When I was 12, I wrote a note to my future self. I don’t remember where I got the idea - a book or television show, probably. It was the summer before my sixth grade year. I took lined notebook paper from my sixth grade school supplies and poured over six pages, front and back! I wrote down the really important stuff - favorite movie, favorite color, favorite group, favorite actor, favorite music video, favorite book. I didn’t know what favorite group meant, I wasn’t that into music yet, so I thought it meant extra curricular group and put Girl Scouts. I can imagine the Lisa Frank neon-colored diary I had stolen this exhaustive list from, all purple and pinks and blues, probably something with a dog or cat or dolphin on the front. The pages were a dark purple, really impractical to write on. I kept changing my mind on my favorites, crossing them out and writing over them until the whole page was ineligible cross hatch. Similarly, once I had written the letter and sealed it, signing across the seal to show its authenticity, I opened it to make changes, sticking it in a new envelope with a new signature. After watching The Sixth Sense in the theaters - Bruce Willis was dead the whole time! - I opened and added the movie to my favorites list. My celebrity crush of the moment switched from Ryan Phillipe to an NSYNC member so I had to update my favorites to remove any reference to Ryan and add NSYNC answers to everything. Being a teenage girl is very volatile.
But the letter! In addition to my list of favorites, I also had my list of best friends. Numbered in order of Best-ness, as one does. I also wrote some stuff about goals and college and career path and how awesome I was going to be.
The letter was addressed to my 21-year-old self. I spent the next nine years romanticizing the letter, remember how brilliant I thought it was when I was 12. The age of 21 approached and I became afraid of the letter. What if my 12 year old self would be disappointed by my 21 year old self? My 21 year old self was a junior at a small engineering school, an hour and a half from home, in a small Indiana town. I was majoring in biomedical engineering, a major I picked because the sophomore whose dorm I stayed in my senior year of high school during a visit said Civil Engineering was for idiots. I was in a sorority and lived at the officer house, my best friends the other girls in the house, people I barely knew a year before. My birthday is right before Christmas - on my actual birthday most of my friends had gone home for the holidays. On my birthday, my aunt and uncle, up for Christmas shopping, took me to Friday’s for dinner. They told the waitress it was my birthday and everyone sang. I wish I had been more drunk for that. Afterwards, I met up with some friends. We watched a shitty Tim Burton-Johnny Depp collaboration (the kind that happened when they should have stopped collaborating), then went to a local bar and I tried to get drunk. Three weeks later, when everyone was back from the holiday break, we did a real 21st birthday. My friend’s fiance drove us around. We hit up a bunch of bars. I got wasted. On our way to the town’s only strip club, I threw up everywhere. Luckily. We stopped at Walgreens. My friends went in to buy lime green sweatpants and cleaning supplies. Almost a decade later, my mom put the green sweatpants in a quilt.
When I went home after my 21st birthday, my mom gave me the letter to myself. It sat on my desk in my old room the whole two weeks while I was home. I picked it up a few times, thought about opening it. I just couldn’t do it. I was a sophomore in college! I didn’t know anything about anything. And I just couldn’t face the disappointment. Yes, I went to a good college and I had been valedictorian of my high school, but it was a college I didn’t know of nine years prior and I don’t think 12 year old me knew what valedictorian meant. Definitely hadn’t heard of biomedical engineering. I decided to wait until I graduated college, when I had a better idea.
College graduation came and went. I put the letter in one of my many memento boxes and took it across the country with me to Oregon. Then brought it back a year and a half later, still unopened. It sat underneath my bed in Indianapolis for two years. Then, during a career-planning session, my manager suggested I write a letter to my forty year old self. She thought the exercise would help me conceptualize my goals, both private and professional. I told her about my old letter; I couldn`t write to my future self without addressing my past self. My manager encouraged me to finally take the plunge and open the letter. Face the potential disappointment of a twelve year old.
I went home that weekend. Bought one of those large, 1.5L bottles of wine. Opened it. Took a bath first, immersed myself in a good book and a sweet glass of wine amongst the bubbles. Then settled into my couch, very serious. I opened the letter my twelve-year-old self had written to my twenty-one-year-old self, both girls long gone, little in common with the woman I had become, sitting in an okay apartment in an okay town with okay wine.
The letter was so so disappointing. Not because 12 year old me would have been disappointed by 27 year old me. But because 27 year old me was very, very disappointed in 12 year old me. I expected some grand vision of the future. Instead, it was two pages of favorites followed by some letter written to someone I didn’t even know, demanding I go to college - Stanford or Yale or I guess Illinois State please. Live in a cool city like New York or San Francisco. Don’t get pregnant or get married out of high school! This was really the gist of the letter, a pathetic page and a half. That’s right, I spent more time on my favorites than the personal stuff. And why did I picked those colleges? Those cities? They were probably the only ones that I knew of at the time! And even then, it wasn’t about a grand destiny or big plans for my future. Just please go to college, maybe be a writer if you feel like it. Get out of dodge and good luck, best wishes. What the fuck? I should have opened the thing when I was fifteen, surely I would have had more passion and poetry by then.
A few weeks later, when my boss asked if I had ever gotten around to reading or writing the letters, I said yes and expressed my disappointment at my younger self. She had laughed and said, what did you expect, you were twelve! Yes, I know some twelve year olds now. They’re idiots. Not very self aware, way too confident, naive. And idiots. But still, surely I had been better than that? This was a letter I had thought about for fifteen years! Not often, of course. But occasionally. This happy little fond memory of myself, so excited for the future and hopeful. Instead, it turned out to be some scared little girl, not understanding how the world worked. Such a disappointment.
I would show her. I drank some more wine, sat down. And wrote. Three pages on favorites? I don’t think so. Fuck that. Instead, ten pages. Front page only. Writing on the back is messy. In true Nicole fashion, I went ahead and included a list of favorites and best friends. I hope 40 year old me is more impressed with my taste now than I was in 12 year old me. Not only did I suck at letter writing, I also had crappy taste in basically everything, even friends. But I went on for ten pages about career hopes and personal goals. I ended with a list of things I hoped I had accomplished by the time I’m forty.
Part of me worries that 27 year old me will be disappointed, but really I hope 40 year old me is disappointed. That I didn’t dream big enough. That things turned out even better than I ever could have hoped or dreamed. That would be pretty great, actually.