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#NoteToSelf: A Message to My 15-Year Old Self (Ellen Urbani)

Her writing has appeared in The New York Times.

Girl Professionals

#NoteToSelf: A Message to My 15-Year Old Self (Ellen Urbani)

by Sang Kromah

Landfall, by Ellen Urbani

Landfall, by Ellen Urbani

When I was 15, the rest of my classmates were 16, so while they were learning to drive, I was memorizing the book, so that the written test was a mere formality when my time came. I always felt cheated at that age. I was a constant sufferer of the “Anywhere but here” syndrome, but was too young to do much without being handheld. Books saved my life. Through books, I was given the opportunity to visit hundreds of worlds and live hundreds of lives, and when the time came for me to finally explore the real world, I already had an idea of what I’d encounter, even though my version was always a little more fantastical. 15 was also the year I decided that no matter what career path I’d choose, I would still write every day of my life, because writing brought me peace and it still does that today. Although, editing is a horse of a different color, but I’ll save that for another day.

This week’s #NoteToSelf is special, because it features a female writer whose story I can relate to. I hope you can find pieces of you in Ellen Urbani, the author of Landfall, a novel set in the wake of Hurricane Katrina – a Women’s National Book Association Great Group Reads selection and winner of the Maria Thomas fiction award – and the memoir When I Was Elena, a Book Sense Notable selection documenting her life in Guatemala during the final years of that country’s civil war. She has a bachelor’s degree from The University of Alabama and a master’s degree from Marylhurst University. Her writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Rumpus, numerous anthologies, and has been widely excerpted. She’s reviewed books for The Oregonian, served as a federal disaster/trauma specialist, and has lectured nationally on this topic. Her work has been profiled in the Oscar-qualified short documentary film “Paint Me a Future”. A Southern expat now residing in Oregon, her pets will always be dawgs and her truest allegiance will always reside with the Crimson Tide.

Project GirlSpire (PG): Describe your 15-year old self in fifty words or less.

Ellen Urbani (EU): It only takes one word: Aspiring. I wanted to go places I’d never been. I wanted to be more popular than I was. I wanted to be more confident and prettier and more talented. I imagined (I worried) I wasn’t ‘enough’ of anything. I aspired to something more than I was, as so many of us so needlessly do.

PG: Where were you at age 15? (Physical location)

EU: Leesburg, VA

PG: Where are you now? (Physical location)

EU: Portland, OR

PG: Did you know who or what you wanted to be at 15?

EU: I had no idea who or what I wanted to be, but there were hints of the person I’d become: I won my first national writing award when I was 15, though I never imagined I’d be an author. I yearned to travel, though it took seven more years before I managed to live and work abroad. I always loved animals, but wouldn’t have guessed I’d someday live on a farm with oodles of them. However, I always swore that — come hell or high water — I would someday learn to tame my hair. And by god, when I was 35, I finally did.

Author, Ellen Urbani at age 15 (on right) and her best friend, Kristine Williams. They were on the Loudoun County High School yearbook committee 

PG: 15-year olds tend to hate everything, what was going on in your world that you hated and wanted to change?

EU: My father and I didn’t get along at all when I was 15. We hadn’t had a close relationship earlier, either, but it became particularly acrimonious during my mid-teens. I look back and realize he was scared that he was losing control of me, and endeavored to exert his influence while he could, which is a natural enough (though often unfortunate) parental tendency. I felt as if he couldn’t stand me, or my choices, or my aspirations, and that he consistently judged me as falling short of his expectations when in fact I was a good kid and an excellent student — which led me to believe there was no way I could ever please him and that there was little sense in even trying. I wish he’d felt more free to let me become my own person without sensing that he needed to point the way for me, as I think that would have made our lives, and our relationship, easier. It’s something I try to keep in mind with my own children. I also wish I’d been more appreciative of all he sacrificed and the drudgery he endured in his daily work life in an effort to give me the opportunities and privileges he hadn’t known; such graciousness on my part surely would have been well-received by him, and would have perhaps helped me recognize that his aspirations for me were tied up in his aspirations for himself — that I was living out the life he didn’t have the chance to have, which is why he likely exerted too much control sometimes. By the time I graduated college, we were nearly estranged. But I am thrilled to report that he learned to relax as he got older, and I learned to demonstrate gratitude for all the good he did bring into my life, and we are much closer now, which makes me ever so happy.

PG: At 15, we always think it’s the worst of times; were they really the worst or were they the best of times?

EU: The phrasing of this question calls to mind the opening of Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epic of incredulity…” And it would be true! That juxtaposition of opposites is what 15 was like for me, as it was, also, during every seminal moment in my life, when I transitioned from one version of myself into another. It was the best of times and the worst. I thought I knew everything, and I was a proven a fool over and over again. I believed ardently in all the principles I stood for, and I was endlessly surprised at my own evolving passions and perspectives. I wish I had not felt such a need to be so sure of myself, and had instead been more comfortable with the uncertain evolution of both my inner and external worlds.

PG: What were the top 5 songs on your playlist at 15?

EU: I would have been listening to Bruce Springsteen’s Born in the USA, Prince’s Purple Rain, everything on the Footloose movie soundtrack (the one with Kevin Bacon), Madonna’s Like A Virgin, and the original recording of “We Are the World.” But to be clear, I was also still humming along to all those slightly older Journey songs in my head — which is something I must admit, I still do. If there’s a soundtrack of my youth, it’s Journey.

Allison Reynolds

Ally Sheedy as Allison Reynolds in The Breakfast Club

PG: What literary, movie or TV character did you identify most with at 15?

EU: Two iconic movies — ones I’ll still watch when it’s dark and rainy outside — were released that year: The Breakfast Club, and St. Elmo’s Fire. Being a redhead, I was always compared to and equated with Molly Ringwald, but her character in The Breakfast Club had more self-confidence in her worst moments than I had in my best. Instead, I am much more like Ally Sheedy’s character in St. Elmo’s Fire (not her character in The Breakfast Club!): the wise, steady center of a large circle of people to whom she is deeply loyal.


PG: At 15, what was your idea of a dream job?

EU: It surely was some leadership position; I was always known by my siblings and cousins to trend toward bossy. (I can hear them now, groaning, saying, “Are you kidding us? You trend toward bossy? As if! You’re a total control freak!!”)

PG: What were you reading at 15?

EU: Aside from reading Cosmo with my best friend (hidden beneath our shared textbook during chemistry class), I can’t remember anything but this: my AP English teacher pressed a copy of The Collector by the English author John Fowles into my hands; she said she thought I was capable of reading and understanding it. She knew me well. It’s a book that haunts me, still.

Madonna, Cosmopolitan Magazine [Australia] (July 1990)

Madonna, Cosmopolitan Magazine [Australia] (July 1990)

PG: As far as high school stereotypes go, which category did you closely fit into?

EU: The cheerleader. But then again, I was a cheerleader. And, in many ways, I still am, in that I am forever championing the people and causes I love, racing down the sidelines of their lives enthusiastically, chipping in, cheering them toward accomplishment.

PG: Who are you today and what makes you successful?

EU: Recently, my 11-yr-old daughter asked me why I am paying so much attention to the 2016 election. “It’s my job to pay attention!” I told her. “It is my job to be well informed, and vet the background, experience, and policies proposed by the candidates, because it’s my job to elect the next president, and that’s a job I take very seriously.” With no small degree of awe, she repeated, for clarification: “It’s your job to elect the president?” I told her it was. “Wow,” she said, both proud and confused: “All this time, Mommy, I thought your job was just to be an author!” 🙂 So I will tell you now what I then told her: I am many things to many people. I am an author, a counselor, a farmer. I am a mother, a wife, a sister. I am a Girl Scout leader and a horseback rider and a house-builder. I am a world traveler and a whitewater rafter and a mountain climber. I am a laundress and a seamstress and a toilet-scrubber. I am a reader and a listener and an elector. I am dozens and dozens of things to and for myself, and dozens of other things to the people around me. But essential to all is this: I am honest, and I am a risk-taker, and I am someone who acts in spite of fear not because of it. That, to me, is the definition of success.

PG: What achievement of yours would your 15-year old self be most proud of?

EU: There are many, fortunately. I so often find myself wishing I could go back, almost like a ghost visiting my own teenaged self, and whisper to her hints and previews of the woman she’ll become. I know it would have made me happy, and more relaxed, to see those previews of the good things to come. But if I had to pick just one thing, I think that my 15-yr-old self, who so often thought of herself as timid and scared and malleable, would have liked to know that she’d grow up to be a young woman who would live in a country at war, and stand toe-to-toe with men brandishing Uzis without backing down, and hide children from marauding armies, and earn what I consider to be my life’s greatest compliment from a group of men before returning home: “We misjudged you,” they said. “When we met you, you seemed so delicate. We all thought you’d fail. And yet, in the end, you turned out to be the toughest of us all.”

Ellen Urbani with a giant cookie tribute of her book, Landfall.

Kristine and Ellen again; this time Ellen’s on the left at age 46. This was taken last year, while I was on tour with her second book, Landfall

PG: Today, are you the person you thought you’d be at 15?

EU: I couldn’t have guessed at who I’d be when I was 15, but I do think my 15-yr-old self would be proud of me. There’s nothing I wanted to do that I haven’t attempted. Just being able to say that is, to me, a great accomplishment.

PG: If you could say anything to your 15-year old self, what would it be? (Your answer can be however long or however short, you wish it to be)

EU: Here is the one thing I most wish I had learned in advance: We must allow love to be changeable. When I was 15 I thought that when you fell in love, truly in love, that you naturally married that person and remained married to them until death-do-us-part. I did not understand that you could love someone without yoking your life to theirs; that loving someone sometimes means letting them go just as surely as at other times it means holding fast. I did not understand that sometimes the most loving thing you can do for someone is to turn your back on them with kindness, to give them the chance to find their own path and lead their own life and save their own self. I did not understand that lovingly-made promises, even marriage vows, are ones you have the right to reverse if the terms within which you made such promises, or such vows, have been altered. I stayed too long in a first marriage where I was not safe and where I was not happy, because I hadn’t yet realized that the promise to love another person should never take precedence over the promise we should all make to love and take care of ourselves first. Sometimes, bidding a graceful goodbye to love that has run its course is the most loving act a person can perform.


Want to know more about Ellen Urbani? Visit her website, Like her on Facebook, and follow her on Twitter. Interested in being apart of of our #NoteToSelf series, email me at or our Editor-in-Chief, Tina Lu at

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