There’s one seat at our table that stays vacant.
You can’t sit with us.
She stands on the outskirts of the room, awkward with a terrible sense of fashion and frizzy hair, and I cringe. I don’t just pretend she isn’t there; I pretend she never existed.
I’ve never had a good relationship with her, and I’ve never wanted to.
I know you’re there, but we don’t want you here.
She talks with big words and a lot of them. She explains everything in detail. She feels everything deeply, shows it through her stories and music. Fiction novels. Orchestral music. Hard rock music. She locks herself in her room and fills pages of notebooks with story ideas and calls her characters her friends.
She thinks she’s got it right. She’s been told she’s an old soul, mature for her age, something special about her, and she owns that and believes it. To the extreme.
And perhaps that’s what has been most hard to watch in her, that as I keep her standing just near enough to remind me to never let her come closer, I realize she’s an extremist. She’s intense.
You’re too much.
She’s afraid of falling away from God. She’s afraid she’ll be one of those people her church always talked about — the ones who turned their backs on Him. So she only listens to Christian music. She wakes up every morning to read her Bible and write prayers in her journal. She asks God why she’s so lazy, why she can’t do better, apologizes for her existence, says she’ll try harder. She wears t-shirts with sayings like “Jesus is The Light” written in the Twilight saga font. She needs the world to know she loves God.
She’s afraid of boys. She buys how-to dating books with long lists of requirements to look for in men, Christian fiction novels about teenage love stories. She wears her purity ring and tells off guys asking for her number, says she’s saving herself for her future husband. She’s afraid of dates and relationships, swears she’ll never go to prom, swears she’ll only ever kiss one man.
God you’re so weird, why can you literally not be like everyone else your age? Why do you try so hard?
So we distance her. We can’t get rid of her, so we make her stand in the other room. If she’s going to stay, she’s going to have to play by our rules.
Do not sit, do not speak, do not make your presence known. You’ve had your time, and it’s time for you to go away now.
She’s 14 years old.
. . .
I told someone last semester about my bad relationship with her. Said I’ve had a hard time accepting her, accepting that’s who I was almost seven years ago. I still look through old photos on my phone and take screenshots, swiping back and forth between those photos and recent photos, comparing differences.
It’s like an addiction making sure I look and sound and act nothing like her.
I’ve spent a lot of time in two years reinventing myself. I’ve played a lot of roles. I’ve morphed myself to act like different people when I’m around them.
And if we’re going to be honest in this space, I still do.
I was homeschooled for less than half of my life, and I’ll never forget spending all four years of high school trying to act like I wasn’t the weird homeschooled kid. I graduated high school and started college, almost nine years since I would’ve been homeschooled, and I still see myself as that girl.
Awkward with a terrible sense of fashion and frizzy hair.
I think that’s part of the reason why I straightened my hair every day for six months last year. Which even as I say that now blows my mind, because you who are reading this have probably come to know me by my mane, and only know me for who I’ve become in this one year.
But you didn’t know me then. And I don’t want you to meet her, so I keep her away from the dining room table. The versions of me and who I am today sit around the table and eat and reminisce, but she’s like a black cloud to me. She reminds me of everything I hate about myself, everything I’m still insecure about, and it’s like if I just keep her far enough away, she’ll either morph into the wallpaper or go away on her own.
She grew silent. I didn’t hear from her for a while. Sometimes I forgot she existed. Which I suppose was the goal.
But things have been coming back this year. Reminders of her. Reminders of what she loved. And recently I’ve been plagued with thoughts of her, suddenly realizing she’s still standing there at the edge of the room, watching us eat dinner around the table, all of the versions of me that have lived so far, and her seat is still empty.
. . .
“One day, you’re going to be 20, and we’re going to meet up and see where we’re at. I get to watch you grow up.”
I was fifteen when he told me that. I still have all of his books on my shelf at home. All of our photos, all of the things he signed, all of the journal entries about how excited I was for his next book signing. They’re all still hiding under dusty notebooks and picture frames in my dresser drawers.
I worshipped him. I wanted to be exactly like him.
So I started painting my nails black and buying black shirts from Buckle. I wrote suspense stories like him. I wanted tattoos because of him. I listened to Muse because of him.
And then the years went by and I graduated high school and started college, and for a while I’d forgotten how significant that time in my life had been. Until one day when I remembered what he told me.
That one day I’d be 20 and we’d meet again.
So I reached back out, asking if he was open to have coffee with me. He said he would love to.
And I’m not sure how to explain it other than this: when I was nine, a house burned down in our neighborhood. It was 3a.m. and I was the one who woke my parents up and told them what was happening. We watched it burn to the ground. I’ve been afraid of fire since then. A few months ago, another house in my parents’ neighborhood caught fire. It was only the roof, but at the time of looking out the window and hearing sirens, my stomach literally caught in my throat and I started shaking and crying. I was nine year old me again. I’m not sure psychologically how that happens, how we repress versions of ourselves until one day they’re triggered and we’re reminded they’re still there and they still lived and breathed in this skin at some point.
I felt the same about getting his email response back. Something shifted, like a switch had been flipped, and suddenly the awkward girl with a terrible sense of fashion and frizzy hair reemerged. She ran down the stairs, screaming in excitement to her parents about how she couldn’t believe it was happening, she was meeting again with her favorite author.
And suddenly she was no longer invisible. Her voice had returned.
. . .
He’s coming to Atlanta in July. My mom and I have front row seats for his concert.
I’ve been waiting for him to go on tour for seven years. I saw the announcement and our city listed, and I screamed. I once told myself if he ever toured, I’d drop all my money for the chance to see him.
So my dad bought us tickets for my 21st birthday.
I’ve been to a lot of concerts in the last year and a half. It makes me laugh now because up until college, I’d never gone to a concert. I’ve honestly lost count how many I’ve seen at this point.
And I’ve seen everyone I’ve ever wanted to see. I take a lot of pride knowing that. That for one moment I existed in the same space and time, breathed the same hot (or cold) Georgia air as my favorite band or my favorite singer. And all the songs that had ever meant something to me, all the songs I’d ever named mine, all the moments and memories with friends on dark roads and road trips locked in those notes and chords and keys, I’ve had the privilege to sing along with the people who wrote them.
Muse and Thirty Seconds to Mars was that concert for me. I wrote an Instagram caption for it the morning after, how much I’d felt in that moment on the lawn. It’s long. But I’ve wanted an excuse to include it in a post for a while.
I’ve been to a lot of concerts in the last year. last night felt different. to be honest I’m still hard-core fangirling after last night.
I don’t think even I realized how excited I was about the concert until I got there (and annoyed the shiz out of my friend saying how I excited I was). but it was good. it was so good. and I just love concerts and the moment before concerts when the lights go down and everything goes dark and everyone screams, and the music is swelling and all of a sudden, they’re there. the people you listen to on your headphones and sound systems, are there. in the flesh. real people.
I left my heart on that grass lawn last night. I’ve never sang that hard or that proud to music, not even to some of my favorite bands. and maybe that came from how long I’ve listened to these guys, both of these groups, and singing from a deeper place than just fandom, but victory. I’m not 13 year old me anymore, but 13 year old me would be ecstatic right now, and I’m happy to make room for her at the table and get as excited as she wants.
perhaps I make more out of situations than I should, add more significance than need be. but let’s be honest, concerts do something to us.
at least they do for me. they make me feel so alive.
and our bodies are finite and immortal and one day we’ll be old and retelling the stories of when we saw so and so in concert in this so and so city.
but in that moment we came together as one, all of us in the audience, strangers, everyone on stage, and sang our anthems to the sky.
these experiences are things that are worth me putting my money towards. I live for these moments. these beautiful, little infinite moments, when music becomes more than the sound in your ears but the pounding, undeniable heartbeat of your soul.
they remind us we’re not alone.
they remind us how far we’ve come.
they remind us anything is possible, and all will be well.
they remind us we still have fight.
that it’s a brave new world.
that we will be victorious.
and a common theme between both groups from last night, and what I believe is an underlying heartbeat for concerts?
I have a feeling the Hans Zimmer concert in July is going to feel the same. Because this time there will be no words to chant to, no one to sing along with. And there is something beautifully chilling about that. Those soundtracks are not just music to me. They’ve transcended notes in my ears and became soundtracks for my soul. I remember listening to the Dark Knight Rises soundtrack over, and over, and over during high school, when depression started reeling its head. I’ve never felt more deeply, more pain, more beauty, than I have when listening to his art.
The thought alone of hearing him live, seeing him standing feet from where I’m sitting, after years of his work carrying me, gives me chills.
I don’t think 20 year old me will be sitting in the chair on that night. I have no doubt in mind she is going to return, and she is going to be sitting on the edge of her seat, awestruck with tears in her eyes.
. . .
So why do I write this.
It’s not just me anymore. I cannot and will not ignore the face of the 14 year old, verging 15, staring at me on my desktop right now as I write this. I pulled up her photo and have a recent photo of myself beneath it. I keep looking back and forth between the two photos. The difference in my cheeks, my smile, my hair, my eyes.
And I think about the two girls in my life who are reaching these monumental ages. Mackenzie is about to turn 15, and Avia is about to turn 12. Mackenzie likes writing stories. She has curly hair like me. Avia loves adventures and loves Jesus. Her eyes, her smile, remind me of mine.
And I look at both of them, and I talk to both of them often, and I feel like I’m talking to mirrors. I feel like 12 and 14 year old Emily Dukes are sitting across from me.
And the thought of either one of those precious girls looking at themselves the way I look back on myself disgusts me. I’d throw my life in front of their’s before I could ever let either one of them look at who they are in this very moment and feel disgust.
I don’t think it’s a coincidence the boys I nanny are both of those exact ages too.
It all matters.
. . .
I was on the phone with Mackenzie the other night and she was telling me about her most recent fiction novel. She’s finished several already. The girl hasn’t even started high school yet and she’s miles ahead of me. I felt my heart tremble as I listened to her tell me her ideas, because that was me. I was talking to me. I was hearing me.
Only that wasn’t me anymore. Because I had grown up, I’d changed. I’d made mistakes, and kissed some boys before I thought I would, and wasn’t afraid to say the word shit. I’d walked away from God and became the prodigal child, ever slowly returning.
I was on the other side of the bridge of teenage life, experiencing new growing pains. Different and harder pains than before, pains with more weight and consequence, but on the other side of a time in my life I’ve been ashamed to look back on.
I think with the return of all of these things that once mattered to me, I feel I’m rediscovering who I am. That I fought to reinvent myself and become sure in myself, and those things I’ve discovered are good, but they’re not enough.
I must make peace with her. It’s not a should or could or maybe.
Making peace with her, this girl in this photo who hadn’t quite gotten down the smolder and who had no idea what was coming in her future, will affect everything moving forward.
I’d like to think 30 year old me is looking back on 20 year old me and thinking the same thing.
Because all I can think about is how I hope 30 year old me will let 20 year old me sit at the table. I’m not sure what she will think of me, if she will have more grace for me than I’ve had for 12 and 14 year old me. I hope she will.
But I suppose the only way to make a way for that to happen is to make peace with the girl I’ve never let sit at the table.
She deserves a space too.
She happened, she still matters in this grand story.
But she doesn’t have to be who I am now. She isn’t. And there’s no way she will be.
The least I can do is give her a chance to remind me that growing up is a heavy leaf to turn. And that I don’t have to give her the power anymore. I don’t have to be afraid of becoming her again.
She can sit here.
She can sit with us.