Not long ago, my friend Dennie Wendt asked me to write a letter to his son, Desmond, to give to him on his 13th birthday. Dennie asked a handful men (of various ages and backgrounds) to write something, anything, that might be useful to Desmond as he navigates the waters of young adult-hood. Dennie then assembled the notes, bound them in a book, and presented it to Desmond as a sort of manual that he might refer to in complicated times.
I struggled with the assignment, as I wanted to create something meaningful and useful, and not come across as greeting card-sappy or condescending. You'll find a version of what I wrote to him below, along with a couple of pictures that I've added to help put the words in context.
6 August, 2015
For Desmond, on turning 13.
Your father, a man of character, love, integrity, and wisdom, has asked me to write a few thoughts to you on the eve of your 13th birthday. For all of us, the teenage years are a strange and wonderful time. This is time when one’s own biological clock and hormonal chemistry conspire to make even the easiest decision a nightmare, and render things one once knew as clear and obvious one day, seem opaque and confusing the next.
Here, then, are my thoughts on this strange journey...
First, a few obvious items:
You don’t need me to tell you that your body chemistry will change, and it will happen in a different way for you than it will for every one of your peers. You’ll notice strange hair emanating from your skin, strange pitches emanating from your voice, strange aches emanating from your bones as they grow, and strange interest in cars or sports or music or art emanating from your brain. It really is a good idea to eat more fruits and vegetables. Don’t litter. The Oxford comma makes sense, so use it. Be nice to your sister. Help the less fortunate. Do your homework. Write thank-you notes. Don’t talk back to your mom. Blah, blah, blah. That stuff you already know, and that stuff is unavoidable. On these, you’ll just have to enjoy the ride, and take comfort in the knowledge that you are lucky to live in a culture where you can enjoy the ride; there are many parts of the world where turning 13 signals to the rest of the village that the boy is ready for war, or to protect his village against marauding lions. Hopefully, that’ll be the last time I tell you that you should feel lucky.
This brings me to the less obvious. I think the whole thing about turning 13 is that it is our best chance to create our signature. I don’t mean a written signature, or to decide what we want to be when we grow up, but I believe it is the time to truly explore what it means to be one's self. The teenage years are when we nurture our senses of wonder, hope, adventure, fun, innovation, and curiosity, all through the eyes of the child we were yesterday, and the young adult we will become tomorrow.
Here are some things (in no particular order) that might help you on your journey:
- Share your life experiences. Listen to songs; read books, poems, and plays; eat new things; ask questions, and do all of that and more with such fervor and passion that you can recite what you experience to another person (a romantic interest will love this, but so will a dog or your mom...people love a passionate person who can share his life). People will know you as an authority and a leader, and they’ll turn to you for answers to questions you can’t even imagine.
- Write down everything. Trust me on this one. I know you’re smart and you can remember everything now, but next week or next year you won’t remember a thing.
- Your friends will make dumb mistakes. Don’t follow them down the same path, but even more importantly, don’t judge them when they blow it. Just be there for them when they ask for your help.
- Forgive people. This can be more difficult than it sounds, but just do it.
- Keep learning, and practice what you like to do a little bit every day.
- If possible, be prepared, but adjust if you aren’t and don’t let a lack of preparation get in your way. Here’s what I mean: if you think you’re going to play soccer, you’d wear cleats. But what if you get there and it turns out to be an ice dancing recital and the fate of the free world depends on you completing a routine? Borrow some skates and start twirling, my friend...you’re about to save the world. Future generations will be forever in your debt!
- Question everything, but don’t decide you know how to do something better than another person just because you say you do. Sometimes there really is a very good reason for something to be done in a particular way.
- For a few minutes every day, go to a quiet place and breathe deeply, and listen carefully to what the silence, your surroundings, and your body tell you.
- Even people you don’t agree with might have some wisdom that can help you learn something important and useful.
- Everyone will tell you that achievement is about the firsts e.g. first step, first kiss, first breakfast burrito. It’s not. We wouldn’t have that "first" without whatever got us to that point: When Sir Edmund Hillary made it to the top of Mount Everest, it was just one more step on a snowy mountain top. When Neil Armstrong walked on the surface of the moon, he first had to step out of the Apollo Lunar Module. And really, the success of both of those men is that they made it back in one piece to tell everyone about their adventures! The work that gets us to the achievement makes success inevitable.
- Be proud, but never arrogant. That kind of strength can only come from within, and from a place of humility and grace.
- People everywhere will tell you to start making choices and to stop doing something you love; they'll tell you that you have to put aside distractions. Politely resist listening to them at all costs. When writers chronicle professional athletes, most of them are distilled to a set of numbers and statistics; the athletes people remember are those who write poetry, or play the guitar, or feed the homeless.
- Let people love you...this sounds easy, but it isn’t. It also won’t make sense to you right now, and that’s okay. Just tuck it in the back of your mind and when you need it, it’ll be there for you.
- Be yourself, always. As long as you’re not hurting anyone else (and from time to time, you should double check that you’re not!), just be yourself and let your ‘self’ define who you are, not what others think of you. Are you the guy who always wears a yellow raincoat? Fine. Do you carry a handkerchief? That’s nice. But when they think of you, they’ll know you first, and the yellow raincoat second. They’ll say: “Oh, that’s Desmond. Before I got to know him, I used to wonder who that guy in the yellow raincoat with the handkerchief was, and now I don’t even notice that silly coat. Do you know that dude invented the cosmic thingamabob that ended world hunger? He never talks about it, but he’s also a loving husband/father/writer/olympic-gold-medallist/video-game-player/woodworker/bread-baker/campfire-s’mores-maker/world-peace-creator/ice-dancer/accordion-player who gave my mom a handkerchief at a funeral! Crazy!”
I could go on and on, but really I know that you’ll find your way. The teenage years are glorious and horrible, all at the same time. Whatever sucks today will pass, I promise. Just remember to enjoy the journey, and take solace in the knowledge that somewhere in the world, there’s a kid your same age who is being sent out into the wilderness with only a knife and his wits to kill a lion and save his village. I'd say that should make you feel pretty lucky. Sorry, I couldn’t resist.
Happy 13th Birthday!
John C. Bauccio