Creative Nonfiction: Time is My Life-Long Companion

By Ella Chen

To My Younger Self,
Remember when your first grade math teacher taught you how to read the clock? After learning the significance of the short, long, and longer hands, the odd pie-like object with a black crust and white filling no longer blended in with the classroom wall. In almost every class—every class, except for Math—your eyes would be glued to the clock as you’d rock your crossed legs to its tick-tock, waiting for recess. You were so excited about your new time-telling skill that you’d offer to announce timestamps (in five-minute intervals) on the delicacies Mom was baking up in the oven.
However, your friendship with time wasn’t long-lived. As your tenth birthday approached, you began to wish that time would slow. On your special day, time would etch a second digit into your age. For the first time, two candles would drip on your ice-cream cake, and to blow them out, you’d have to expand your tummy even more. The permanence of growing up made your palms sticky with sweat. Like when you’d try to climb up a slide, but you slipped and fell down the slope, your childhood was vanishing under your searching fingers.
As mom tucked you into bed on the last day of being nine, you asked her, “What time was I born?” The four-syllable answer changed your birthday from May 17th to May 17th, 6:39 pm: a grant of clemency. You let your eyelids droop, comforted by the knowledge that, when sunlight nudges them to flicker open tomorrow, you’ll still be nine. The next day, you live your best life by stuffing a freshly steamed rou bao zi down your gullet; by laughing through the pain from my scorched throat; by repeating the phrase, “I am nine,” as if it’ll change your fate.
In the after-school theater class that you disliked so much, you got into character… as a clam. But as much as you flapped your arms, looking more like a flailing bird than a giant opening and closing clam, your lines would not come to you. The baby breaths that only ever blew out singular candles were not strong enough to draw the words to the tip of your tongue. In the corner, the gentle ticking of the clock seemed to crack ominously like thunder. Again, you willed time to slow as it counted down to a forced goodbye to your single digits.
Of course, time was unrelenting, and you turned ten bitterly. For the next three years, you’d tell your parents’ work friends and strangers in the elevator that you are nine. No matter what, you tried to hold on to youth—youth that seemed so forgiving, fun, and carefree. And you were right to try to do that, for teenage life is full of self-doubt, stress, and struggles. But unbeknownst to you, every added birthday candle is also another round of fertilizer for the seedlings of the passions that, in the future, would bring you so much joy.
Whether it be singing in the shower, playing tennis under the mighty California sun, sharing the stage with your best friends performing Black Pink routines, or advocating for youth mental health, you found a life full of love and purpose.
At the Iowa Young Writers’ Studio, you were given the opportunity to finally pour hours and minutes into what you love, lavishly, like dumping a loving cascade of chocolate chips into your favorite cookie batter. You and your roommate would establish a nightly routine of writing by the Iowa River, which sparkled as the lingering sunlight melted the sky into soft shades of blue, pink, and orange. You would only become aware of the darkness that had peacefully crept upon you when you squealed at the sight of fireflies. With your neighbors, you’d write in the laundry room, swearing the spinning white noise was a balm for writer’s block. In reality, these sessions often turned into 2000s karaoke atop washing machines, song after song, unaware of the passing hours until you were interrupted by the curfew alarm. On the last day, you signed out on the pink A4 paper one last time: “Name: Ella, To: Home. With: Tears,” sprinkling droplets of water for dramatic effect.
After so many years, you have taught me that if there are catalysts for growth, time is the substrate. Since you started journaling at the end of your sophomore year, your clamshell has yawned wide for my words to stream out on expanded breaths. You’ve found passions and life-long friends who’ve taught you vulnerability, authenticity, and to fearlessly fight for what you want. You used to think of time as your enemy, but now, I see that it’s my greatest ally: with time, the list of people and things that fuel and inspire me has only grown. I excitedly await my 20th, 30th, and 50th birthdays and beyond—not for the presents, but for the growing friendships, burgeoning passions, and an unending list of thrilling firsts.
So Much Love,
Your Older Self

Ella Chen is a high-school student from Beijing, China who goes to school in California. Journaling sparked her love of writing, so it’s no surprise that her favorite form of writing is personal essays. In her free time, she loves dancing, listening to Taylor Swift and K-pop, and hanging out with friends, and she is really passionate about mental health advocacy.