Letters to the Future

Shortly before the baby shower for my pregnant daughter, a friend sent me a YouTube video of a young girl on her 16th birthday, opening letters that had been written to her by family and friends—some now passed on—at her birth.

I loved that idea, and shared it with my daughter; she was enthusiastic. And so it was that at her own baby shower we passed out paper and pens and asked that those present write a Letter to the Future to be saved for Morrigan Lynn and opened on her  16th birthday.  Laughing, I told the participants, “You can’t tell her that boys suck; she’ll figure that one out on her own!  But give her your best advice, or a blessing–not Maleficent-style, please!–or tell her the most important thing you’ve ever learned in your own lifetime.”

We gathered together the finished letters, carefully sealed into their envelopes, and placed them into two special wooden boxes, painted gold and decorated with dragons and mermaids.

But when it came time for me to write my own letter to this as-yet-unborn granddaughter, I found myself at a loss. For two months, I struggled with what I should say to her.  And then, finally, I simply sat down and started writing, and I found that the words flowed easily.

My dearest granddaughter,

As I write those words above, I wonder…will you be my dearest granddaughter? Will you be someone whom I love, of whom I am proud—an amazing young woman on the brink of life, right at the starting line, preparing to run the good race?

Even more, though, I wonder what you will think of me. Will I be a woman you admire?  Will you dislike me?  Be totally bored by me? Think I’m a fool?

Will I even still be on this side of the Veil when you read this letter?

There are no guarantees in life. Any or all of the above may be true 16 years from now.  But none of that really matters, because the purpose of this letter is so that I may share with you whatever I’ve learned in my 64 weary years of walking this planet.  So here are the bits of wisdom I have assembled in my life.  And though they all seem to be very different, they all essentially amount to the same thing: living your life with courage and kindness.

 The truest thing I’ve learned is that my entire attitude is up to me. No one can “make” me feel anything—anything at all. No one else can “make” me angry; I allow myself to get angry. No one can “make” me feel small or insignificant; only I can take ownership of the belittling behavior some people express, and decide within myself that they are right. I, and I alone, can make myself happy, sad, depressed, exalted, fearful, resentful, joyous. I decide every minute of every day what my response will be to every event and every person I encounter.

 There are truly only two emotions: Love and Fear. All other emotions are merely subsets of those two. Make your own decision about which one you want to act from.

 Read poetry. Remember it. Poetry is wonderful material to think with. Read Kahlil Gibran. Read “The Desiderata”. More than read it: try to live it.

 Be thoughtful. Remember people’s special days. Run an errand for someone who is busy. Go to see someone who is sick. Hold the door open for the person whose hands are laden with packages.

 Always says to yourself, “How would I feel if…” Then behave in the way you would want to be treated.

 Do nice things for people for no reason at all—yes, even for the people you don’t like very well. Especially for the people you don’t like very well.

 Dance with the ugly or geeky guy who has no partner. And then smile at him and thank him for dancing with you.

 Stand up for the person who is being bullied or mocked.

 Remember that, if you are not part of the solution, you are part of the problem.

 Say please and thank you. Especially, say thank you.

 Give to charity—not just your money, but your time.

 Stand up for what you believe in.

 No matter how angry you are, calm down before you speak. And remember that it matters less what you say, then how you say it. There are a thousand ways to say even hurtful things in a kindly manner.

 Be slow to anger. Learn to keep your temper.

 Remember that there is no failure. There are only lessons to be learned.

 Be grateful even for the bad times. You cannot appreciate the light if you’ve never seen the darkness.

 Keep an open mind, but keep it like a window: put up a screen for the bugs!

 Remember that resentment is like taking poison while hoping the other person will die.

 Go ahead and cry; it truly does help, and there is no shame in weeping.

There is never enough kindness in the world. Be sure that, at the end of your own life, you will be remembered as the person who was kind.

 And, finally, always forgive. You don’t have to forgive the wrong done to you, but always forgive the person.

All my love to you, my dearest granddaughter,

Mimsey

Welcome to the World
Morrigan Lynn
“Great Queen of the Water”
Mermaid Queen with the Heart of a Dragon
August 23, 2018

Agony Aunts

I was intrigued by the Downtown Abbey episode in which the Dowager Duchess’s butler begins anonymously writing a popular “agony aunt” column for Edith’s magazine. That episode delighted me, because I grew up reading both of the daily newspaper columns, Dear Abbey and Ann Landers, and it’s likely that they shaped much about my understanding of the larger world outside my little Midwestern niche.

I was perhaps 11 when I first began reading the advice columns, finding them both instructive and sometimes shocking. I read about teen pregnancies and unfaithful spouses, family spats, cruel in-laws, and the heartbreak of parents who had lost a child.  I read about indecision regarding which of two potential spouses a person could choose, and the difference between infatuation and love.  I read about mistreatment of the elderly and the bitterness of those who had grown up as abused children, and how those two situations were sometimes linked.  I read of alcoholism and drug abuse and sexual perversion and racial prejudice.

The advice columns were, I now think, part of my social education, teaching me a myriad of things that would never have dared been touched upon either at school or by my parents.

For a long while, ten years or more, I took the guidance handed out by the Abbey and Ann duo as gospel. But as I began graduating to other advice columns, the ones I discovered in a dozen or more women’s’ magazines, I also found my own voice.  Shocking as it seemed even to myself, I began arguing with the columnists.  I dared to think that perhaps, given this question or asked to make that judgment, I could have given better counsel.

I would have told the young woman who complained about her husband’s predilection for sex in the shower (in which he got the warm stream of water and she only the cold steam) that the real problem was his lack of interest in her comfort and pleasure.

I’d have advised another young woman whose boyfriend always found fault with the gifts she gave him, and the exasperated family of a grandmother who did the same, that these people were toxic recipients and were never going to be pleased, no matter what accommodation one made to their taste and preferences. I’d have suggested an intervention, facing the fault-finders with every unappreciative remark they’d made for each gift given them for as long as anyone could remember.  I’d have advised the gift givers to state flat out that they were weary of trying to please someone so critical.

I’d have told many, many questioners that they were presenting their story to the wrong person; that what they were saying needed to be said not to a columnist but to their spouse, their friend, or their family member. Face it, I would have responded: stop hoping that “they” will read your complaint in the column recognize themselves.  For heaven’s sake, just get up the gumption to say it, I’d have advised.

And for those who were determined to verbalize a problem, begging for advice on how to soft-pedal an approach, I’d have said outright that there was, sadly, no chance that what they planned to say or do wasn’t going to create a rift between family or friends. But I would have added the solace that,  if they had the courage to stand up for themselves, they also had the courage to survive the upheaval that would follow.

I would have told the young couple who could not afford the big family birthday dinners (at which they ordered the least-expensive entrees, but were forced to ante up for everyone’s meals when the single bill was divided by all those present) that they were absolutely right.  They should explain to the family that their finances forced them to begin paying only their fair share for the dinner of the birthday person and for their own selections, or otherwise, sadly, stop attending these family functions.  They, and they alone, knew what their financial situation permitted.

But the truly important factor in all this, in finding my own responses to the questions asked in advice columns, was not that I was intrinsically right or wrong; it was that I had begun sifting through my own sense of morality and my understanding of human nature to make what I deemed rational and informed choices.

Although I’ve often asked advice from my circle of friends, especially when faced with a difficult choice or a situation that involved the possibility of hurting the feelings of others, I’ve never felt the need to write to a total stranger requesting guidance. And for that fact, I tip my hat to all those authors of all those many advice columns that I read over the years.  I thank them for teaching me how to think though a problem from all angles, consider multiple solutions and probable results, and finally reach my best decision.

It was an significant life lesson, but one I doubt I would ever have learned without them.