Many years ago, back when the OK Hotel was a dirty punk rock hole-in-the-wall club under the viaduct in downtown Seattle, I stood among a crowd mesmerized by Michelle Tea reading from her memoir, The Passionate Mistakes and Intricate Corruption of One Girl in America. Sleeved tattoos peeked out from her colorful dress, Tea’s bright voice lighting the club. We were filled with admiration for the writer who was like us: perhaps a little drunk, a little rough, but intelligently documenting her life. At this Sister Spit spoken-word tour stop more than a decade ago, writers took turns at the mic, punk role models for a crowd that included many young people who hoped to become writers themselves.
Since then, Michelle Tea has been growing up. She started the nonprofit organization RADAR Productions, published numerous books, produced an experimental film, and started online magazine Mutha. She also got sober and, years later, got pregnant, recording her life all along the way. The name for her brand-new memoir, published by Plume/Penguin Random House in January, is apt: How to Grow Up.
In How to Grow Up, Tea takes us from her working-class girlhood in Chelsea, Massachusetts to her twentysomthing punk life San Francisco. She details her new, long-lasting sobriety, and a breakup with her rapper boyfriend at the end of her thirties, which led her to a studio-like-room in yet another dirty punk house, but this time with a view of a persimmon tree. In the beginning of her memoir, she looks out onto the blooming tree, and realizes she’s like the persimmon: she blooms at a different pace but is gorgeously bright.
“Have you ever seen a persimmon tree? As all the other trees lose their leaves and begin their winter dying, the persimmon flares up brighter than any of them have ever been, bearing fruit, even. That was me. I wasn’t on the same timetable as the other trees in the garden, but I was alive, coming into a certain prime, even. It wasn’t starting over, no. It was just the newest chapter.”
Right before her 40th birthday, Tea moves into a real-adult-person apartment in the Lower Haight. At this point in her life, she has enough money to pay rent on an apartment that has no maggots in the fridge, a place she can furnish with things she has paid for rather than random furniture found on the street. The night of her birthday, friends bring blessings and lounge on her French antique wooden bed carved with flowers. A blue kind of romance envelopes Tea’s writing, a softness found between the shadier images of coke and panic attacks, as she pulls herself up from addiction into a sobriety filled with lasting friendships, unique fashions, and a new-found love of BBQ and banana pudding.
In her memoir, Tea begins to define what growing up truly means for her. It means finally renting her own apartment, changing her relationship to money, defining self-imposed rules around gossip, and composing lists of what she is and is not looking for in a romantic relationship. For readers like me who have also stumbled over what growing up means—holding side jobs in strip clubs or moonlighting in prostitution, living in punk houses, netting a string of dramatic–argument filled relationships whilst sobbing for love—this book is a gem of stories filled with heartfelt advice.
At times, Tea’s memoir—which supersedes any self-help book I desperately thumbed through in the back of a bookstore in my twenties—is light-hearted. But it also resonates with truthful witchy wisdom. In one of Tea’s “Rules of Love,” for example, she advises us not to send our tattoo artist a flirtatious text from our porch stoop as the night swells around us. At each session, the tattooist oohs and ahhs not over our beauty, but instead over the beauty of the tattoo itself.
There are more serious pieces of advice too, like the “Beware of Sex” rule. Tea explains limerence: “These chemicals, are responsible for every single people-in-love-are-crazy-fools song, movie plot, and Shakespearean drama ever written.” She also confides (from experience) that borderline personality disorder’s “signature behavior of delusional mania looks a lot like throes of first love,” but really isn’t. Tea also writes about magical thinking, and gifts us with a money chant that has brought her a lot of luck.
Of all her advice, my favorite suggestion is that you should go to Paris after a bad break up. Tea believes the streets of Paris will guide us in healing our once broken heart. And don’t worry about getting an international cell plan. “You won’t miss the piddly dopamine blips that a text message brings.” Going to Paris, or going somewhere—even the ocean—where everything seems bigger than you, gives perspective. Tea promises, “That relationship was but one chapter in your long, long story, one little scene in your epic.”
At the end of How To Grow Up we witness our heroine—a femme who decks herself out in thrifted fashion with an occasional Barney’s purchase—bestow us with an empowered femininity. She etches out a life she dreams, manifesting her desires into reality with work and strife and luck. Days after setting the book down, I still hold onto Tea’s prose filled with magical bingo trinkets, chants, and hard-earned wisdom. Anyone want to go to Paris?
Related Listening: Reflecting on 20 Years of Traveling Feminist Literary Roadshow Sister Spit.
Sarah Maria Medina is a poet and a fiction/creative non-fiction writer from the American Northwest.