My Back Pages

(This essay was prompted by a suggestion to write a letter to your younger self. It was originally part of a community writing effort called On Display, which offered a prompt every month.) 

June 24, 2001

Dear Margaret 24,

Greetings to you from thirty years into your future. I’m watching you move about your new apartment. You’re clearing away the last of the dishes from dinner, a special event this night attended by your parents, a guy you’ve been dating, and your sister and her boyfriend to celebrate your parents’ twenty-fifth wedding anniversary. In a little while you’ll get out the materials you need to review for the session of summer school remedial English that you’ll be teaching in the morning. When you’ve done that you’ll finish reading James Dickey’s new novel Deliverance for the graduate class in contemporary American fiction you’ll be attending tomorrow evening.

You’re not in a degree program, you’re just taking random courses to amass enough credits to secure permanent certification to teach English in the public schools of Pennsylvania. I’m probably expected to tell you now, from my vantage point in the future, that you should shake up your life a little, stop playing it safe, get out of the town you were born in, go to graduate school full time, and start writing your own fiction today instead of twenty-five years from today.

But if you change the whole course of your life, then you change the place from which I am writing this. Not one detail of the life I have now will be the same, and I don’t want that to happen. I like it here. There are some things I’d like to tell you about, though, things that if done differently won’t change the substance of your life, but will make for fewer regrets, or at least different ones.

For a year you lived in two furnished rooms in the city. Now you’ve moved into a four room apartment in a house on two acres that ride a pine ridge not far from the school where you teach. The 20-foot living room has a wide picture window that looks out on a border of tiger lilies and false sunflowers sweeping down a gentle slope to a stand of trees that screens Route 322 from your view.

Your new apartment contains mostly castoffs from your parents and filler items from Ollie’s Bargain Outlet (Good Stuff Cheap!). You are about to buy your first piece of really fine furniture. It will be an Ethan Allen semanier, a tall narrow chest with seven drawers meant to hold lingerie. It will cost $350, about three weeks’ salary. A similar piece costs $2200 today. You will enjoy this piece, as I do. It’s as beautiful now as the day it arrived, and has served in every room in this house except the kitchen.

But if I were to advise you on this purchase, I would say buy a really nice desk instead, a writing table like the one I’m using now. Put it in that picture window, and start getting up early in the morning even in summer. Write in a journal (you’re sporadic about that, and will discard everything you write before 1982), drink good coffee with half and half (right now you have the occasional cup of Maxim with Creamora gulped down in the twenty minutes you give yourself to get ready for work), and spend more time looking at the leaves and the light.

While you’re looking at the leaves and the light, don’t do it solely through your picture window. Get out and breathe some fresh air. Exercise isn’t fashionable yet, but you should start a walking program anyway. You weigh 125 pounds but you nevertheless hate your body. Start loving it. It will never be as lithe as it is now, nor as easy to care for. You should start a tax sheltered annuity, too, maybe $50 a month. That’s 10% of what you make, which seems like a lot, while the accumulated $500 a year seems very little. You have that much in disposable income, and from where I sit you won’t be able to remember anything you bought with it. It will be ten years before you wake up to the magic of compounding interest. A different decision now will mean that I will have to make even fewer choices among the things I really want to spend my money on.

Most of the significant relationships in your life are already in place. Since you’re going to stay in this town, I’d recommend making more of an effort to maintain the relationships with Joanne and Barbara, your cousin Jim, Philip and Mary — they’re Christmas card friends to me now, and I wish it were not so.

Two important relationships are yet to begin. There is an infant boy in Minnesota who will become the student upon whom you have the most positive influence, and whose impact on you will be profound. You will become a woman who prays for the future, who prays for people and situations she can’t yet name, but you’re not there yet, being still in your agnostic/atheist period and unaware of the nature and potential of your spirituality. I pray for Shawn every day now. I wish you could have.

In a few weeks you will participate in a concert given by the Hershey Symphony Orchestra, a community group where you play in the first violin section. This concert will feature a solo by a talented young pianist, a high school girl whose older cousin is in the audience. If you turn your head a little you can see him — he’s got dark hair and a mustache, and he’s sitting with his wife and three children, two girls who are nine and six and a boy who is almost five. It’s quite possible that on this day your eyes will meet across a crowded room, but you won’t actually be introduced to each other until very late in 1982, when the younger girl, a student in your senior English class, suggests that you might enjoy each other’s company. She’ll be right, of course, and you’ll marry in 1983. You’ll remember this event, and know that soul mates are not necessarily irresistibly drawn to each other.

Beyond these things I won’t say any more. There are some rocky times ahead, and in general you won’t remember the seventies fondly. It will be a long strange trip to the place from which I write, and from where I sit it will definitely seem worth the fare.


Margaret 54

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