Callow, Clueless, and Cruising Paris

Were I to provide advice to my twenty-year old self, where would I begin?

At 20 I was living in Paris – studying, speaking French, wandering, daydreaming.

Idealistic? Inexperienced? Clueless?

You bet.

And my eye did not neglect those enviable and chic couples in cafés, as my girlish heart wondered if I would ever get my shot.

But when I wasn’t hitting the books at the library, or writing in Parc Monceau avoiding Madame and her niggling octogenarian outlook, I was cruising the rue de Seine with any available hours. I was absorbing art, inhaling language, observing behaviors, storing impressions for future use.

The sense of freedom was intoxicating though I exercised few of its benefits. As much as I adored Paris, it was lonely. I was lonely.

And I was fearful that loneliness would stalk me throughout my life.

For many years, it did. But things change. We change.

If I could face that younger self, some thirty years later? Reassure her? Redirect her? Just what would I say? Could I still say it in French? Eh oui, si j’avais envie de me gronder, de me féliciter, de m’asseoir et avoir un entretien avec moi-même en français – je pourrais.

Netting that out, it’s a yes to everything from a lecture to a dash of praise. So, here we go, with a bit of both.

To My Twenty-Year Old Self:

Believe in your capacity to execute on dreams, but understand that you cannot do it all. No one can do it all. You must make choices, and cut yourself some slack when the pieces don’t fall perfectly into place.

Feeling valuable won’t elude you forever. Feeling sexy will come but you have to feel it before anyone else can respond. See yourself through your new French eyes. Discard the lens of your embittered mother.

You have a curvaceous body. Accept it. Own it. Be good to it. Stop trying to starve it, then stuffing it when the pain cannot find its way out.

If that means you return to France more often to be yourself, then do it. Choose your body politic as an act of affirmation and self-respect. Apologize to no one for rejecting the neurotic, and leaning instead toward loving and the erotic.

Do continue to balance spontaneity and planning. But know that it is going with the flow that will yield passion and melancholy.

You will learn from both.

Do not put off the dream of writing, relegating your practice of the dutiful phrase to the shadows, confining the pleasures of the pen to the dead of night, selling yourself too cheaply to the corporate world though financial need will govern your most pragmatic choices.

So be less pragmatic. Youth will not last forever and while the energy you possess now will serve you for decades, health is a tenuous gift. We are none of us exempt from accident or illness. And eventually, we all grow tired.

So I repeat: Do not postpone the dream of writing, and do not avoid the living that it demands.

That Frenchman with the guitar? It’s okay to say “oui.”

Frenchmen in general? Encore une fois, oui.

The eighties? N’en parlons pas; they’re a bit of a wash. But reconsider the perm. Lighten up on the shoulder pads. Don’t worry about who shot J.R. Turns out he’s just fine.

Read more.

Sleep more.

Grieve less.

As for the marriage you will undertake and the complications that follow, I cannot advise you not to proceed. The sons born of that union will bring irrepressible joys, and rest assured – you will not parent by your mother’s rule. Still, pay closer attention. Stand up for yourself sooner. Trust your gut. You will need to prepare for the unknown with the warrior’s heart and the seer’s wisdom. Do it for yourself. Do it for your children.

That Fonseca you fall for in 1999? Buy it! By 2000 you cannot afford it, and his canvases will haunt you.

As for the silence to which you retreat when you lick your wounds, you are stronger than you know and this, in part, by giving permission to vulnerability. Don’t despair. There will be love and something more – connection.

You will struggle through a generation in which “happiness” becomes the false god. You are right not to chase it. Meaning is your True North.

Three final recommendations:

  • Buy beautiful lingerie, always, and without guilt. 
  • Keep the leopard pumps from ’92. Believe it or not, they’ll be back.


This is part of a coordinated writing exercise on talking to our 20-year old selves. For additional letters from wise and witty women, pop by here.

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© D. A. Wolf

Comments

  1. “Meaning is your true north.” Such a great sentence. Happiness is momentary, meaning is fluid.

  2. Love this post! Your time in Paris obviously had a huge impact on your sense of style and sense of self. Your recommendations are spot on.

  3. Beautifully written and all true! “Stand up for yourself sooner. Trust your gut. You will need to prepare for the unknown with the warrior’s heart and the seer’s wisdom….”
    Sounds like my life! – LLC

  4. Love!

    “Reconsider the perm”. That’s almost biblical. What were we thinking?

    I’ve never made a mistake in lingerie that I’ve lived to regret. And if I’d stuck to the erotic instead of neurotically attaching myself to men who weren’t worth my time things would have gone much smoother.

    And who could foresee the leopard print pumps revival? Don’t be too hard on yourself for that. At least you didn’t fall for jelly shoes. (You didn’t, did you?)

  5. Fabulous.

    And so true about the children of a failed marriage–they make it worthwhile.

    I love the sense of sensuousness that lurks in your writings… today I think I see where it originated.

  6. Advice to live by! Love it!

  7. I absolutely LOVE this sentence: “Do not postpone the dream of writing, and do not avoid the living that it demands.” It speaks volumes to me!!

    Cheers, Jenn

  8. If I hadn’t been through the challenges I have already overcome and seen the things I have seen I wouldn’t be able to write with the depth and layers that come from that experience.

    Yet I can’t help but sometimes wonder what life might have looked like then.

    Loved this letter.

  9. Remember, everything comes back in style at some point. I keep the same style and wait for the trends to catch up with me once again!

  10. Wow, D. This is wonderful: fabulous and heart-wrenching and true. Wish I knew some 20 year old women to send this to.

    • BigLittleWolf says:

      The strange thing is, Kristen, I honestly don’t feel that different. I look different, of course (older, and 20 pounds thinner). But more than anything, it’s the increased confidence and self-knowledge. That’s what our years of struggle and mistakes teach us. Otherwise? My only true regret is not embracing my writing more fully many, many years earlier.

      And those leopard heels, dammit…

  11. Damn D.A.! Rue de Seine, my best friend lives there (rue Visconti exactly) so I was always around. And I even lived myself at Place Bucci, for a time. So maybe I crossed your way after all? :)

    Were you sitting for a breakfast in May at the sunny terrasse of La pallette? :) And yes before Beaubourg was a magnet and like a gravity center of art, the interesting galleries were there: Lambert, Les yeux fertiles, and also Sonnabend just behind, where I could see the best of American art.

    Seeing what you say about those times, I realize that reading “Being French!” would have been of a great benefice for you in those moments. But it wasn’t written yet! I really had to live some more and gather more experiences before I could deliver these insights about the French easiness in matters of sensual life.

    Well I’ve adored being 20 in the Paris Latin Quarter! :)

    • BigLittleWolf says:

      Mes “grands” amours – ce sont les français, depuis toujours. J’ai du apprendre quelque chose… On peut adorer les quartiers parisiens à 20 ans, oui, François – et à 50 ans aussi ! Mais ça fait quelques années depuis mon dernier séjour. Le temps passe vite.

  12. Am crying laughing over “But reconsider the perm. Lighten up on the shoulder pads. Don’t worry about who shot J.R.” Been there, done that! Love this piece, and the honesty of your loneliness and melancholy. Beautiful.

    • BigLittleWolf says:

      Lois, You’re making me chuckle. I did a quick first draft and realized I skipped the 80s entirely! Then I thought about why… Among other things, I was well-entrenched in the 70-hour corporate work week, and traveling (including back and forth to Europe). But then I thought – maybe it’s the God-awful fashion and style! I blanked it out! :) Then again, there were those platforms in the 1970s…

  13. I don’t even know where to start! So much great stuff. “Reconsider the perm”? “Meaning is my True North”? This is wonderful. Thanks.

  14. Super post filled with great points, advice, lines. My 20-year-old self wishes she were more like your 20-year-old self, as you lived a life so very far from mine. This, though, we shared: “Feeling valuable won’t elude you forever.” So thankful for that.

    Beautiful turns of phrase. Thank you.

  15. Hey, I wanted to say I align with the “Lurking sensuousness” that Walker sees in your writing! Something so alive and a keen consciousness of what really makes a life worthy to be not only lived but enjoyed and relished.

    And I feel that Paris and its French citizens played an important part in this awareness which progressively came your way. Will I succeed in bringing a part of that sensuous consciousness in my book, for its Anglo-Saxon readers? That’s all the challenge!

  16. Great advice! Your Paris sounds heavenly.

  17. Oui, oui! So well done. I love the idea of Paris not just as a literal destination but as a personal metaphor.

  18. Love all parts of this! And this made me chuckle in recognition:

    The eighties? N’en parlons pas; they’re a bit of a wash. But reconsider the perm. Lighten up on the shoulder pads. Don’t worry about who shot J.R. Turns out he’s just fine.

    I wish I had read more, written more, slept more and grieved less. It was totally flipped around for me at 20.

    And I wish I had lived in Paris! Alas, at 29 an older friend of mine encouraged me to go with my dream of moving to Tokyo. Her regret was that she never got to live in Paris as she had dreamed, and now she had a house, husband and 2 young children and couldn’t do it. But I love Paris. Maybe that’s not too late either, maybe.

  19. This is such a rich piece and it sets my mind wandering back to 20 and settling down too soon before having seen more of the world, experienced more of men … before having seen Paris! Way too serious and responsible. But it strikes me that this is an exercise for other times in life. At 60 something, I might ask … what would my 75 year old self advise me? What do I want to do while I still can … and certainly the answer involves living more deeply, more sensually (because that is lurking in me too, lol) and more expansively. I hope you will return to Paris, one way or another. It’s calling you. It has definitely called me … not in the spring, but in the autumn of my life. And Paris is extraordinary in all seasons. N’est-ce pas?

  20. Wolf Pascoe says:

    I had a perm once (for a part in a play). I liked it.

  21. Advice to anyone at any age: Paris. A town where you can take time to walk and think and write and be anyone you want to be. Thanks for sharing your time there and your wise advice.

  22. Had never heard of Fonseca before. Wish I had, and I too wish I had one. Great piece (yours). Great piece (his).

  23. Oh, ditto on so many of the comments above about this incredible piece: lurking sensuousness, lose the perm–what were we all thinking?! Heinous for most of us.

    But my favorite line is this: “Apologize to no one for rejecting the neurotic, and leaning instead toward loving and the erotic. ”

    Brava all around. And I’m envious of your time in Paris.

  24. I love how your personality and passions shine through in this post and the connections they bring between your 20-year-old self and who you are now. Great post!

  25. Il faut avoir l’espoir Big Little Wolf. A Senegalese boyfriend told me that at 24 in Paris. It took me some years to get it. I totally relate to your 20 year old self because I became a young woman in Paris and I will forever be attached to the City of Light…

  26. I love this essay…it intrigues me that I can relate to so much in it while at the same time having such a vastly different set of circumstances. When I was 20 I didn’t even realize how much I would long to visit Paris, or to speak and understand that exquisite language. One dream was fulfilled—three days in Paris in 1999—but fluency eludes me. I won’t give up on that dream, either. That much I know. All of the body aspects of this essay resonate:

    “Feeling sexy will come but you have to feel it before anyone else can respond. See yourself through your new French eyes. Discard the lens of your embittered mother.”

    “You have a curvaceous body. Accept it. Own it. Be good to it. Stop trying to starve it, then stuffing it when the pain cannot find its way out.”

    “Apologize to no one for rejecting the neurotic, and leaning instead toward loving and the erotic.”

    And this meaning most of all:

    “Do not put off the dream of writing…”

    I wish I’d known you when I was young. I’m awfully glad to know you now, if only through your phenomenal writing.

  27. We’ll ALWAYS have Paris :)

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