It’s New Year’s Eve and there are many folks out there right now looking forward to New Year celebrations around the world, some going to parties, others having quiet (or raucous) nights in with their families.
It’s about this time of year that I rumble around in the back of my closet looking for an old cloth covered box that was once my fathers. In it I keep treasured keepsakes such as an old pipe, his first watch, momentoes collected from the countries I’ve visited in my travels. There are also three bundles of letters.
The first bundle contains notes from an old boyfriend, ones I couldn’t bear to part with because though we parted on good terms, I’ve yet to meet a man since that has made my heart sing (or break) in the same way. These letters, written across oceans and time zones, tell of a simple love story between two people not meant to be.
The second bundle are letters I wrote to my father in the year after he died; one every day to help me through the grief of his absence. I wanted to talk to him so badly about all the things we never got to discuss while he was still with us, to rail against the savageness of his demise from an aggressive form of dementia, and to find comfort in the small memories. Each one of the 365 letters have the watermarks from tears shed as they were written: Some express the love of a daughter, some the anger of a child, some have the wisdom of a woman who has since lived a good life.
The third bundle, the smallest, contains letters written on December 31st of each of the last 12 years: One for each year since I was diagnosed with RA. I had read a book or an article in which the author posited the idea of what you would say to your 16-year-old self if you had the opportunity to send a letter back in time if only to show how far you’d come.
I struggled for days and days with what to tell my younger self. Here I was, saddled with a disease that seemed to have so few positives that it was hard to come up with something particularly adult and positive. But what did I want to say really? That everything would be okay? That she’d survive all the heartache? That the struggles would be worth it? Countless wads of screwed up sheets landed in the corner of the room before I wrote this:
Even if I could, I wouldn’t change the events that you’ll experience in the next ten years, I wouldn’t. They’ll shape you, sink you, anger you, and ultimately they’ll challenge you. But you will find within a deep reservoir of strength, independence, determination, and compassion. You’ll also experience moments of unbelievable kindness. Pay attention. Those are the things that will help you to build bridges from stepping-stones.
I doubt my 16-year-old self would have understood much of this. She was still very sheltered from the world, a shy and cautious girl who hadn’t yet experienced enough life to be hiding from it. Still, it was a good exercise to share what small wisdom I had and put it in a box for when it might later be needed.
On December 31 that year, I was putting away the year’s Christmas cards and sorting through the older ones, I rediscovered my letter and started to wonder about the next year. What did I want to do with my life in the next year? Who did I want to be? What kind of person did I want to be?
“One of the secrets of life is to make stepping stones out of stumbling blocks.”
So I sat down by the window overlooking the ocean and wrote a letter to my future self, laying out all the things I wanted to achieve in the coming year. On so many levels, it was perhaps a naive letter, more a list of goals than inspiration for change. But when I read it the following New Years’ Eve, so many of the things had been achieved that it was startling. Intent is a powerful thing.
Over the years since, the letters have evolved from a list of goals to encompass many other things; gratitude for what has arrived in my life, working through the sadness that has come from other less positive events, and a willingness to look at the person I want to become as well as the person I’ve been.
These letters are powerful, both as a practice, writing to a future self to appreciate life more and how to visualise the kind of life I want to lead. Living with an autoimmune disease like RA – not to mention the other health challenges I have – takes so much from a person and to see what has been achieved in spite of chronic illness is an incredible salve and motivator.
Life now is not perfect nor am I always happy, but I do know that I live it with much more intent than I once did.
So it is now time to write my 13th letter. What will 2018 bring?
Wishing you a Happy New Year and all the joys, prosperity, and happiness it may bring.