Letter To My Younger Self

11/02/2011 12:13 pm ET | Updated Jan 21, 2012

I came across a picture of myself in college, and I was stunned how much I used to look as my son, Zach, does now, who's also in college. He's 24, and I was 21 in the photo.2011-11-02-Chrisin1974.jpg

I'm looking in from the '70s. I was painfully thin, had long, thick hair as Zach does now, and I had that same, hesitant smile that Zach owns. I also had thicker lips, like his. Mine are thin now. Where did my lips go? It made me realize how different I am from then. I wanted to write a letter to my younger self -- or is it to my son now? It works either way.


You're in college, and it's both an exciting and anxious time. As I look at you staring into the future, I see your hesitation. Yet there's also a sureness that sparkles. That's your gold. I can tell you a few other things.

One is that romantic love will happen. There's a sense of aloneness you have, and that's because your most recent girlfriend, the one who seemed to be "the one" -- as clear as the poster on your high school wall -- is gone. There will be more loves, a couple of them "the one." Each deep love will seem as clear as Venus on a summer's night, and when one love goes, it's a black hole where even light can't escape.

I remember imagining myself sitting at a table as old and alone as the guy at the end of 2001: A Space Odyssey, staring blankly into the room. The sound of my fork on the plate was as loud as Sisyphus's boulder rolling. And then I met someone new. You'll meet someone new. The boulder is a mere pebble you throw out of your shoe.

The joy of the new, of course, doesn't last, but if you can overcome the need for newness, you'll find a depth you can't imagine. Enjoy the aloneness when you have it. It's not failure.

You're not sure of your calling. There's a 'Y' in the road here in your 20s, and either you'll use that great curiosity of yours and follow what's interesting, or you'll fall into something just okay and be mostly satisfied -- the fate of most people. Maybe some part of you won't be satisfied, and you might try to mask it with drink, drugs, sex, and "Hey, it's fun." Then again, you're analytical, maybe over-analytical, so that's not your path. Relax.

In fact, this makes me think of the two types of people I know my age. Some feel confused, even lost, that some promise of life hasn't come through, and they're pissed or regretful. You can see this at all ages: people who are eagerly following some instinct or invisible path and others who don't care.2011-11-02-ZachonNolden2011.jpg

I'm reading Steven Jobs's biography by Walter Issacson now, and Jobs came to several 'Y's in his road. One of the biggest was when he fell for a woman named Tina Redse, and right after he'd been eased out of Apple in 1985, Tina suggested that they escape America, live in Paris, and settle down. Jobs could not. He still had ambition and said, "I am a reflection of what I do."
To me, that's a key. Do something. Follow your interests. People who "do" find a center. My writing stories has centered me. You'll find your way.

Your mind is so fast, you're probably thinking how commitment can feel like jail. You're not ready to be jailed. Still, there's a distinction between people feeling that they can make a difference in the world and those just wanting to be entertained. You'll find something that you like; you'll make a difference. You won't even realize you're committing to it because, damn, you're so interested.

Those are mostly the biggies, but of course I've skipped death. Death is such a great subject in the 20s because there's a truth there, the crack in the diamond. Later, death is just a guy breathing down your neck, whispering too bad you never made it to Miami Beach. If nothing else, he's tickling you into doing things today instead of tomorrow.

I just saw the George Harrison movie, Living in the Material World, and I was glued to my HBO screen. Harrison felt that his meditation was preparation for death. He wouldn't know if it worked until he got there. Now he's there. I've always liked the idea of creating a haiku in one's last moments as some Japanese people do -- one last bit of art before shuffling from the stage.

Stay away Mr. Hot Breath / so that I can sing longer / as I am learning

A few minor things about your journey before I email this letter:

Peeing. If you haven't, pee your name in the snow. Also while you're young, enjoy not having to get up in the night to pee. When you do, it's not so bad. You get to see the moonlight.

Hair. As you can guess, people around you will start losing it, and it goes gray. One thing no one told me, so I'll tell you: around your 50s, hair starts bursting from your nose and ears like bales of hay. Trim often.

Health. It's more valuable than money, more valuable than stamps. Steve Jobs had something like eight billion dollars, and George Harrison was no slacker either. Money can't buy a lot of things, including love, health, and writing the impressive novel. Keep exercising. I like swimming.

Gardening. My grandmother gardened and it seemed an old person's profession. Now I'm ordering dump truck loads of black dirt and getting my hands dirty. Cucumbers, roses, strawberries, eucalyptus trees, jasmine bushes, trees that produce oranges, lemons, and avocados. It's amazing. I can't explain. George Harrison found the same thing. Grow tomatoes, even if you don't like them. They have a wonderful smell, and there's something very satisfying there.

Problems will always be around. That's life. You learn to live with them like hangnails. There never seems to be enough time for friends, yet it's friends who are the raspberry puree on whatever hot pancakes we get. They'll help you get out of your head. Make great friends, and bind them with hoops of steel.