Last weekend I went to my niece’s high school graduation party. The youthful exuberance, the freedom to be weird, the optimism all felt exhilarating. However, in the air there was also a pinch of uncertainty, a drop of teenage arrogance and a refusal to accept that change was coming and coming swiftly.
Looking Back on Graduation
As I glided on the swing at the backyard party and absorbed the mixture of emotions around me, I felt like I had been transported back to my high school graduation. And I began to wonder, if I had a time machine, what would I tell my younger self on the eve of graduation?
Although I’d spent my life filling notebooks with stories and poems, when I graduated from high school I didn’t see myself as a future writer or author. More precisely I didn’t allow myself that dream. Preoccupied by being practical and safe, I dove into an educational track and eventual profession where I thought I could make a living and I did. But I also left behind those notebooks in my childhood closets and dresser drawers, not realizing I’d left my dream behind too.
Time Machine Machinations
The darkening blue sky, dotted with leaves and clouds above me teetered back and forth. As the swing moved through the humid evening air, so did my mind. I began composing a letter to her, that younger version of myself. I scrawled sentences and churned through the possible paragraphs.
I wondered if I should tell her that every choice she would make would lead to a life she’d love. Or should I tell her to change it all and embrace those dreams instead of locking them away for decades.
I created and re-created this letter in my head many times on that swing, one version went like this…
Dear 18-year-old Me on Graduation Day,
Although you were always made to feel special and your talents celebrated, you’ve also been taught to be practical and that practical is more important than dreaming. Dreaming doesn’t put money in the bank or a roof over your head. Practical gives you stability. It gives you a good job, a husband and a daughter you love.
Practical gives you happiness. But it also leaves you with a general sense of what if…what if you hadn’t waited until your 30s to seriously write your first novel? What if you hadn’t been so afraid to show people your work? What if you had been braver? Would that first book have been published in your 20s instead of 30s? Would you be happier?
Your Older Self
A Case of the What Ifs
I can’t answer these what ifs. I don’t have an alternate universe machine. And I can’t send a letter back in time either. I do know that I wouldn’t want to change this life I have. I love my family and friends. I love where I’ve ended up.
Still I do have “what if” moments. Some might call them regrets. I’d call them a writer’s sense of wonder because don’t we all wonder what would have been if we’d been better versions of ourselves.
Life is a Series of Graduations
Ultimately, as a I sat there with thoughts swinging through my mind, I realized that wouldn’t be the letter I’d send back in time. That letter embodied my insecurities, not my dreams.
My final letter to myself didn’t include “what ifs.” It went like this.
Dear 18-year-old Me on Graduation Day,
It’s graduation day. You’re going to put on a cap and gown and walk across a stage. It won’t be the last time either. You’ll go to college, learn and grow and then graduate again. But even those won’t be your only graduations because life is a series of graduations, real and metaphorical, that will help you be a better, stronger, more enlightened person, if you work and strive for it.
If you want to gradually better yourself, it’s this constant movement through life you must seek. If you allow yourself to grow, change others and be changed by them, then you’ll graduate from an arrogant 20-something into your thoughtful 30s and then, eventually, near your reflective 40s. If you keep graduating, you’ll get to the place that is right for you at the time that is right for you.
Your Older Self
To All the Graduates, Young and Old
As I placed the last period in my mind on this letter to my younger self, my daughter sat down next to me on the swing. She’s in 6th grade and where we live that means she’s graduating this year too. There is no official cap and gown. But she walked across a stage that marked her graduation from elementary school to middle school, which is a big step.
I looked at her and decided it was time to compose a new letter, a third letter, not to myself but to her, in the future, on her high school graduation day.
Dear Daughter on Your High School Graduation Day,
Today is the day you graduate. By the time this happens, I probably won’t believe it. It will feel as if it’s gone by too fast. You’ll probably have grown past me and I won’t have much more advice to give you. The only advice I can think of now is to remind you that this graduation is just your first of many.
As a people, we spend our lives graduating, becoming more aware and insightful, if we choose. For you, daughter, I hope you choose for high school graduation not to be our last in the literal or metaphorical sense.
So on this day of graduation, think about your future self and all the graduations you will have. Make them count. Make mistakes, follow your mind and your heart. Be practical but not at the expense of your dreams. Keep on graduating through life so you’re never left wondering what if.