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05/12/2014 07:09 am ET Updated May 12, 2014

5 Things I Wish I Could Tell My Younger Self

The author of the memoir New Life, No Instructions sets us straight on a few truths we all need to carry with us.

By Gail Caldwell

1. Your father was saying something that you couldn't hear.
My dad was a tough, sometimes domineering Texas patriarch, and his idea of protecting his two adolescent daughters was to scare hell out of the boys in the 'hood. Granted, it was the Texas Panhandle in the 1950s: When a kid came to my or my sister's window late at night, Wild Bill would do a patrol around the block with an unloaded rifle on his shoulder. Why couldn't he just tell us to watch our backs, or say how much he loved us? Now I know that he was telling us, but too often the greatest generation translated love into laconic shows of strength. I wish he could have said, "You are the most precious cargo in the world and I will do anything to keep you safe," which might have helped me learn to say it to myself.

2. You have muscles and brain cells that are poised for amazing possibilities.
Like childbirth and mountain climbing and dancing until 3 a.m., you can learn calculus, or walk across half of Spain, and your body and brain will barely flinch. Then, you can sleep it off and start again. You will be able to do this for many, many years, particularly if you forego stupid drugs and too much booze and seven helpings of cheesecake and walking in front of speeding vehicles; or, for that matter, getting into them.

3. Walk tall, even -- especially -- when you are afraid, or cowed, or insecure.
If you assume you are too good to be taken advantage of, the bullies of the world will usually believe you, and move on. This skill involves daily practice, like sports or meditation, and, as my gun-toting, poker-playing dad would say, a little bluff at the right time. I had a creepy guy twice my size acting inappropriately in an airplane aisle recently -- he reached his hand around my waist -- and without thinking, I looked him in the eye, moved toward him with my hand up, and said, "Sir, you're going to need to step back, now." I think I've been watching too much Matthew McConaughey in "True Detective." But hey, the man got out of my way, fast.

4. Everything -- I mean everything -- matters.
The friend's kid brother you were nice to when no one else was; the parking place you got into a screaming match over; the bearable, or awful, breakup you had. What matters is not the parking place, but the way you react: the kindness you display, and the mercy and the poise to be your own best self when you can. Everything matters because it morphs into this giant thing called history, or experience, and eventually life itself. Even the murderous Hound in "Game of Thrones" tells Arya, "A man's got to have a code." Find yours and live by it.

5. Remember the gulping-air surprise of being alive.
Love, color, music, the beauty of the planet -- all these things will serve you later, decades later, when you are walking down a street in St. Louis, or a beach on Cape Cod, and you hear a song that sends you spinning. You hear "Night Swimming" and want to weep because it takes you back to Point Reyes in California, or a sunset over Mount Bonnell in Texas. Your memory is the motherboard. Feed it the experience and it will always give it back.

P.S. You will note that I have left out much counsel about the bad times in life. That's because they will always be there, the worry and sorrow and little hells that we can do nothing about. No prep book for those. Do the good stuff, see above, and it will cushion the rest.

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