The envelope taunts me.
Sealed in the stationery of my high school, it is labeled with my name in the cheerfully decorative script of my 17-year-old self and marked “To be opened in 2010.” Inside is a letter, a time capsule of sorts, from my senior year creative writing class. The assignment: write a note for yourself to read in 16 years. I can’t imagine what I put inside. I’m not sure I want to find out.
The letter stayed inside a drawer at my mother’s home for years until I removed it over Christmas of 2009, placing it inside another drawer in my own home. I decided I would open it on my 34th birthday in early September. With the deadline set, I started feeling anxious, wondering if I’ve lived up to my own expectations.
It reminds me of a country song called “Letter to Me” by Brad Paisley. The singer imagines sending a letter back in time to himself in high school, assuring his teenage incarnation that he will survive getting dumped by his girlfriend, almost failing algebra and being grounded on a Friday night. “Have no fear,” he sings, “these are nowhere near the best years of your life.”
Amen to that. Life has certainly gotten better since high school – at least for some of us. But I’m anxious about introducing the 1994 me to the 2010 me, afraid I might be disappointed in myself. Sixteen years ago, I was a classic high school overachiever – valedictorian of my class, most likely to succeed, with a long list of extracurricular achievements that got me into an elite college. I was and still am a perfectionist. So, I’m pretty sure the letter includes a checklist of things I dreamed of doing by my mid-30s: publishing a bestseller, hosting a national morning show, marrying a man who was smart, kind and handsome. But the loudest critical voice I hear has always been my own. Opening the envelope feels like hosting my own awards show, where a drum roll announces the winner is – well, not me.
Despite the disappointment, I certainly don’t consider myself a failure. I have a good job, speak two foreign languages, own a condo in a nice neighborhood, and live in a city I love. A strong network of friends makes me feel connected and supported, and I think I make a meaningful difference with my volunteer work. In the past year alone, I traveled to South America, the Middle East and Asia. After ages of good intentions, I am finally making progress with my writing: I was published in the local paper, started a blog and joined a club of fellow writers.
And yet, I drive a 10-year-old Honda, never went to graduate school, and still need to monitor the balance of my checking account. Then there is “the big one” – that I am about to turn 34, single and childless, with no sign either of those will be changing in the immediate future. Although I can count a bevy of blessings in my full life – and while I’m increasingly unsure that being a mom and a wife is my destiny – it’s weird to find life not turning out as you thought it would. It doesn’t mean I don’t love my life, just that it’s not exactly what I expected.
In some sense, I know everyone feels a little bit like I do. We find ourselves in the grocery store buying an economy pack of toilet paper and think, “Wait, is this it? This is me as a grown-up?” My globe-trotting adventures are eagerly followed by friends whose days are filled with sippy cups and potty training. “I’m a 35-year-old divorced, single mom with no prospects – not what I imagined either,” wrote one friend as I shared my anxiety about my approaching birthday. “Where’s the handsome and fun husband I’ve dreamed of since I was little?” she joked.
So, I suppose part of me has turned opening the letter into admitting defeat, that my passionate “I can do anything” mindset is a thing of the past, that I am now firmly in my mid-30s with less to show for myself – personally or professionally – than I might have dreamed as a teenager.
I think I’ll opt out of that interpretation.
Instead, the truth I choose is this: The girl who wrote that letter is not some stranger or some wicked enemy who wants to show me how I’ve failed. She’s me. She’s still here. She is – as hokey as it sounds – that same spunky spirit that spurred me on to achieve in high school, that same itch that makes me want to do more, be more today. She is the person who has spent the past 16 years following her dreams to some amazing adventures – in Alabama, in Brazil, in London, and in my own hometown.
Instead of worrying so much about what the letter shows I haven’t done, perhaps I should be more excited about what I still have left to do. Maybe opening the letter can mean inspiration, not confrontation.
Because it’s true I haven’t done everything I thought I would – at least not yet. I’ve been too busy doing things my teenage self never even imagined.