Letter to my Former Self

Written for Dear Teen Me (2012)


You’re seventeen and you’re sitting on a concrete stoop outside a music school on a foggy night in Boston, and you don’t know where to go or what to do because you’re in shock. Your hair was burned, your leg was bitten, and finally—finally—you were told the truth.

Someone else’s secret is now your secret, and instead of freeing you, it makes you feel ashamed.

You’re sitting in the fog, wrapping yourself in your too-big shirt, and the fog feels literal because that’s how things are right now: You read your life like an old-fashioned novel, where the weather is a secret message about what the future holds, and your oversized clothes signify that you’re not ready for the task ahead of you.

The concrete is cold, and that must mean your heart needs to be cold. The fog swirls around you and that must mean the truth is unknowable. The bare trees twist in a kind of agony, because you are in agony, and you are wretched because the knots and limbs are wretched

This is how it is, you can see, because you think deeply about things, and if you think deeply enough, it will all somehow begin to make sense.

But it doesn’t. This new secret you’ve been told is senseless, and you walk into the fog until you are tired of walking through the fog, tired of thinking about the symbolism of a seventeen-year-old girl walking through the fog.

What you’ll learn later—what the fog and the cold cement and the trees can’t tell you yet—is that the world really is full of meaning, but not necessarily the meaning you most want to be true. Sometimes, it seems, the world harmonizes, and you find a message someone long ago scratched in wet concrete, now dried and scuffed and gum-stuck with meaning just for you as you sit on a cold cement step in the fog. But mostly the world just exists, and nothing matters, and the universe is not, in fact, preparing you for anything.

And yet you will find yourself prepared.

After the night you wander in the fog, you will have no choice but to turn your pain into work, to close yourself in the practice rooms and think about nothing more than the work of practicing. You’ll be able to find the secret of how to make music without feeling exposed and vulnerable. You’ll be able to talk about your secrets without using words.

One day at a lesson you will understand exactly how to voice the inner melody in the Brahms, and you will play it, and your normally silent, disapproving piano teacher will stop you and say, “Where did this depth come from?” You will tear up and shrug and begin to try to formulate something about fog and the cold crumbling concrete steps and the trees on the night the world shifted, and she will shake her head once to silence you and then command, “Bring it to everything you do.”

Your work will transform you, and one night when you are eighteen, as you perform in a recital, you will feel transfigured. Burning with fever, everything around you shimmering, you will look down the long reverberating strings of the concert grand, you will see the audience in your peripheral vision, you will feel everyone holding their breath as you decrescendo into pianissimo and close up a phrase, and it will all finally make sense.

I am telling you now, at a distance of some years, that this horrible foggy night is something you will look back on fondly. It will seem poignant, the way you tried to read your life, as though it were a thing that had foreshadowing and character arcs and plot twists and subterfuge—as though it had a plan. And from here, where I know now that that night wasn’t the worst thing to happen in your life, the shock of that night almost seems sweet, the dizzying, bitter swoop of everything you knew then suddenly falling away and leaving you raw. From here, it seems like the kind of thing that might happen in the best kind of book: inevitable.

What you don’t know yet, tonight, as you walk through the fog, is that when this secret became yours to bear, at least temporarily, it also became the doorway to the rest of your creative life. This secret became your secret, and your secret became transmuted from words into music, and then from music into silence, and eventually from silence into words that had nothing to do with the pain of its place of origination. Like a game of telephone, what started out as a shameful whisper in the end became transformed into something unrecognizable, distant, even beautiful. That night you learned the true secret to storytelling, which is to be able to take something very true and very visceral and very personal and find a way to make it have meaning for someone else who has no stake in it, who isn’t even aware there was a secret in the first place.

You will watch this happen one night, years later, when your daughter—yes, you will have a daughter; a son, too—experiences her first loose tooth. You will see her panic as she bites into her corn on the cob and comes away with a speck of blood on her lips. You will smooth her hair as she curls up into a ball on the couch, shaking, her hand over her mouth, crying, asking would her tooth ever stop feeling strange or wiggly, would she ever be the same again. You will try to console her with tales of your own teeth falling out, only to realize that those stories scare her more, as she hadn’t fully accepted until you said it out loud that it wouldn’t just be this one tiny front lower tooth betraying her, but all of them. You will have ten thousand conversations about how to eat with a loose tooth (on the side, with small bites) and how to brush your teeth around a loose tooth (gently) and what if it hurts when it falls out (it probably won’t, but even if it did, it would be over quickly), and then finally, at night, when you are putting her to sleep, she will ask you if you would like to hear the story of her first loose tooth. And sitting there in the dark, she will begin.

When she tells you her story, she starts out narrating in first person, present tense, her wavery voice will be filled with the immediacy of loss: Today was the day that everything changed when I discovered my very first loose tooth. And then, when she is done, she will ask if you might like to hear it again. And then again. And then again. Slowly the story will evolve into past tense, already putting the surprising (and, for whatever reason, traumatic) event into context simply by making it something that once happened. One day, I discovered my very first loose tooth. And you will tear up a little as it hits you that by tomorrow night her tale will be third person, set in the past (Once upon a time, there was a little girl who discovered she had a loose tooth . . .) because you will finally realize: This is what story is all about, and she’s doing it, finding her way through, the way you did, searching for meaning and framing and story on a foggy night when you were seventeen.

So stop walking in the fog. Go home now. Tomorrow, go to the practice rooms, bring your secret with you, and start doing the work. You’ll see that you don’t need to know the foreshadowing, the metaphor, the character arc, the subplot, the ultimate meaning of your life. Right now, you don’t even have to know how the story ends. You just have to find a way to start telling it.