When I was nineteen, I wanted to write an open letter to my twenty-year-old self. I had a romanticized idea of sorts about the ordeal; I believed that the years in-between would engulf the unpleasant bits of the past, leaving only good memories in its wake. I thought those were my hardest years and thus, distance and passing time would allow me to finally make peace. In my mind, I’d reminisce my turbulent teenage years as a well-established, fully developed adult; chuckling at the foolishness of my youth.
I never wrote that letter; twenty passed by uneventfully, quiet and steady.
I’m not one to live in the past, and for all my over-thinking ways, I don’t allow myself to wallow over regret. Yet sometimes – sometimes – I do allow myself to consider roads not taken. Sometimes I remember faces of the past. Sometimes I reopen old wounds and rehash forgotten stories of yesteryears. Sometimes I think hard, feel deeply and lie down naked in my flesh and blood; a reflection.
What was it that I wanted to tell my younger self?
How does one start? Does it begin with “Dear you of the past-“ or is that too tacky? Does one open with “To my twenty-year-old self,” or is that redundant? Do I feign sassiness, pretend I’ve always been mainstream? Do I turn on the melancholy pipes?
Here’s an attempt.
To my younger self,
I am writing from a better place. I really want you to know that. You’ve survived; you’re still surviving, and you’re telling your tale. Your voice is firm, it is no longer shaky. I want to let you know that you’re happy.
Your almost-23 self
Truth, or lies?
Perhaps it should sound this way instead;
To my younger self,
I’m looking back at the years that have long past. It’s hard to believe it’s almost five years since seventeen. Recently I realized that this year marks my fifth year in being here; it’s the fifth year of being halfway across the globe. Funny, isn’t it?
It’s strange how life works out. Remember those teenage days of thinking you’ve had enough of all the mess? Remember those moments filled with tears, convinced you can no longer take anymore? Remember those days when the world felt vast, so out of reach? Remember how you thirst for an 8 year-old dream, one that felt and seemed so impossible from the get-go?
It’s strange, isn’t it, how life works out? You’ve since been to unimaginable places.
You who have realized your dream
The opening is always most important. Should I begin with the present?
Yes you, my younger self; I’m writing to you, because I think I am in a better place in life now. I am no longer angry, nor as insecure. But who am I kidding? I was always so full of myself, more than anything – especially in those high school years. Self-proclaimed star, remember that?
You know what’s wonderfully strange? Mum’s life philosophy is always so inherently simple – it always has been, and it is only now, finally, that I understand. “Why are you so worried?” She asked the other night. “Pray. Tawakal. Things will eventually work out.”
There, so easy. Simple.
You know what? I wish I knew this sooner, that I could impart this wisdom to the me – you – back then. When you’re a person of faith and belief, you don’t fall. There’s no such thing; you only stumble. You know why? Because being a person of God means realizing that you are always protected, and that you are never really lost. It is understanding that you are taken care of.
Did you know this back then?
I wish you never said “I can’t take it anymore,” with those tears in your eyes.
I hope you remember this, and remember it well: you are a person of God.
Your older, more sensible self
Maybe the key is simply… honesty.
To my younger self,
I am writing this from across the globe. Did you know that you’ve realized your dream, that you made your 8 years old dream come true? Did you know that you’re now – wait for it… – an engineer?! One of the two professions you swore you’d never jump into, remember that vow? I have news, some good and bad, on that. I won’t lie; that’s never been our style.
What happens after a dream is met? Did you give that any thought, all those years spent pining and wishing and working hard to realize the dream? Did you for a second, thought about what it all meant, and what happens once it’s realized? Because you know what? That’s when life really starts, apparently. Who knew? It was a hard, first lesson learned.
You didn’t make it to the Ivy for undergrad, but back then it’s not like you even understood what they were, or what they meant, so fret not. You didn’t make it the second time around either, but close enough. I am writing from Palo Alto, ding ding ding. Remember those days of wanting the PhD, because that’s all you ever grew up hearing about? Can you imagine that you’re now pursuing a masters? You’re halfway there! Can you believe that you’re exactly where you hope to be, doing precisely what you thought you wanted? Can you believe it’s your fifth year at being Stateside, a place that once felt so out of reach?
Can you believe… that these things don’t equal happiness and fulfillment?
Sometimes I look back, and think back to those years. I remember the tears; I remember the green monsters under the bed; I remember the fractured friendships, one after another. Do you recall those turbulent years inside the family home? Do you remember those years of multiple facades, of thinking you had to be invincible to the public eye? Do you remember faking confidence?
I want you to know that sincerely, these things eventually end. They don’t go away however, because other things take their form, but it’s important that you remember – of all the things to not forget – that you are always more than you think you are. You have what it takes. If you have survived each heartache, what’s another one? Chin up, young girl.
Did you know that Eldest Sis is now married with a little girl? Remember those days when it was just you and her, though never quite there? Remember the countless words exchanged, all the valuable wisdom imparted? Remember those days when it felt like it was us against our world, culture, and norm? Remember those days of not giving in, of affirming self-worth? I don’t know if she gave in eventually, as all women tend to do; perhaps I just don’t understand it still, even now. But I know she’s happy. Maybe that enough.
Her little girl looks exactly like her, with the same set of sharp eyes. She is a feisty little one who knows to hold her own, that much I’m certain. She has her mother’s softness, her grandmother’s resilience, and I hope – I hope – her youngest aunt’s spirit. I swear I saw fire in her eyes.
Do you remember those old journals? Remember those, do you still have them tucked somewhere in the family home? Remember those days when you’d write in them? Frustrated, angry – dramatic. Remember the day you wrote your first essay, and all the ones after? Remember the day you realized how much you loved writing, but were never brave enough to pursue it seriously? Remember those days of believing you’re not good enough, because so many writers out there write tens and thousands of time better?
Hold steady, young girl. Hold your own.
Your writing voice is firm; it now knows its own.
I am writing from halfway across the globe. You are not in love. You’ll meet a plethora of wonderful people. You’ll remember details, sometimes the smallest and most trivial ones, about them. They probably don’t know how much you know, and exactly which are stored in your memory box. You’ll come across lots of women, young and old. Some will tell you how much you’re an inspiration, others impart wisdom with kindness. You haven’t met enough boys, what more men. You still don’t know the secrets they hold.
You are doing fine; it’s not you, so rest that insecurity. Your shell is hard, but it isn’t impenetrable. Someone will come through, eventually. Trust that, because you are a person of faith – you are already loved.
I am writing from a better place, and I want you to know that. Remember those days when you thought you’d never get out? Remember those days when you wondered if this is all to life, if you’d repeat the same cycle? Remember when so many things felt impossible, when you threw adverbs like never recklessly, how foolishly young of you?
I am telling you this with certainty, with time as my witness, that you are not defined by someone else’s past. You are not defined by her, or him. You are not defined by all the mistakes they did. You are not defined by the shadows of the ones you look up to and love the most.
You are carving your own name, life story and worth. You carry their strengths, spirits and love within you, but you are now liberated; you are the butterfly that she always said you’d eventually morph into. You hold your own.
Life isn’t always a bed of roses, and you continue to be the worse over-thinker in the world. You are not always happy, nor are you always confident about who you are. There are as many bad days to each good one, but realize that you need to go through the darkness to understand the light. You are a work in progress – this is always true, so chin up, young girl.
I swear I saw fire in your eyes.
Your twenty-something self
“I am alone in the midst of these happy,
All these creatures spend their time explaining, realizing happily that they agree with each other.
In Heaven’s name, why is it so important to think the same things all together?”
— Jean-Paul Sartre, Nausea