A Love Letter to My 18-Year Old Self on the Brink of Graduating High School

School Graduation Letter BeLatina

I wish somebody would have told me babe

That someday, these will be the good old days

All the love you won’t forget

And all these reckless nights you won’t regret

‘Cause someday soon, your whole life’s gonna change

You’ll miss the magic of the good old days

Wish I didn’t think I had the answers

Wish I didn’t drink all of that glass first

Wish I made it to homecoming

Got up the courage to ask her

Wish I would’ve gotten out of my shell

Wish I put the bottle back on that shelf

Wish I wouldn’t have to worry about what other people thought

And felt comfortable in myself

Rooftop open and the stars above

Moment frozen, sneaking out, and falling in love

Me, you and that futon, we’d just begun

On the grass, dreaming, figuring out who I was

Those good old days from Good Old Days,

~Macklemore and Ke$ha

Ah, to go back and do it all over again but better. Many of us have wished for this, either reliving past glory days or rehashing moments when things went wrong. This wish, born of the natural human impulse to (self-) reflect and course-correct, fuels the plot of so many movies: parent-child body swap movies and time-travel ones, in which the entire existence of the world hinges on the protagonist’s paradoxical ability to review her mistakes, but change nothing, so as to not alter the natural course of events. How difficult! To see our mistakes so clearly, have the power to avoid them, but keep ourselves from acting on what we know. Hence, the two-hour long capers on film.

Switcheroo stories, like Freaky Friday (any of the versions), somehow manage to foil the attempt to utilize the wisdom of age. Through a sort of Poppins-esque logic, the mother is allowed to wear the body of a teen retaining her adult mind, but she has forgotten the “language of the birds.” Whatever wisdom she has gleaned from living a life, it’s of no use now that she can’t call up the right lingo and attitude, all of it lost to her younger self. We watch the awkward gesticulations of an adult mind trapped inside a body that won’t be taken seriously and a young person drunk with sudden power, but we are not released from a loop of “grass is never greener” adversity between the parent and child. The lesson, though it contains gratitude for what the have when we have it, is strangely disempowering for the older woman essentially trying to connect with a younger version of herself, walking away feeling she is no longer fit to be young either in body or mind.

The time-travel fantasy also delivers a confusing message. The other day I listened to Back to the Future again for the first time in years (I would say I watched, but it was playing on the rear entertainment system of the car while I drove the kids somewhere far on I-95), and from what I heard the dramatic tension rests entirely on Marty breaking Doc’s rule about meddling in the past to change the future. Poor Marty is conflicted from the start. Doc may be the one with IQ, but Marty has EQ in spades: he knows a small adjustment (a single, well-placed right hook) could affect an enormous change for the better. The risk, of course, is that correcting a prior mistake could potentially set everything off the rails, instead.

Trading lives and time travel — it all is way too much work, anyway, even for a fantasy. We may not have the power to go back and change how we acted or even be able to snap our fingers and change our present, like the magic of Hollywood. What we can change is the lens. Reflecting on our past actions and conditions, but with the promise to yourself to remove  judgement and blame, can be an exercise akin to meditation.

When we meditate, we are asking our mind to remain paused on the contemplation of its own thoughts. One step before that is the quiet examination of how things went, what we did, how it happened, a type of taking stock. There is something sweet that happens when we are able to observe the trajectory of our life, as if we were watching a movie. Later, we may parse further and draw conclusions, even valuable lessons, but the first exercise is to relive it in our mind, withhold judgement, and sit with the sensations.

Taking an emotional step back from our past and gazing on it from our present, already lends our ordinary lives that cinematic quality, a bird’s eye view, which takes everything in from a more objective place. In this way, revisiting our past through the lens of who we are now, what we now know, but without the plot-driving intention of changing things or reacting to them, just watching, is an act of kindness, self-work, and self-nurturing, like writing a love letter to our former selves. Mine would probably read something along these lines:

Dear Esther,

Hello, I hope this message finds you well and you are enjoying your last days of senior year. I wanted to check in with you on the eve of this transition and tell you that I am proud of you. I know you haven’t heard that much from me before, but I’m now making a concerted effort to tell you that more often, and wish I had done so sooner. I am eager to tell you everything I appreciate about you and even offer a little advice from down the road, but the tough love is coming at you first.

Forgive me for starting on this note, I know how sensitive you can be and no one likes to be criticized, but the whole smoking thing is gross and you should stop. There’s no upside to smoking. Some of the other dumb things you will do will at least give you something back, like maybe a perception-broadening experience or a cool scar. Soon, it will repel you to see people smoking, except for a brief relapse during the Mad Men era. Might as well start stopping now, cigarettes are much more expensive in the U.S.

graduation belatina letter

Good job on getting into college in the U.S. Your plan to get your B.A. and then go to law school sounds great, but it’s a lot like a birth plan will be, too — a general rubric but not necessarily what will happen. Try not to be derailed by that and rather than seeing yourself as being off the path, realize the multitude of paths within your reach. Mapping things out is a great approach, just remember that the unexpected is exactly that, and you will be called on many times, while in college and beyond, to react in the moment and find your footing when a sharp turn knocks you down. Luckily, landing on your feet requires practice, and life will happily give you that.

On a sheerly practical note, those duck boots everyone will talk you into buying are slippery. You’ll need something with better tread for the uphill, preferably in black and lots more snow gear because in upstate New York where you’re going, winter is coming much faster with greater wrath than you can imagine.

You are right to anticipate that moving to a new country will require adjustment, though it might not be in the ways that you think. Growing up in the 1980s in Bogotá has corralled you by limiting your movements. Petty crime plus the out of hand violence of the drug war has meant that you rarely walk around your own city and you never get to ride your bike around town, like the American kids do in the movies. You will enjoy freedom of movement through a small town in New York and this will make you an avid walker, someone with a taste for seeing the world on foot. Somehow, that will be a crossroads for you, it will take you in very particular directions, but then you have always been very literal in your interpretation of certain metaphors.

College Letter Belatina

I know the culture you were steeped in that a woman’s worth is measured in their looks, and I know that you are choosing to reject that for yourself. Good for you, but don’t rest yet. There is more work to be done. You still have a lot to learn and even though by now life humbled you a little, I must tell you there is more coming. It will fuel you and it will break you some, too, and both are needed for you to have something valuable to contribute. I know you think you are humble now, but humility is not the same as self-deprecation. Your work will be to build yourself up in exactly the way you’ve been cutting yourself down, but you will also have to learn that you can’t ever know what someone else might be carrying, and that being hard on yourself just means you’re also hard on others, too, so it pretty much sucks for everyone. Good luck with all that, because it is a life’s work.

I’m reminded that over the last two decades it’s been pointed out to me that I use “always” and “never” a lot, and I see now that I often do. It will be difficult for you to see this in yourself, but the work is worthwhile and you are capable. As a side note: you have to admit it’s funny that we both distinctly remember you saying things like, “I will never live in Miami,” “I don’t think kids are for me,” and “I will never end up with someone of my exact same background,” and, well, here we are.

Now, for some boilerplate caveats: try not to overdo with self-medication and substances and ask for help when you need it. Work to maintain a few, good friendships but try to immunize yourself to what random people think of you. Learn to say no. Get a better radar for energy vampires and stay away from them. Time is money. Don’t neglect your self care, especially as you get older. Put the phone on speaker or call them back — you are ruining your neck by multi-tasking. Find yoga, it will help you.

There is one thing that will happen in the painfully near future, which you couldn’t possibly guess, except you’ve always feared it. When it happens, it will be a giant door slamming in your face and you will feel like giving up, but you won’t and that will be essential. I just want to remind you that it will be ok, you will be ok, and soon after your father dies, another door will open and, in the clear view of retrospection, it will all fit together as if it had been written.

How I wish you could really read this, that I could go back, Michael J. Fox-style and make it happen. But then, it’s ok that it’s impossible, because knowing you, you never would have believed me anyway.

Keep up the good work and have a great time in college.

With love,

E