In 2006 Ellyn Spragins wrote “What I Know Now: Letters to My Younger Self” (Broadway Books), in which she asked 41 famous women, “If you could send a letter back through time to your younger self, what would the letter say?”
Poet Maya Angelou wrote to her younger self that when she goes out into the world, she should heed her mother’s words: “In every relationship you make you’ll have to show readiness to adjust and make adaptations.” Olympic gymnast Shannon Miller wrote, “Mistakes can help you learn. Try to figure out who you are as a person, Shannon, and don’t just be what everybody else wants you to be.”
Actress Olympia Dukakis wrote, “The rhythm of life runs in cycles. There are times in the darkness and times in the light.” Breast cancer survivor Carolyn Deaver wrote, “It may sound a bit heroic, but then that’s what you are: your very own heroine.”
On the occasion of my 50th birthday (August 30), here’s what I would write to my younger self:
The riches in life have nothing to do with money. Your blessings are staring you in the face, and you don’t even see them.
A blue-blooded friend who travels in social circles far higher than mine and vacations in St. Barth’s or Europe every year, came to a barbecue my husband, David, and I had in our garden two summers ago, where our rustic farmhouse table, which David made, was adorned with dozens of candles and simple bouquets cut from our garden. We fed our guests a smorgasbord of made-from-scratch everything — from sushi and cosmos to grilled ribs and chocolate cake. I worried about the fact that our old house, doomed to be frozen in permanent mid-renovation, wouldn’t be impressive enough.
I needn’t have worried. Our friend said, “I have been to million dollar homes in Princeton and never been treated as warmly and fed as well as I have here tonight.”
After attending a Christmas party at our house another year, again all done from scratch, because we like to do it that way, the same friend said, “I felt like I was in a Christmas fairy tale the whole night.”
Release your agenda over and over again. Let the people in your life, particularly your spouse and children, be who they are, not who you want them to be — and this will be extremely difficult for you. I have increased my anxiety to medically-dangerous levels and wasted more time and lost more sleep than I care to admit trying to make things go my way.
It has taken me 50 years to learn that things go the way they are supposed to go, and that I am not a qualified stand-in for life’s director. Heed Deepak Chopra’s law of detachment: “Today I will allow myself and those around me the freedom to be as they are. I will not rigidly impose my idea of how things should be. I will not force solutions upon problems, thereby creating more problems.”
Comparisons are odious. That one comes from my grandmother. The Buddhists say it this way: the myth of satisfaction is a fraud and the sooner you accept that, the happier you’ll be. I have spent a lifetime green with envy about people who I perceive are better off than me. At age 50, I’ve finally learned they may not be better off. You have no idea what goes on behind closed doors. Or they might be better off, and that’s OK too. I want everyone to do well. It’s like Obama’s healthcare package; he just wants everyone to be well. What’s wrong with that?
That blue-blooded friend I mentioned earlier says he has observed that the more money someone has the worse relationships they have with their children. My back porch is a black-sheep stepsister to my neighbor’s fancy Victorian wrap-around, but when my son was young he and I spent many a stormy summer night blissed out in a rocking chair under our porch roof, my arms wrapped around him as he sat on my lap, watching the rain pound down and listening to the thunder rumble and roll, accompanied by bullfrogs and peepers. My son, now 16, and I still do that (only of course he does not sit on my lap.) It’s a ritual.
Cultivate glass-half-full friends. I have a friend, a single mom who has a million and one reasons to feel the world is against her. But instead, she tells me, “When you feel overwhelmed, go in your room, close the door, sit down, plant your feet on the ground, and listen to your inner voice. The other voices don’t matter. Remember you are a natural problem solver. Say ‘Attaboy’ to yourself.”
Another friend, also a single mom, has felt deeply the sharp edges of life, yet she is contagiously positive. I always go spend time with her when I am filled with self-doubt and want to just laugh. On her refrigerator is posted a saying, “Most people want to get what they want, whereas the secret is to want what you get at this moment.” The ultimate be-here-now statement.
Once you start working and have kids, find little sanctuaries to make time for yourself. This is really important. I give up $4 lattes and lunches out so that I can get massages with Pamela Dahl (hands down, the best I’ve ever had) and facials with Marinela Csefan at the Wellness Center of Bordentown. This little tiny spa on Farnsworth Avenue is one of the best-kept secrets around. I love its complete lack of pretention, cozy treatment rooms, and reasonable prices; it’s worth the 30-minute drive from my home in Lawrenceville (that’s just more time for myself).
When I told a new woman friend that I regularly get together with a group of six to eight women for dinner at a different restaurant we want to try, and each of us always invites someone new to join the group, she grabbed my arm and said, with a look of true emotional hunger in her eyes, “Don’t take this the wrong way, but I’ve lived here for years, and I don’t know anybody; I never go out. Can I come to your next dinner?”
And, as some of you know, I started practicing yoga six years ago with Susan Sprecher (U.S. 1, June 22, 2011). I wish I’d found that little sanctuary 20 or 30 years ago, but it came to me at a time when I really needed it. I have learned some of the greatest life lessons on my yoga mat (and taken them “off the mat,” as yogis say) — they have nothing to do with downward facing dog and everything to do with cultivating a friendship with myself (see last paragraph, below), something I could never do before. Now every weekend morning and sometimes on a weeknight evening, I meet the universe halfway at Susan’s studio in Skillman or I take any class taught by Elle or Carrie at Yogasphere in Newtown, PA.
Make a bucket list and start right now. I have wanted to learn Italian and how to play the cello for 20 years. I have let life get in the way, instead watching Italian films (my favorite is “Cinema Paradiso”) and attending every cello concert I can. My Tufts classmate, Kara Kennedy, Ted Kennedy’s daughter, died last week at age 51. I hope, from the deepest part of my heart, that she got her bucket list done.
Lastly, don’t beat yourself up. Really scary and really bad things are going to happen to you — some of them will be your doing, others won’t. But know this: It doesn’t matter whose fault it is. Don’t agonize and ruminate that you should have done this or that. In fact, erase the word should from your vocabulary.
What is important is that you cultivate an unconditional friendship with yourself. You are a good person. You are a person of worth. Interviewed on Oprah on the occasion of her 70th birthday, Maya Angelou talked about what she’s learned, and one of the things she said was, “I’ve learned that life sometimes gives you a second chance.” I say, give yourself a second chance as many times as you need to.