A Letter to My Younger Self on Her Graduation Day

Photo Apr 30, 3 21 34 PM

Me, before facebook was invented

Today’s a big day. You’re walking across campus toward the gym, toward the abrupt end of the familiar path you’ve been walking for years. This is what you’ve prepared for; this is the finish line that has glimmered on the horizon through all those years of schooling and dreaming. Today’s agenda is crammed, but tomorrow will open into the wild unknown.

Who will I be? Whom will I love? Where will I land? How will I make my mark?

You’re worried about a lot of things – trust me, I know – even though you’re trying to play it cool under that thin black robe. You are surprised at its flimsiness; you thought it would feel more substantial on your shoulders. You thought this day would feel more substantial, too, but it’s already gliding by.

You’ve smuggled a pen and a crossword puzzle torn from today’s Oregonian inside your sleeve, a visible sign that this ceremony is SO not a big deal to you. The puzzle is a lie, of course, an attempt to give your mind a red herring, to distract it from anxieties that buzz around your eyes like gnats.

You are worried about love. 

This makes you feel pathetic, and like a complete failure as a feminist, but it’s true nonetheless. You’ve fallen in love fairly recently. It’s a risky, fragile love, one sprung from the ruins of last year’s epic heartbreak, when you were emotionally decimated and had to pull yourself out of despair with several rounds of anti-depressants.

That heartbreak is still alive for you. The love dried up, but the taste of rejection remains in your mouth, at the back of your throat. You’re worried it will never leave, but I promise it will. You’ll gradually forget this guy who broke your heart. Not too far in your future, you’ll stop thinking of him entirely – aside from that occasional fantasy that you randomly run into him, on a day you look particularly a-mazing, and have a chance to tell him what a wonderful life you have now. You want him to know that he never really broke you. Which is true. He didn’t.

Photo Apr 30, 4 03 10 PM

Youths in love, amidst existential crises

And now this second love has appeared, even though you are still reeling. I admit, it’s hardly the formula for a healthy, lasting relationship: you’re on the rebound, and he’s in the throes of an existential crisis, living in a Portland townhouse with a bunch of other guys, who are also in the throes of existential crises. Everyone’s looking for answers at the bottom of cans of Pabst Blue Ribbon. No one is showering regularly. It’s a bit of a mess.

He is a man at sea, and you’re on the shoreline, beckoning – trying not to look too desperate.

You’re supposed to go to France at the end of summer, to teach English to bitchy French youths in Rouen for a year. You’re supposed to set out on this adventure solo, untethered to anyone. But, secretly, you’re already thinking of not going, even though you won’t admit this to yourself – and certainly not to him.

Well, I like spoilers, so I’ll tell you what happens. You give up France for him. And it might surprise you to find out that, in a little over a year, you marry this guy. He gets over his existential crisis (for the most part) and starts showering regularly (for the most part). And even though it seems like a recipe for disaster right now, things turn out really well. Beautifully, in fact. You are grotesquely happy together. And you make cute babies.

After you get married, people will ask, “So how do you like being married?” And you’ll be unsure how to answer, because although you love being married to Michael, you also now realize how hellish married life could be if you had entangled yourself with the wrong person. You’ll think about the guy before Michael, how miserable you’d make each other, and you’ll feel strangely grateful that he broke your heart.

You are worried about God.

Or, more accurately, you’re worried about Not God. You’re worried about God’s absence.

Doubt is a source of fear and guilt for you right now, I know. Your faith was once like a completed Jenga game, a tower of smooth wooden blocks that fit perfectly together, no spaces between or unfinished tiers. This tower did not move – but neither did it breathe. It stood tall, but precariously so; if the wind came through, the blocks would be scattered. So you’ve had to keep the windows locked up tight.

This was faith for you – until you arrived at college, where someone said: Open the windows. Let the air in. Breathe.

You grew up confusing faith with certainty, and now that the certainty is gone, you are worried your faith has self-immolated in a final, futile protest.

I want to offer you some comfort. You’ll realize this for yourself in a couple of years, but I’ll go ahead and tell you now: this is not a real death. This is a rebirth. A startling bird of fire will rise up from those ashes. Your faith is in the midst of metamorphosis, unfurling from something rigid and immobile into something beautiful, mysterious, and uncaged.

You will grow to understand that to be human is to live in a state of unknowing, and the doubt you now fear is actually a vital dimension of your faith. 

You are worried about THE FUTURE.

Everybody is asking, “What’s next? What are you going to do with your life?” As if there is only one thing one does with one’s life. You don’t know how to answer that question, and that’s okay. You don’t have to know. You’ll do many things.

I’ll be honest, though. It will be hard to transition into post-college life, where you are not told, every three or four months, how well you are doing and how you should improve. You’ve been trained to live relentlessly looking forward; you’ve been taught to anchor yourself in the future, to root your self-worth in achievable goals and the approval of your parents, your pastors, your professors, your peers.

You have learned to live impatiently, anxiously waiting for that final moment of Arrival.

But it will never come. Or, what I mean to say is: that moment is always already here. This is it; you have arrived. Your “real life” doesn’t begin on the day you graduate, or the day you get married, or the day you become a mother for the first time. Those big moments are wonderful and exhilarating, but they flash and vanish. “Real life” is what happens in between.

If there is any piece of advice I can offer you, it is this (and I say this as much to myself as to you, because we still share many neuroses):

Don’t think of your life as a ladder to climb, rung by rung, toward an always-shifting terminus. Imagine a spiral, pinwheeling outward from the present moment, the murky past and the inchoate future swirling around you, inscrutable. You’re in the epicenter of that storm, and that is where you must learn to live, in the quiet eye of now.

Try, even just for today, your graduation day, to forget about the future entirely. Stop searching out there for that Holy Grail that will make you feel complete, because it’s actually right here, in the flickering light of the present. Look at your hands; you’re holding it already. Raise it high to toast what surrounds you before it all disappears, and take a long, soulful drink.

Then, go do that crossword.

Photo Apr 30, 3 23 03 PM

I’ve always had terrible taste in shoes.

 

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19 comments

  1. afireworkinprogress

    I have often wished I could go back in time and give my younger self advice. Now I try to see where I might be in 10 years, where I want to be, and think about the advice I’d give myself to get there. Though the concept of being 10 years older can be frightening!

    • Abigail

      Funny — I started out writing letters to my older selves. I wrote one when I was twelve, addressed to my sixteen year-old self; that age seemed infinitely older and wiser to me at the time. At twelve, I’d thought I’d truly “arrive” when I turned sixteen. Then, I turned sixteen and dreamed about being twenty-one, etc. Now I’m almost thirty, and I’m started to look backward…!

  2. Dominique

    I should be writing my master’s thesis. (In fact, my husband made me leave the house and go into school to work on it.) But this post could have been written to my younger self. I, however, did leave the man I loved and who would later become my husband to teach English in Taiwan for a year. We did a long distance relationship and I still wonder if that wasn’t a mistake. I think we would have a much better relationship now had I stayed in the states, waited for him to finish graduate school and then we had done all of our traveling together.

    • Abigail

      Wow, our histories are mirror images. This feels like it could be a movie, a romantic drama: “Should she move abroad? Should she stay for love?” Looks like both stories end in marriage. I did a little of the long-distance thing with the other boyfriend, the heart-breaking one. (He was a fiance, actually.) We did pretty well apart; it was when we traveled together and, for the first time, spent 24/7 together that things began to disintegrate. Now I’m more curious about your story, how long you’ve been married, etc., but of course you don’t have to tell me anything. You have a thesis to write! 😉

      • Dominique

        We’ve been married about three years – since February 2010. I graduated from undergrad in May 2007 and we got together that summer. He was in graduate school in Milwaukee and I wanted to travel so I traveled around the US and used Milwaukee as my base until I ran out of money and then I got a waitressing job in town. At the same time, I was applying to jobs abroad originally in Japan and then in Taiwan when nothing in Japan worked out. I got a job in May and the plan was for me to go for year and come back. We got engaged shortly before I left the states and then there was the whole recession thing that year. It ended up that it was easier for him to get a job in Taiwan than in the US so after a year he moved there with me. We were there until the summer of 2011 when we moved back to the US so I could start graduate school in Environmental Science and Policy.

  3. Sarah Shipman

    Thanks, Abi. I’ll keep it in mind on Saturday. And incidentally, the comment that made me laugh was the hidden one at the end about your shoes. I’m no fashionista myself, but I know I look better when I smile.

  4. Lillian @ Seize the Latte

    I love this! I felt the exact same way when I graduated college 10 years ago: I was effing terrified. Looking back, though, I’m really happy with how things worked out (even though it’s totally different from how I thought things would go). Letters to our younger selves are truly wonderful, and the perspective they give — in terms of both the past and the future — is tremendous. Thank you for writing such a beautiful post!

    • Abigail

      Thanks for reading. (And for affirming the notion that you don’t have to have it all figured out when you’re 21 or 22 years old! So much pressure.)

  5. trishasuzanne

    Abigail – this is really lovely. Such timeless advice relevant no matter our age or stage of life. It reminds me of an exercise I try to do when I’m having trouble making a big decision. I ask myself, “What would my 40 (or 60 or 90) year-old self advise me to do in this situation?” Reframing my situation in this way typically helps me to see the bigger picture and give me some new insights. I could have really stood to ask myself that question when I was 22 and graduating college. My 31 year-old self would have had some words for her and possibly could have saved her from some major grief! But I’m grateful that I have learned to have grace for my young self. In fact, you’ve inspired me … maybe I need to write her a letter just to let her know that.

  6. ayna

    Fun read! And it’s funny how we keep chasing ourselves. I mean, this is our present and we want to chase the past and the future but we can’t so we write them letters. I do that too. Hahaha. This is a great blog! 🙂

  7. joeyfullystated

    I enjoy your blog so much that later tonight, I’m nominating you for the Versatile Blogger Award. Should you accept, just follow the links in the post. Thanks so much!

  8. john

    So glad I did not read your blog while visiting you because I know you wouldn’t like seeing your father-in-law get all teary eyed and emotional. Your a fantastic writer. AML

  9. Pingback: Don’t Let the Bastards Grind You Down | Mama Unabridged
  10. Krista (@marriedlife)

    Real life is what happens in between… and the arrival is already here. I think this is what I’ve been struggling with for the past 5 years. Ever since I gave up teaching to stay home with my child (now 4 children) full time. There was always the rhythm of the school year and the looking ahead to what’s next and now there is no “what’s next”. It’s just the same day in and day out and it can be mindnumbing. I think we are in a way programmed to look to the future (by who, I’m not sure), we need goals to work towards. And maybe some of us aren’t as good at creating our own goals without the structure to provide them for us (in my case, the end of the school year).
    Thoughts for a late night I guess. Also, being very nostalgic for that 10 years, not sure how it went by so fast, and fascinated by this idea of writing letters to ourselves… I wrote one to my future self when I was 20 and went through one wicked crazy summer. It didn’t seem so ridiculous 10 years later when I had lived with that summer for 10 years. Maybe I should write one to myself 10 years ago… not sure I’d be willing to post it like this though!