Twice this year I have been asked to write a letter to somebody as a surprise on their birthday. In one case the letter would be read days after I wrote it. In the other, the letter would stay sealed for 18 years. In both cases, I had no idea what to say.
The first request came from my friend Gillian. She lives on the other side of the country and had recently given birth to her first child, a baby girl. Gillian texted me and said she was having her friends write letters to her daughter that she would receive on her 18th birthday. There was not much more in the way of guidance, I was free to write what I wished. She said she trusted me.
That made one of us.
I, a 33-year-old man, was essentially writing a letter from the past to an 18-year-old girl in the future who I may, or may not ever meet. The blank page has always felt exciting to me. A canvas which I couldn’t wait to mark up with my rapidly emerging thoughts. This time, it intimidated me. It wasn’t a simple birthday card. The foresight and time allowed made it seem like it had to be, at least in my mind, part advice column, part manifesto on living, and part graduation speech. I was most concerned about making it relevant.
I thought about the letter for some weeks, trying to deduce the truisms that would maintain relevancy nearly two decades into the future, while also speaking to an 18-year-old who lives in a world I may not recognize today. I did not want to simply dust off my experience at her age and try to apply parallels. That felt trite and insular. As though since I had been 18 I could imagine what anybody in the world turning 18 might feel.
With 15 years of hindsight, I felt I should be able to do something more. Perhaps I could help position this fledgling adult to be… I wasn’t sure what. Happy? Successful? While I aspired for such things, I did not know if such a result was possible. I wasn’t sure of the hook that would engage a future reader into what I had to offer. For some time I had on my shelf a book written by Emily Post’s great-grandson entitled, “Essential Manners for Men.” It was an interesting if an outdated book, recommending behaviors for various professional and social obligations that have evolved faster in the last 10 years than they have in the previous 100.
Certainly, there was no proper etiquette for writing to somebody from the past. How to write a letter to a child of the future without sounding like a crusty old tool. It quickly became apparent to me that by the time this child read the letter she would be 18, and I would be 51. 51! “Here, 18-year-old child, please read this statement of worries and questions from my friend in 2017. It will surely seem to ramble and be irrelevant. Enjoy!”
As much as I tried to focus on what I had to offer, all I could think about is what a time capsule of uselessness I was creating. I wanted to focus on ideas that would hold true, regardless of age or year. It was not a letter I wanted to dash off carelessly, so I waited until a block of time presented itself.
That block of time happened to be in downtown Los Angeles on a Tuesday afternoon in May. I sat on a stool at a coffee shop in a warehouse facing out of the oversized garage doors. I stared into the late afternoon breeze over a cup of strange but enjoyable tea, hoping the new flavors would awaken something profound within me.
I did my best to calm my thoughts to a point where something honest and cohesive would emerge. I wrote by hand for hours and pages, doing my best to print legibly. I asked a decent amount of questions I may never know the answer to. I pondered about her environment and her world. Ultimately, everything I wrote led to a series of statements of things I knew, at least at my age, held true and offering a kind of path forward into this 18-year old’s future.
I returned home to New York, sealed the letter in an envelope, sealed that envelope inside another, and mailed it to my friend with strict instructions not to open either. If I was going to be embarrassed, let it be many years in the future by somebody who probably did not know me as well. I will perhaps never know if or how those words will impact that 18-year-old. There is nothing saying they need to, though I want them to.
Three months after I mailed that letter my friend Nicole included me in a group email. Her husband Barrett, a friend of mine as well, was turning 30 and she was asking 30 of his friends to write him a letter that would be given to him on his 30th birthday. Another birthday. Another request I did not take lightly. It wasn’t always this way.
When I was a child, my mother would pester me to write cards, specifically thank you cards for gifts I had received. I hated the task. I never knew what to say. I remember thinking I needed to come up with four sentences for each card. I would avoid the obligation for as long as I could, eventually caving in under my mother’s frustration, or being liberated by her forgetting.
Something changed in my senior year of high school. On a class trip to Italy, I fell in love with the artisanal products associated with renaissance letter writing that seemed to exist in every single ancient shop. There were beautiful Venetian glass implements for writing in ink, many varieties of wax for sealing important letters, and brass stamps for embossing one’s initials into that wax. It all infused something within me, a romanticized feeling of sending your sentiments across cities or countries for somebody else to read.
In college, I had several friends who I communicated with by letter. Sometimes months would pass between letters, either because of my procrastination or my friends’. But still, I crafted my letters thoughtfully until the days when those letters, for one reason or another, stopped completely.
While I don’t have pen pals anymore, I still make use of the opportunity at Christmas and Birthdays to share my sentiments. That desire has grown stronger over the past 10 years.
Holiday greetings can be challenging, especially to those I love but no longer hear from. I flashback to those thank you cards where I didn’t have enough to say. The holiday cards I receive seem to be one of two varieties: a typed 2-page letter updating me on every aspect of a friend’s life, or a simple note wishing “Happy Holidays.” The in-between is difficult for sure. Moreover, our birthday greetings have devolved from a mailed card or a phone call to a short text to a Facebook greeting that simply says “HBD.” HBD. It sounds like a downgraded STD or a chemical we have recently been told is in all of our canned food.
30% of creamed corn now contains elevated levels of HBD which is used to stabilize rocket fuel.
And because I am stubborn and reflective, especially around the time of significant events, I find myself unable to ignore how important birthdays are. They are as much a time for reflection as they are for celebration. They are a time for context, especially the older we get. As we live through the same events year after year and gather distance from our life’s milestones, we hope that we have accumulated enough experiences to help us move forward with less mystery and more clarity.
So when Nicole told me I had two weeks to write a letter to her husband my mind raced to find my point of view.
The letter, this time was different. Barrett is my friend, somebody I converse with regularly. And somebody I have grown to know more bit by bit as the years passed. However, something remained the same. I was not looking to simply reapply my own personal experience to somebody else’s, to polish up my experience of turning 30 and hand it off.
Somewhere, somebody wise once said: I don’t give advice, I give opinions.” I think about that often, especially since I have so many opinions. I offer my opinion to others more often than I am asked for advice. I do my best to avoid using the word “should” as in “you know what you should do…” as I feel that should is one of the most dangerous words in the English language. I also do my best to offer my opinion in the form of a question. I am successful about half of the time.
Thankfully, I was asked to give neither advice nor suggestions. I was asked merely to write a letter. I wanted to be in this moment with him, to be full of wonder.
For several years now, I have found myself considering what it is that I have to offer. It is not wealth or access. I do not possess a specific talent or skill that is easily lent out. What I return to over and over again are my words. If I have nothing else, I have my words. I think about this when I write to others. I may not be able to offer them much but I can do my best to honestly convey how I feel. I can offer sincerity in a world of distorted projections. I can take my thoughts and emotions and put them in front of another’s eyes for them to hopefully resonate.
It can feel awfully reductive to transfer your thoughts to paper and send it out into the world to be of influence to another. But when I think about how much we create and share, letter writing, in the form of offered sincerity, seems to make the most sense of all.
And so I asked Barrett to consider the things I had been thinking about lately. I did not sit at a coffee shop and write it in a way that could be romanticized many years from now. The immediacy of this letter demanded revision. I wrote it in my home, at my desk, over the course of several mornings, constantly asking myself… is this relevant? I wrote about space, the galactic kind. I grew metaphors out of scientific principles I had learned at a planetarium. I spoke of the unknowable, the unstoppable, and that tiny bit which we could control.
I did not offer a specific path forward but I marveled at consciousness, time, and the existential. I quoted my favorite movie.
I revised and subsequently hand wrote what I had spent hours typing. When I finished I couldn’t help but feel like I had missed the point entirely, if there was a specific point to begin with. But if nothing else, I missed the point in my own way, uniquely, sincerely.
In the case of both letters, the immediate efficacy of my words was less important than their potential for a lasting impression. Not in the gravitas of what I said, but merely, that I took the time to say it at all.
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