This past weekend, I spent some time going through bins full of old papers, a mess of things that included elementary school projects, photo albums, college essays and design work from my late 20s. A lot of it could be tossed, some I reorganized and stored until the next time I decide to go through it.
One lovingly preserved file organizer held a mess of writing and drawings from my childhood: illustrated books I created, plays I wrote with my cousins, collages of colorful pictures, folios full of sketches and stories. Beneath the organizer was a single page torn out of a lined notebook, which had somehow worked itself loose of the tightly-packed contents. It was handwritten in pencil, filling about half the page.
I idly picked this up and scanned it, and then set it carefully aside. I had my husband read it, my mom, a friend. I’ve copied it out into my journal. And since I found it, I’ve spent a lot of time reflecting on what it says, what that means about me in the past, what it means to me now.
Just to provide some context, my birthday is in early March, and I turned 42 this year. This was written in 1988, when I was 12:
March 7, 1988
22 yrs. In ten years, I hope to be at a university getting a Master’s degree in designing and art. I hope I will also be adopting a baby girl, as I will graduate soon. I hope I’ll get all A’s and B’s so I’ll be a good business executive.
32 yrs. In twenty years I hope to be working in an office in New York, while living in a penthouse on Park Avenue. I also hope that my adopted girl will be ten, and growing nicely. My job (I hope) will be architecture, interior design and designing outfits. Also, I hope to be writing a few books.
42 yrs. In thirty years I hope to be living on a secluded mountain, with a quaint village nearby. My adopted girl and I would make a living from the crops we grew. We would live in a huge house with tons of animals… pets… barnyard… all kinds.
I hope your life is good to you!
Charming, silly, sweet, innocent, imaginative, and certainly funny… I laugh at it, but there’s much more to feel as well.
My 12-year-old self was not a confident girl, as most of us aren’t at 12. She was anxious and painfully self-conscious, she thought she was ugly and awkward, she longed to be different—prettier, for one thing. Popular. Bubbly. Self-assured. Anything other than what she was.
And yet when she looked to the future, sitting down to write a letter to her older self, she didn’t want to be a model or actress, with the stunning looks to quench all those pubescent insecurities. She didn’t worry about being married vs. single, nor did she consider future partners at all in her choices. She wanted to be a mom—but not through the traditional process. She saw herself jumping headlong into a single motherhood by taking on an adopted child immediately after college. She wanted to be educated and successful and influential. Presumably having had enough of the big city hustle, she hoped to retreat into a beautiful place and live a simple, positive life.
And she wanted to write books.
What’s really struck me is how independent and empowered I expected to be as an adult. I took it for granted that I’d be out there in the world, living fearlessly, doing exactly what I wanted to do, even if it wasn’t “normal” or expected. I intended to build an original life on my own terms.
This all especially resonates because of the timing, finding it just as I reach the last milestone my younger self planned out. I don’t live on a secluded mountain with a 20-year-old adopted daughter, raising crops for a living, and while I do have a number of pets, they don’t include any barnyard animals. Which is just fine, because I don’t want to live on a mountain in a huge house—I love living where I do and as I do, finding joy in the small day-to-day rituals and big adventures that make up my life. I don’t regret never living in a penthouse on Park Avenue (not that I’d MIND one, of course), nor was I remotely ready to adopt a child at 22. But I’d like to think that now, in spite of a lot of trial and error in the last 30 years, I’ve come to a place that my 12-year-old self would be satisfied with—and done it on my own terms.
Through many crises of identity, an early marriage resulting in a traumatic breakdown and breakup and divorce, choices ranging from abysmal to empowered and endless work put into figuring out what really matters to me, I live in a way that feels authentic and fulfilling. I’ve written those few books that my past self threw in, almost as an overthought—in fact started writing them just around the decade that she envisioned, in my mid-30s. (I find it interesting that she didn’t dream of being a bestselling author, just to be “writing a few books,” earning her living through a successful job.)
I’m deeply happy in my life and in myself, something I couldn’t honestly say during most of the 30 years that have passed since the letter was written. I have messy problems, terrible days, extra pounds I want to lose, frustrating encounters, mild road rage, self-doubt, writer’s block and all the flaws and triggers and scars that make each of us human. I think 12-year-old me would have understood all of that, though, and hope she would have been very glad for 42-year-old me.
She might be disappointed that I missed out on adopting a daughter in my 20s, living in New York City or moving to a mountain retreat. But I’d love to believe she’d also be delighted that I’ve written 12 mystery novels, earned a Bachelor’s degree in design, studied in Denmark, traveled to other states and countries, formed strong friendships, found a true partner, and come through difficult and troubling experiences to create a thriving life.
On my way to work the other morning, I was reflecting on the letter (and, coincidentally, listening to a podcast which just then happened to be touching on the benefits of connecting with our inner children) as I pulled up behind a car with a single, somewhat battered bumper sticker. It read: “Remember who you wanted to be.”
Without getting too weird about it, I do believe it was a sign. That the timing of this is meaningful. Maybe it seems like a futile exercise to consider what our 12-year-old selves wanted, a waste of time with so many more pressing and immediate demands on our attention. If I hadn’t found the letter, I can’t say I’d have ever given it much thought.
But I did find the letter. Not last year or next year, but this year. And it’s oddly important to me that I not disappoint that wise, naive girl, who had such exceptional ideas about who she wanted to be and wasn’t afraid to write them down for her future self to read.
I want to live up to her hopes for herself, and look toward the coming years with the same brave, optimistic and unabashed enthusiasm and ambition that she did. What wildly interesting things could I imagine for myself in the next decade or three?
…Even as I form the question, my mind is full of them.
Maybe it’s time to write another letter.