I've been a little behind in my reading of our subscriptions. Whenever we go away for a few weeks, as we now do each autumn, our copies of The New Yorker and The New York Times Book Review pile up and even by the end of the year we haven't caught up. Somehow, though, probably hurrying to find something to read at breakfast before we left the house for the day, I happened upon "Dear Me," an essay by Ann Napolitano in the NYTBR. It recounts how, inspired by a passage in Emily of New Moon by L.M. Montgomery in which the title character writes a letter to her future self, Ann at 14 wrote herself a letter that "described the current state of my life and listed my hopes and dreams for myself 10 years later." Wrestling against impulse, she didn't open the letter until her 24th birthday and was "horrified" at what "an absolute fool" her teenaged self seemed to her to be. But then she wrote another letter, to be opened at age 34, and at 34 wrote one to be opened at age 44, and at 44 wrote still another to be opened at age 54. She still has six years to wait before opening that last one. She describes the thrill of opening those pages she hasn't seen in a decade: "Who will I find in the envelope? Will I be surprised?" She wonders how many such letters she will have written by the end of her life and "love(s) the idea of the oldest version of me—how old will she be?—reading through the page, probably laughing at how young and serious I was, in every letter."
I have to admit that I like the idea of writing letters to oneself, recording where you are in life at one moment and where you hope to be (or predict you will be) ten years later. If I were still teaching, I think I'd likely make "Letter to Your Future Self" an assignment in my composition classes—a pretty apt one for high school and college freshmen and prospective graduates at any level. In fact, I have long had the habit of keeping a journal in which I make sure to write entries on significant days: my birthday, for example, or New Year's Day, or Solstices and Equinoxes. I tend to record what happened in the year past, list what I hope to accomplish in the year to come; sometimes, when I'm brave, I look back at the entry from a year earlier to see what claims I made, and groan when I confirm that my actions didn't match my intentions.
The one discouraging thing about Napolitano's example is that my peers and I are at a time of life where it's uncertain whether we'll be around in ten years to open today's letter to self. In the past calendar year alone I've lost a sister, a cousin, an aunt, and a dear friend, and media notices of celebrity deaths of every stripe confirm how many of the prominent in my generation are concluding their time here. I remember some professor somewhere—it might have a pretty morose writing teacher—who suggested his students should write their own obituaries, the ones they imagine might be written about them when the (hopefully) distant occasion for such a text would arise. I've contributed to at least one obituary in the past year and read others without comment. I wonder if we'll get the chance to read all Ann Napolitano's letters to her self as her final, perhaps posthumous book, and get the chance to compare them to what her obituaries tell us.
Of course, this has been the kind of year that challenges everyone's expectations of the future. The Coronavirus Pandemic has disrupted our domestic lives in every way we could imagine—schools closed, businesses closed, churches closed, events cancelled, daily life transformed. We're challenged to perform all the common tasks we took for granted—doing our work, doing our shopping, socializing, taking care of our families and homes and possessions, simply stocking up for daily living, Last week there was no toilet paper and few paper towels, this week there is almost no orange juice or Vitamin C, all kinds of products on supermarket shelves are in short supply and we find ourselves buying brand names we've never heard of before because they are the only ones on the shelves. We rely on digital technology to get in touch with loved ones we can't risk visiting in person. We watch or listen to audience-less performances or reruns from past seasons. Political news, when we make ourselves consult it, adds unfamiliar levels of anxiety and angst daily.
So one question the semi-apocalyptic world we're living in invites us to ask ourselves—one that would have seemed morbid last year but seems practical right now—is this: if you were going to write what perhaps will be the final letter to your future self, a message to read in a potential existence after this one, how would you describe where you are in your life right now? How did you get there? What did you hope you would have accomplished or attained if you had had that additional decade you expected? What would you like that self who will have eternity to consider who you really were to know about you? What would you not like them to know but will confess anyway?
I drafted the first three paragraphs here over two months ago; the final three, including this one I drafted today, almost the end of March 2020. One of the things writing has taught me is that circumstances can abruptly alter what you think you're talking about. Imagine the alterations ten years may bring.