbook, “without fear of being burned.”

And that is all I want to do.


In which I give thanks

At times our own light goes out and is rekindled by a spark from another person. Each of us has cause to think with deep gratitude of those who have lighted the flame within us.
— Albert Schweitzer



It’s easy to talk about Thanksgiving in abstract terms; this whole concept of being thankful should be simpler, but it’s easy for me to get ensnared in the day-to-day drama of living, picking up only the little issues and forgetting to step back, breathe deeply and just feel grateful.

First of all, I live in a free country — a place I can discuss anything like, befriend anyone I choose, love as I see fit and hold any job I desire. I’m free. In all the ways that matter, I’m free.

My loving, supportive family slings an arm around me anytime I’m down. My mom and dad have given me every opportunity to succeed, and the absolute last thing I’ll ever do is fail them. My sister is my best friend in the universe; I can’t wait to grow old with her at my arm, both of us laughing at ridiculous TV shows and running out to get Slurpees whenever we’ve had tough days. My grandparents, Maw Maw, aunts, uncles, cousins — everyone has a special place in my heart. I forget how lucky I am to have a happy, healthy family, but I want that to change.

I’m thankful for a sense of purpose — a tranquility that comes from knowing I have a job where I’m appreciated and validated. I love editing, design and my work for a newspaper, but know in my gut that I’m meant to write — and that passion guides me in everything I do. It reminds me not to take myself too seriously, and all the unpleasant stuff that happens? Yeah, it’ll all wind up in a novel someday. Everything that happens — annoying, awesome, frustrating, fantastic — is making me who I am . . . as a person and a novelist. So I can’t feel angry knowing all this nonsense? Great novel fodder.

And my friends! Whether we met in high school, college, at one of the various jobs I’ve held over the years or through the blogging community, I’m so grateful to share my life with such awesome people — and to share theirs, too. Once upon a time, I so feared being vulnerable to the point that I completely closed myself off, lying to myself by saying I was happier that way. Now more than ever, I see just how untrue that was . . . and am thankful to have learned how to be open to the possibilities of honest friendship. I can’t ever go back to how I was before!

Books make me feel grateful — the added experiences, the shift in perspective. A wonderful book can absolutely change your life, and I’ve found several this year that reminded me what it is to be human. Each one seems to find me at just the right time, just as in Sarah Addison Allen’s The Sugar Queen! There’s no better way for me to step outside myself than to grab a novel and settle in for change. It’s relaxing, invigorating, restorative — basically everything good in the world. Books are just awesome.

I’m thankful for music and the special place it has in my life; I’m thankful that my mother taught me to crochet as a kid, a hobby I love intensely! I’m thankful that I finally got my Etsy business up and running this year, and have so loved making scarves for orders this fall.

The travel I did this year was amazing — and completely put my life in perspective. I started out in London, found myself in North Carolina and recently traveled to California. A different lesson accompanied me on each vacation, and I’m definitely a different person for having gone. I’m thankful that I was brave enough to do what, a year ago, would have seemed totally crazy to me! And I’m very grateful for the friends who were with me on those journeys.

What else am I thankful for? Health. Food. Gainful employment. Love — both lost and found. Humor. Movies. Celebrity crushes. A beautiful sunset. Photography. This blog, and the book blogging community! And you, for sure, for reading this.


Wishing you all a very happy
(and thankful!) Thanksgiving!