Illustration by reader Meghann Stephenson

This may be a bit of a harried piece. Which stinks, because Rookie is my favorite magazine, and I was really hoping to impress you guys. I was hoping to sing down like a sage from a mountain high, inspiring you all with my hard-won wisdom and “grown up” nuggets of truth. But here’s the truth. I’m writing this on my cellphone, sitting in the passport office as my five-year-old daughter is slumped next to me wailing of boredom. We found ourselves here because her passport has expired and we leave in 48 hours on our big “girl trip.” First stop is a wedding where she is the premier flower girl. Not only have we been practicing flower tosses and slow, graceful walks in the hallway for two months, but also the darn wedding is nearly in a palace and she gets to wear a very fluffy princess dress. Needless to say, she is living for this and I can’t mess it up. In my attempt at a segue, we are embarking on a trip that is her version of paradise.

I have spent my whole life believing that at some point I would get things perfectly right. That at some magical point in maturity I would gain some clarity and know all the right answers—or fully know who I am. I now realize that this will never happen. And this is a good thing!

When I was a teenager, my idea of pure, unadulterated happiness was childhood—that time before hierarchies and complicated relationships developed, before our stories were told and retold by us and by others until we became false characters fossilized inside them. To my daughter, bedtime, bath time, and the end of playtime qualify as real-life drama, but I beg to differ. She hasn’t yet begun to regulate herself based on what she believes other people think of her—and that seems to me like a version of paradise. My goal lately is to try to get back to that place as often as I can.

I’m writing this piece to implore you, reader, to please go easy on yourself. I’m writing this to say that everything you’re going through right now—the awkwardness, the discomfort, the introspection, the awkward grappling—is really the road to Arcadia. You don’t get to experience paradise without a lot of hard work—you know that already. What you might not know yet, because you maybe haven’t been there yet, is that once you reach the Promised Land, staying there is impossible. You come and go. You lose the map and have to be reminded of important landmarks. You forget altogether that it exists. And you have to work all over again to find it. Which you will, again and again.

What I’m getting at is that paradise is an island called YOU. Meaning you are the captain of your own ship, the master of your destiny, the keeper of your flame. Paradise exists in those fleeting moments when you are deeply in your own skin, when you’ve sunk down to the bottom of who you are and allowed yourself to rest there for a while. It’s when you feel close to someone you love. Paradise is feeling understood, heard, open, and vulnerable. Paradise is feeling good and making someone else feel good. It’s the muse whispering in your ear, it’s doing something you love and excelling at it, it’s friends, community, love. Paradise is all these things, but it is ever fleeting.

You can’t wait around for good things to transpire. A lot of times you have to manifest the goodness. I thought this was a nifty little story by the great science fiction author Ray Bradbury. He loved cartoons and science fiction as a child. Kids made fun of him and said that no one was interested in “the future,” so he tore up all his favorite comic strips and started to cry. He asked himself, “Why am I weeping? Who died? The answer was me. I had allowed these fools to kill me, and to kill the future.” He decided never again to pay heed to negative people. “I’ve learned that by doing things, things get done,” he said. “We ensure the future by doing it.” I extend that idea to happiness: we ensure our own happiness by creating it for ourselves. It doesn’t always work, but it’s better than not trying at all.

Once I hit my teens, happiness became purely aspirational—it was never palpable in the present. Even today, I find myself looking forward to old age, to some fantasy of my “golden years,” when I won’t expect so much of myself, when I’ll feel like I’ve done everything I need to do and can just settle down and enjoy what’s left of the ride. But the truth is that that day will never come. Every stage brings its own disappointments, and its own struggle to find paradise. As you become more comfortable in one area of your life—friendship, dating, school, whatever—you enter a new phase that is equally hard and scary. That cold, damp, lost-in-the-dark-woods feeling of your teens never really leaves you. Now that I’m an adult and a mom, I’m faced with completely new scary questions that I don’t know the answers to every day!

What I’ve learned is that it’s OK to say “I don’t know.” I tell my kids that all the time when they ask me something—it’s important for them to know that I, their MOM, don’t know everything. And I’m officially a grownup! If I don’t have the answers all the time, they certainly can’t be expected to!

One other thing: happiness and confidence take practice. You sort of have to train your brain to think more positively. For me, it was as silly as telling myself to “stop it” when I start to feel negative or self-defeating. I may have to tell myself to “stop it” 100 times a day. But it gets easier, and eventually it’s less than 100 times a day, and finally your thoughts automatically go to greener pastures!

Oh and also, don’t compare yourself with your friends or people you do or don’t know. We are all born with different levels of confidence and coping skills, no one is perfect, and no one’s life is perfect. I have to remind myself of this all the time.

Here’s the point. Paradise doesn’t exist. What’s exciting about being human is that we get to learn…forever! With each new chapter in our lives, we have a new learning curve. Life is exciting when you look at it this way cuz there’s no pressure to know how to do things, there’s only the pressure to learn and do your best!

P.S. OH my gosh, one more thing…I can’t even believe I’m writing this, because it’s so so so uncool and, to be honest, it comes from a selfish place. But here it goes: talk to your parents. I say this because I am one. Now that I am a parent I know how much I love my kids. I can’t think of anything I wouldn’t do for them. I love them so much it hurts. I love them in ways that didn’t seem possible before they existed. Most of your parents do, too. Sometimes we parental types mess up or put our wishes for you first, but the truth is, we really really really really want the best for you. So give communicating with us a chance. AND if your parents fail you wildly, which we are apt to do at times, talk to another grownup who has their act together or a good, trustworthy friend. Just talking about our troubles and insecurities is magic. Even when no solution is reached. OK, sorry, just had to say that! ♦

Sarah Sophie Flicker is a mom, wife, performer, director, aerialist, designer, writer, and filmmaker. She is the creative director of the Citizens Band, half of a filmmaking team with Maximilla Lukacs, a contributor to HelloGiggles, and editor at large for Lula magazine. Jack of all trades…master of some?