Letters to a younger self

I was 23, emotionally at sea, and hoping things would actually work out all right.

“Please,” I begged my older self, “please let me know I’ll get through this.”

I wanted a message from the self who survived, the Me who persevered and overcame, and maybe–oh, how I hoped and prayed it would be true– actually triumphed.

I was the dutiful girl doing something few people in my family had ever done–the good Catholic daughter getting a divorce. I no longer fit in my pre-determined slot, and the people I would normally have gone to for comfort–my Catholic family, my distant husband–were not available to me in this particular situation.

So I wanted to reach out, to time travel forward, to see if older, wiser Me had words of comfort and firm hugs.

At the risk of sounding weirdly New-Age-y, I kind of think it worked.

Maybe that’s one reason why Diana Gabaldon’s time travel books fascinate me. Supposing time travel was an actual construct, could the future reach back and touch the past?
Here’s the big, tussling-with question underlying all time travel considerations: Can going back in time can actually change the past?

I’m reading Gabaldon’s Written in My Heart’s Own Blood, the latest episode in the sweeping saga of 20th century-born Claire and 18th-century born Jamie. Claire and Jamie are in Revolutionary War United States. This book is populated with familiar figures from history (and from Gabaldon’s earlier books)–Jamie is a Continental Army officer, working with General Washington. He and Claire know Benedict Arnold socially.

Claire wonders if she could avert the tragedy of Arnold’s defection.

But— If she strives to change the present she’s in, will it affect the present 200 years hence? Could her actions actually hurt her and Jamie, change the birth, health, or well-being, maybe, of their daughter and their daughter’s children?

Or would anything she does in the past have already happened anyway, so her choices inevitably lead to the current present?

What a fun conundrum to roll around in my mind.

Thinking about this sent me to dig another book from a stack on the shelf–What I Know Now, an anthology of letters by dynamic and successful women to their younger selves, a book I discovered with delight at a big-barn-type book sale. Editor Ellyn Spragins writes in the introduction that she found herself floundering after her mother died. Ellyn was 32; her mother was killed in a plane crash traveling to a grand-aunt’s funeral.

When Spragins had an ectopic pregnancy and lost that baby, she longed to talk with her mother, who had suffered five miscarriages. Every time life events presented her with complex challenges and evoked a tangled web of emotions, Spragins writes, “…I felt a fresh, sharp stab of yearning each time she was not there to be my mother when I badly wanted mothering.”

I get that.

My mother died when I was 31, almost the same age as Spragins was. Although our dealings were ever fraught with tension and delineated by baldly different perspectives, Mom was a Class-One grandmother, and I missed her bitterly when my ‘quirky’ youngest son was born. During the years leading, at age 16, to his diagnosis of autism, we struggled with issues of childcare and education. There was no Plan B, ever. If a crisis arose, I just simply fell off the boat. I felt selfishly bereft a good deal of the time.
I missed my mother.

Mostly, though, I wish that Jim had felt a loving, accepting presence who would have thought his eccentricities were genius.

I wished then I was able to see the future, to know it would all evolve. So Spragins compilation of letters written from the future draws me in.

Here is Maya Angelou writing to the girl she was, the Marguerite who had a baby young and who was determined to leave her mother’s house and raise that child on her own.

“Be courageous,” Maya tells her, “but not foolhardy.”

Did that caution, glimmering in Marguerite’s unconscious, keep her from a tragic false step or two?

The accomplished Madeleine Albright tells of a younger self, less sure and more conflicted. To that young Madeleine, she writes, “You will get through this fog and uncertainty.”

How patently that prediction came true.

In her mid-forties, Rachel Ashwell, who forged a brilliant and unconventional career in the promotion of the shabby chic movement, tells her younger self, “…if you follow certain rhythms in life, the tracks that most people follow, things do tend to work out.”
Ironic—the non-conformist urging her rebellious younger self to conform—at least in some ways.

And Senator Barbara Boxer reminds her younger self that other people not only exist, but that they, and their views, are important to consider. “…look,” she writes, tough-talking to her younger self, “you have to understand that the next person may hold their beliefs with the same amount of passion that you have.”

What a wonderful concept for a public servant to keep foremost in her mind.

Women as varied in accomplishment and focus as Picabo Street and Naomi Wolf share their letters here. CEO’s, actors, musicians, and commentators, politicians and private people—we can read their words of comfort and challenge to the young women they once were.

What would I say if I wrote such a letter?

And, somehow, without putting pen to paper or pinky to keyboard, didn’t I? I believe I always knew I would arrive at a place of perspective, a place from which I could sort and funnel the rampant emotions of intense times of growth.

Is that because, as Gabaldon suggests in her books, time is a loop, and we really can
reach forward and backward and maybe, just maybe, comfort and communicate, challenge and reinforce?

That there is Guidance, I am sure; how to name it, what to call it, I don’t completely know. Me–reaching back; me–Guided… It’s a glorious and fascinating mystery.

What would you write to your younger self? What do you need to hear from your future?



2 thoughts on “Letters to a younger self

  1. I think more than imparting lessons to the younger me, I can actually learn more from her! I once read that who you are at present is a product of who you used to be. So whenever I’m satisfied with something about the present me, I look back to find what it was that first set me on this path. And then I apply it, to good effect every time.
    Either way, though, your point is supported. We can travel in time to get some lessons. And they’re the best kinds. None can teach us better than we can teach ourselves.

    1. I like this, Naima! Maybe we should write letters NOW to our older selves–and wouldn’t that be a wonderful exercise in an English class?

      I absolutely agree–we are our own best/first teachers!

      Thanks for taking the time to read and to comment; I’ll be visiting your blog too.



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