Recently I posted about Letters to Me: Conversations with a Younger Self, a collection of essays by several authors of varied backgrounds written to a younger version of oneself. Today I’m posting my essay from the collection.
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The other day my son came into my office to talk. He’ll be 18 in a few weeks. I leaned back in my squeaky orange desk chair and watched his green eyes shift around the room. With fingers laced behind his head, he pumped powerful arms like bellows and pushed out a sigh. “I don’t want to screw it up, Mom,” he said. “I don’t want to end up like you.”
He actually said that. Oh, he meant no disrespect. It’s just that he wants to make the right decision, the first time. He doesn’t want to meander on some circuitous route to who-knows-where in his future.
It got me thinking of ways he is so much like you, and how you didn’t want to turn out like that either. Your biggest fear was settling. You had nightmares of living a comfortable life in middle America.
I remember when you left for the university; you were really going to do it. God knows you were smart enough. Anything you touched just “worked.” You were determined and confident and everyone knew you could write a bestseller. And then you’d take Erma Bombeck’s place as a humor columnist. People all over the country would start their days happier because you showed up in their morning paper and made them laugh.
But those summers you spent in Argentina changed everything. You saw something different in the world, and something in the world saw you. You loved a people you’d barely met, and felt as though you’d been born there, that you’d always been a part of that place. You made a promise to your very soul—and the people who held it—that you would come again and stay.
When you got back home, you were terrified of growing cold and numb to the aching desire. Before you had a good chance to regain your footing on your own soil, you walked away from all your hopes and plans and straight into the registrar’s office to sign away your dreams. You changed your major to political science just to guarantee you couldn’t get a job that you’d love. You were so afraid that you’d settle into a comfortable life and lose the heart to go when the time came.
You killed one dream in its sleep in order to pursue another, without ever checking the possibility that you could chase both. The great irony is that for all your thoughtful strategizing, you’re going to wind up running after neither. As sad as that may seem to you now, I think you should know that it’s okay, what you did. It made so much sense at the time. I remember all the arguments and your passion. There was no changing your mind. And that’s really okay. Don’t lose sight of that, because the time is coming—it will take a few years yet—when the questions will plant skinny little hands on their hips and start to nag. With each tap of a disillusioned foot, I can still hear them some days:
What were you thinking? Why did you do it? Would it have killed you to go on a few walks with the idea before committing? I heard those questions in the voice of my nearly grown son.
“Biggest mistake you could have made,” he said.
So many people think there’s a sure-fire, idiot-proof way to know the right thing. They get this idea that God’s whole plan for every person on earth can be derailed with one small misstep. I suppose some really do get a clear and certain sense of the way they are to go. But it seems that for many of us, the fleeces and pro/con lists, the long straws and coin flips are formalities. Sometimes, we’re just going to have to “fish or cut bait,” as my dad would say. We’re just going to have to make a guess. Maybe an educated guess, but it’ll be a guess all the same.
What I want you to know now is that it will work out, better than you could have known or planned. Because for many of us, life is much less like following a road map than coursing through a Rube Goldberg contraption. It seems far more like an elaborate series of springs and pulleys, levers and ropes that sets a chain reaction into motion.
Changing your course of study that day was like morning sun melting the wax that broke loose a string that turned a cup and dropped a marble that rolled down a plank….
Sure, you could have finished your journalism degree and started working as a writer straight out of school. Or you could have saved up and bought that red Isuzu pickup and driven the Pam Am highway all the way back to the Río Paraná. The cup may have just flipped to the other side to let out the marble and run a different course.
Each move sets another part in motion.
If you could look ahead now, you’d see that the marble will drop off a ledge and you’ll finish school. It will roll down a ramp and you’ll get your first job. It’ll tap the first in a line of dominoes and you will find love. You’ll get married. Click. You’ll have kids. Click. Click. You’ll lose a baby. Crash!
Your career path will take twists and turns and run uphill and down. You’ll work with teenagers and art and technology and insurance. Bump. Bump. Bump. You will help almost kill a church. Click. You’ll stay to see God bring it back to life. Boom! You’ll go through layoffs. Splat! You’ll start your own business. Click. Click. Click. Boom! Bump. Crash! Click.
One day the marble will spin the wrong way off a wheel when you suffer the death of a dear friend. But it will trip a wire and you’ll start to write again after more than twenty dry years. Maybe it’s just a handful of people on the inter-net and not the whole country, but some mornings you will even make people laugh. Later, you’ll discover the way poetic words can open a soul. And on really good days, some folks will catch the tiniest glimpse of God in your words.
It’s not caring for children on the Paraná, but you’ll nurture two boys toward adulthood along the Whetstone Creek in rural South Dakota. You’ll share with family the heart you thought you’d left in another hemisphere. You’ll be foolish and you’ll be wise. You’ll be happy and you’ll be discouraged. If you had done any of the things you once dreamed and planned for, you’d have had a rich, full, satisfying life that mattered to other people. I’m sure of it. Just as sure as I am that you’ve already experienced a rich, full, satisfying life that matters to other people without doing any of those things.
Even by doing the opposite.
So go ahead. Stick with the plan. Be a writer.
Change the plan. Be a missionary.
Or don’t even have a plan. Who knows? You might wind up as a claim adjuster who lives quietly and writes poetry in the Midwestern middle of no-where.
That’s what I tried to tell my son that day—your son. Most of the time, there isn’t going to be a single right answer. And even when there is, we won’t always choose it. As much as my life so far has looked like a crazy bunch of detours and switchbacks with no real aim in mind, where I am right now turns out to be the very place I want to be.
Life takes its own course sometimes, despite our high hopes and careful plans. We will live best by taking care with what comes.
See you soon,
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You can read this essay and others in this wise, poignant, and at times funny collection from a diverse group of writers of varying ages, backgrounds, and experiences. Letters to Me is available in paperback and for Kindle at Amazon.