I always joke that I’m 20 years old going on 7.
What I mean by this is that I think I’m more of a child now than I have ever been. And what I mean by that is that I feel smaller at 20 years old than I ever did at 7. That I feel more scared in adulthood than I ever was in my baby-toothed-youth. That if there are inner children inside of us, mine is taking up too much room, thrashing her tiny fists against the ground, her temper tantrums syncopating with my heartbeat and her bratty quips shouting over my internal monologues.
This inner child is unapologetically untamed, stubbornly sinking her feet into the ground and making a child of me, too. I’m a picky eater. I’m afraid of the dark. I’m homesick when I’m four blocks away. I am stuck at 6 years old, perpetually sweeping the underside of my bed for monsters.
It’s a nebulous thing, growing up. I think most of it involves suppressing that inner child: telling her to sit down and shut up, to not let her quivering lips take the place of your firm, resolutely pursed ones. She learns to stop being loud or distraught or overly emotional the way kids tend to be, because kids don’t get it yet and you do, now. You force yourself to forget these things, ignoring the possibility that the younger you — now frozen in frames and archaic anecdotes — might have had it right after all.
Because while I don’t remember much about being 7 years old, I remember feeling big. Big and important and smart and kind and funny and good. It’s beautifully heartbreaking, remembering how much you loved yourself before the world taught you that you shouldn’t. How much you basked in your own brilliance and value before you were taught it was foolish to believe you knew anything at all. How you let yourself dream with unbridled ambition before you learned all those big-kid words like ‘pragmatic’ and ‘attainable’.
When I was 7, I thought I had so many important things to say and that my shrill, pre-pubescent voice carried the sagacious wisdom of someone who’d seen a hundred lives before this fresh, new one. This wasn’t entirely true, of course; I knew nothing then. But there’s so much that younger me knew that I’ve since forgotten. In a lot of ways, she’s wiser than I am now. I think I have a lot to learn from her.
I’m 7 years old, and I’m my own best friend.
I find my light-blue, Hannah Montana diary on a recent visit home, and it’s tearing at the seams, untouched since 2008. One page in particular catches my eye, littered with clumsy handwriting and narrow letters leaning against each other like crooked baby teeth. The entry is entitled: “TOP TEN REASONS I ROCK”. The list is as follows:
I’m cool I’m cool
I disregard the redundancy, the way I counted cool three times and sweet twice, the way it doesn’t even add up to ten reasons. I make a mental note that “I’m good at spelling” is rightfully unaccounted for in the list of reasons, but I cut myself some slack because I was 7 years old and intoxicated by self-love and Crayola marker fumes.
Like most diary entries I discover as I parse through my pile of discarded journals, it’s comical. It’s loud and obnoxious, all misspellings and arrogance and that glaring childhood naivety. But this one sinks its teeth into my neck; my chest tightens and my throat stings as I feel a bizarre pang of jealousy towards the wide-eyed girl that wrote it.
These days, I don’t like myself most of the time. That abundant self-awareness and eagerness to count my virtues and believe every single one has slipped away with age. I traded my endearing egotism for hyper-humility that bordered on hatred, buying into the belief that self-deprecation made you interesting. I spent so much time nurturing this learned loathing until any semblance of respect for myself eroded entirely.
It was so easy to love myself then, and I wonder why I ever stopped.
I sit down at my desk and decide to emulate the pensive task of conjuring up Ten Reasons Why I Rock. It’s so admittedly silly that I almost don’t do it. I almost can’t put my pen to paper. The nihilistic nagging ensues in my mind; it feels like a cheap affirmational exercise preached by over-priced self-help books, more self-indulgent than honest or productive.
But I tell myself that writing the list is brave. That it’s some act of defiance, a subversion of the expectation to be chronically underwhelmed by ourselves. I decide that it’s an obligation; that if I’m stuck with this girl forever, it’s my duty to try loving her. I swallow my pride and begin to write, an insurmountable task encompassed by 20 minutes of torment. My mind is sluggish and noncompliant, so I google ‘compliment ideas’ and ‘good traits’ and ‘positive adjectives’. I do not resonate with any of them.
I did not finish the list. I tell myself I will one day, and I’ll mean every word of it. If not for me, then for the earnest little girl sitting in her bed in 2008 and counting the ways she loved herself on her chubby fingers. Who am I to take that from her?
In the meantime, this is what I wind up with:
TEN REASONS I ROCK (Reprise):
I’m 7 years old, and I’m convinced I’m going to be a ballerina when I grow up.
Every year, my aunt took me to a performance of the Great Russian Nutcracker ballet, and my awe-struck eyes flitted across the stage, watching the dancers leap and bound, fueled by what I could only describe as magic. I swore they were flying; weightless and suspended in the air, frozen in their expertly curated poses, miraculously exempt from the laws of physics. I swore I could fly, too.
I went home and played a disc of the Nutcracker production on my pink Hello Kitty radio. I twirled around the kitchen with reckless abandon, kicking my legs out and attempting an egregious échappé sauté. I collided with the wall, almost sending a plate flying over the edge of the kitchen counter.
I was scolded for it, but I didn’t give it a second thought, because I was a prodigious ballerina and my long legs were built for this kind of beautiful destruction and I was sure ballerinas don’t apologize for taking up that much space. I think about that pipe dream now, my unwavering certainty that those uncoordinated movements and feverish flailing were poetry in motion, and I falter knowing that I don’t dance anymore.
I avoid dancing like the plague, actually. Perhaps I’ve grown to hate it because somewhere along the way, I became convinced that you could only love things you’re good at. Because I discovered that I am less dancer and more mangled marionette doll, jerking around the room in frenzied fervor. At parties and weddings, I shrink into my own skin. I sway back and forth, rigid and prideful; I am too good for dancing, too good to be bad at things.
But I think deep down, I always knew I would never become an esteemed ballerina for the Paris Opera. That never stopped me from loving it. I never considered my lack of spatial awareness or skill, only focusing on how beautiful I felt while doing it. It was second nature to me, immanent and intuitive and irrevocably human. I want to feel that way again, to bask in the sanctity of making art of bones and muscles and limbs, to twirl and twirl until the room is spinning with me too.
So I put in my AirPods and shuffle a playlist I made in high school, aptly titled “Songs That Makes Me Want to Dance.” I’m unyielding at first, my body well-trained in the art of keeping still. But eventually, I melt, letting my arms swing at my sides and my legs tug me across the room. I’m making a fool of myself, but I don’t stop to think about it, just stumble through the room, delirious and graceless and oblivious to it all.
I do not feel talented, but I feel beautiful.
I’m 7 years old, and I am brimming with stories.
I write voraciously, penning tales inspired by every corner of my rose-colored world. I heroize the passing woman in the street who is secretly a spy, the stray cat scurrying down my alley, furiously making epics of these everyday occurrences. The stories pour out of me, and I truly believe they’re good, despite being wrought with discrepancies and fallacies and plot inconsistencies. I demand that my incoherent transcriptions are seen and heard, their unapologetic stories and unsightly illustrations screaming “LOOK AT ME!!! LOOK AT ME!!!”
Of all the great loves I’ve abandoned upon growing up, this penchant for writing was never one I was willing to part with. I still write, hungrily and frequently, but it feels different now, like less of a triumph and more of a reluctant obligation to appease the part of me that has always loved it. Most days, I hate everything I write, harboring a quiet disdain towards my clumsy words and cliché ideas.
I especially hate when people read my writing. Feeling this way makes my choice to join a publication and voluntarily immortalize my pieces on the internet seem nonsensical, but I’m still overcome with that inexplicable sense of humiliation every time I discover that a piece I’ve written has been perceived, inevitably. A friend of mine comes up to me during an event and tells me that he and his friend read my piece, that they really liked it, and my momentary tinge of satisfaction is crushed by a heavier sense of inadequacy. When I write, I no longer scream “LOOK AT ME!!! LOOK AT ME!!!”, but “I’M SORRY!!! I’M SORRY!!!” Sometimes I almost convince myself I should stop writing altogether, that I’ve outgrown my childhood ability to take all that everyday enchantment and weave it into stories that are worth being read.
But when a piece of mine gets published, my roommate Kyra texts me immediately, her messages steeped in sincerity. Zeinab reads one of my articles aloud over Facetime (much to my chagrin) and gets choked up, her gentle heart taking my words and graciously accepting the arduous task of feeling them at all. When I send my best friend Suzie a draft or idea, rambling that it’s stupid and unreadable and embarrassing, she tells me to write a book.
When I started writing as a kid, it was never about being good. My insistence that those works were seen was rooted in a desire to watch someone hold my words and experiences in their hands, knowing that they cared enough to see me through them. The people that matter continue to hold those parts of me with the same tenderness, even when I’m recoiling with shame, tearing the pages to shreds, screaming “DON’T LOOK AT ME!! DON’T SEE ME!!”
That feels like far too beautiful of a thing to give up just yet.
I’m 20 years old, going on 7.
I’m on the cusp of adulthood, and it’s ill-fitting like a hand-me-down coat. It is baggy around my awkward frame, and I still can’t shake that feeling of smallness.
But I think 20 is small. I think 24 is small too, and 35, 56, 97. Despite the steady march of time, all the birthdays and big-kid jobs and degrees we collect, we are all 6 years old, sweeping the underside of our beds for monsters, still. The only difference is that we pretend we aren’t; that we are infallible because we buy our own groceries and file our taxes, that we outgrew the fear and foolishness of our youth and refuse to look back.
But getting older shouldn’t mean relinquishing the little kid inside of you. In fact, I think you need them to survive. Being a kid is magical: the unrestrained wonder of it all, the lust for exploration and discovery, the love you poured into yourself and others with reckless abandon, the passion and the joy and the big, big feelings. Those things are not a deficit, but an invaluable mark of humanity that softens the daunting feat of growing up.
There was a point before you discovered that the world can be cruel, that people can take your candy heart and crush it in their fists, before you felt jaded and heavy and insignificant. None of that mattered, because you were lofty as a feather, six feet tall in your tiny four-foot-something frame, and the world hadn’t stopped being yours. Find that person and cling to the very best of them. Rekindle their magic, the kind that glistened like glitter star stickers speckled recklessly on the world. Honor their musings and dreams and inane habits. Protecting them protects you, too.
MiC Columnist Yasmine Slimani can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.