A Letter to My Younger Self
Brace yourself. I know you’ve got a plan. It’s loosely guided by the idea of wanting a family and a career, but oh, what a long strange trip it’s been. Allow me to offer a few words of advice and encouragement.
Spend more time with your friends than your boyfriend. When you’re my age, you’ll look back and realize your friends are your real first love. In thirty years, you’ll have to move heaven and earth to spend three days together, but when you do, those three days will transport you right back to this time in your life. Savor it now.
Don’t worry about singing the words wrong to songs. Soon there will be this thing called the internet that will tell you every word to every song ever written. Unbelievably, you’ll continue to sing them wrong, anyway.
When your chemistry teacher tells you to just, “Sit there and look pretty,” at the beginning of the school year, do not listen to him. It is absurd that a man, especially a teacher, would ever say this, but it’s a different time, and he is from a different era. It breaks my heart that you’ll follow his advice and also employ the same strategy in AP Calculus and Computer Programming. You’re learning how to be just pleasant enough to get by and you are wasting precious time. A future in speech therapy is probably out since you can’t even decipher song lyrics, but these other opportunities you’re giving away.
Marry someone smart and kind and hilarious. People lose their hair. Get hair in places they shouldn’t have hair. Gain weight. I’ve got a gray eye lash. Looks don’t last. Your knees are going to crack when you stand up. Find someone that makes you laugh about it.
You’re going to leave behind the rolling fields, the threat of hitting a deer, and the big skies of Salem County for college at Rutgers University. It isn’t your first choice, but on a clear day you can see the Empire State Building from the laundry room on the top of your dorm, and the allure of the city makes it perfect.
Rutgers is like being shot through a cannon into the world of diversity. Your roommate will speak fluent Russian. Sometimes about you when you’re in the room. You’ll celebrate Diwali and wear a dot on your head when you go home with your Hindu friend. Judaism, homosexuality, atheism…the flow of new and different ways of living is immense. It is going to steal your intentions and replace them with an insatiable curiosity.
You’ve never met anyone who is gay. At least not someone who told you. At the first college party you attend, a boy will ask you if you’ve ever been with a girl. Your response will be, “Been where?” Because you go lots of places with girls… and boys for that matter.
You’re not in Woodstown anymore. You’re in over your head, but You can do this.
Your friend’s father will have too much to drink at her graduation party and tell you to lose a few pounds. The woman in the cubicle next to you will say you should be a model. Some like your hair better brown. You’ve got a big butt. You’re so tall. You should cut bangs. Have you thought about a boob job? Your teeth are so white…This is all noise. Every word of it should be ignored.
Your wedding is going to be a complete fiasco. A violent storm will knock out power at the location of your ceremony and reception. No ice, no lights, no music. The shuttle transporting your guests will break down. Your mother, who never drinks, will have champagne. Your bridesmaids will not show up because there was a fire at the hotel. When those in charge pull the details back together, and your father comes to retrieve you to walk down the aisle, you will tell him, “You’ve got the wrong girl. This is not my wedding.” He will not hesitate to tell you to get up and get walking…. You can do this.
You’re going to adopt the most adorable beagle to ever walk this planet. He will be poorly trained, bossy, and entitled, and fifteen years later, he will still be your best friend.
You will be blessed with two beautiful, perfect babies. They will not sleep through the night, have no interest in eating in a restaurant, hate getting their haircut, and steal any fashion sense you think you have. While driving one day, your youngest – who’s fully secured in her five-point harness in the backseat – will remove her shoe and throw it at you in frustration. Your friends will tell you she’s spirited. You’ll think of other words to describe her. Don’t worry. You can do this, too.
You’ll work as an auto claims adjuster for five years. People are going to yell at you. Every day, they will scream about their scratched bumpers, too small rental cars, and unpaid claims. Their anger will fill your time. It’s okay. Your mother and your swim coach are yellers, too. They are training you well.
You’ll be pulled over by the police twice on the same day while you, your children, and your mother-in-law are all in the car on your way to Maryland. Perhaps, just sit there and look pretty.
You’ll transfer to human resources, sales training, market research, and employee development, but you’ll find your passion as a diversity specialist. Within the next ten years there will be a new corporate push to embrace diversity, not only within their customer base, but to leverage their employees. It will be considered a competitive edge and you are not only going to study diversity, but you’re going to get paid for it. You’ll go to the interview and be honest with your limited knowledge of diversity initiatives. Because among so many other incidences of daily life, you don’t have to hide the identity of the person you desire and you don’t know what it’s like to be pulled over by the police and feel fear. You’ll be hired for understanding what you don’t know.
There, you will thrive. Studying religions, women’s rights, the experiences of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender men and women, and race relations in America. You’ll read every memoir and historical reference you can get your hands on, but you won’t be the only person willing to be honest on the topic of diversity. Race against race, religion against sexuality… After a series of disturbing conversations that will challenge your own beliefs and your dedication to trying to understand the ideas that others hold so dear, you’ll decide that real diversity education has to begin with children. Children see the world without the baggage and filters adults cannot escape. You will enroll at Drexel’s Graduate School of Education and obtain your teacher’s certification for elementary ed.
You can do this. Your vision includes not only teaching the fundamentals, but the culture that will exist in your classroom. One of exploration and questioning and listening to each other. Garnering information from someone else’s experiences that are different from your own.
What is it like to have a parent deployed for a year? Missing your birthday and Christmas morning, or no grandparent to invite to Grandparents’ Day? How can I stop responding with what I think it must be like and actually listen to the person who’s living it?
In one of your ongoing efforts to maintain a healthy weight, you pour an actual serving size of cereal into a bowl and as you stare at the miniscule amount of food, you wonder how you’re not three hundred pounds.
As kindergarten approaches for your oldest, you’ll move back to the Woodstown School District because it’s a great place to raise a family. You will again drive on Main Street and Auburn Road, and when you’re cruising on Pointary to drop off your kids at the Woodstown Preschool Academy, you’ll think, What would it be like to have moved back here in disgrace? Completely humiliated? What if, instead of being excited to see everyone, I wanted to hide in the rancher I grew up in on a farm in Oldmans Township? You won’t know it, but this is the moment you start writing a book.
In pursuit of your teacher certification, you’ll take an American Literature class and write a paper on Toni Morrison’s SULA. Your professor will comment, “You have a unique writing style. You should consider writing.” She won’t know the ten novels she’s setting into motion. Listen to this teacher.
Your family will be tested. It will be ripped apart by some all-too-common, but still tragic issues. You and your husband will go to St. Thomas for a long weekend to escape everything. In the airport gift shop, you’ll buy the great Nicholas Spark’s, DEAR JOHN, and read it in one day. When you’re done, you’ll say out loud, “I can do this.”
The Governor is going to cut a billion dollars from the NJ school budgets, and for the first time since you were twelve, you’re going to be out of work. Don’t worry. You’ve got this.
You’ll write at night, on an iPad. You’ve never heard this word before, but it’s a flat screen, about the size of a magazine, that you hold in your hand and gain access to music, books, the news, friends, definitions, opinions, and the rest of humanity’s knowledge. It and the iPod and iPhone before it will literally change the world as you know it. I know I can be dramatic, but you have to believe me. Everything will be different, and the college drop-out who invented them all, Steve Jobs, has already died. He was only fifty-six. Don’t squander your time. Don’t wait for your greatness to emerge.
But, back to you, young Eliza. You’ll write without an external keyboard 118,000 words of a story about a girl who moves back to her hometown in Salem County humiliated and heartbroken. You won’t know what genre you’re writing in, what is selling at the time, or how to get someone to publish it when you’re done.
The characters wake you in the middle of the night and tell you their stories. They have conversations in your head and share secrets with only you. It will become an obsession built on the insane belief running through your being that you can do it. You can write a book as easily as you’ll figure out how to wallpaper your bedroom.
When you’re done, you'll be in love with it. You’ll read the story you’ve written, and parts of it will make you cry.
You’ll find every article on the internet about how to sell a book. You will query agents, talk to fellow writers, join writers groups, and search for answers to questions you don’t even know you have yet.
At a writer’s conference in Atlanta, GA, sitting next to a woman who rocks in her seat as she wipes the sweat from her brow, you will hold your manuscript in your hand and await your eight minute window to sell an editor your book. You can do this.
You’ll tell your future editor, “I’ve got exactly what you’re looking for,” with the conviction of someone who knows what they’re talking about, and you will sell her not only on your book, but on yourself.
In the year you turn forty, your husband will buy you a big diamond ring, your best friends will gather in Manhattan to celebrate, and you will sell your book in a three-book-deal to Grand Central Publishing’s Forever Yours line. It will not be lost on you that Grand Central publishes Nicholas Spark’s books, too.
It will be discovered that one of your son’s eyes has stopped functioning, and he’ll be prescribed eye patches and glasses to try to reengage it. In the shower the morning before his first day wearing his glasses to school, you’ll realize you’d give everything up for him not to have to wear them.
Your father, who is able to fix anything, the one who will come no matter what time, day or night, when you need him. The man who is loved by all of your friends, especially the girls who find him adorable, will be diagnosed with Parkinson's. The only person you know with Parkinson's is Michael J. Fox and you naïvely believe that your father will only have years of difficult speech and some uncontrolled movements to deal with. Instead, it’s the equivalent of watching your hero be scraped out like an avocado from its skin. Parkinson's will steal his mobility, balance, and his independence. There’s nothing to stop the debilitation except death.
You’ll lose the words you so cherish because in the moments it’s quiet, you’ll drown in the rising waters of despair. This, you’ll have to find a way to do.
Feeling consumed by his illness, you’ll volunteer at the VA hospital in Wilmington, DE. Two days a week, you’ll work transporting patients from rooms to PT, the ER to X-ray. On your first day you’ll be told, “There are a lot of Bobs here.” You’ll meet wheel chair Bob and eye patch Bob, recovering addict Bob and Captain Bob. These men are your fellow volunteers, and they along with the wounded warriors, help you keep your father’s condition in perspective.
If I can give you one piece of advice in this life, it’s when things are out of your control, when you can’t impact your situation or find a way to help yourself, help someone else.
Our existence is built on the connections that make us human. The highs and lows of a life well lived. Be unrealistic about what you believe are your abilities. Don’t listen to logic. Don’t believe the studies or statistics. You can do this.
Your future self