Several years ago, when we got pregnant with our first child, we were both in school at the University of Utah. We lived in a small apartment in the “Avenues” area of Salt Lake City. I took the bus to school during the day and then walked to the hospital in the evening to work an entry-level job in the billing office.
Because of the upcoming birth, I felt overwhelmed by the need to find better-paying work. We lived next door to some great friends who also attended our Mormon congregation. The husband had just finished nursing school and was already making an income that sounded astronomical. And so, after a lot of thought and prayer, I let go of my previously vague pursuit of classes in biology, history, writing, and languages to focus on what it would take first, to get into nursing school, and then, to get through it.
It was one of the best decisions of my life, and I continue to reap its many benefits. When people worry that they can’t afford to have kids during school, I always remember that it actually worked the other way around. It was having kids that made me good at school and focused me on a career path that I could both enjoy and earn a living from. If it weren’t for the kids, I’d no doubt still be bumbling around university hallways taking an eclectic smattering of classes and working a job that paid me poorly to do work I hated.
Although I enjoyed the new direction, it also required some sacrifices. One of those was math. I had just successfully finished my first of three terms in calculus. Having started college at a junior high school level (I didn’t know the difference between a numerator and a denominator), I had been surprised to find both that I had an aptitude for calculus and also that I thoroughly enjoyed it.
Knowing that it would be years until I’d be able to study my calculus again, I was worried I’d lose the basic knowledge of it that I’d worked so hard for. I deliberately kept my expensive textbook instead of selling it back for money I truly needed. And, to keep my memory fresh, I decided that I’d write myself my very own guide to the basics of calculus derivatives and differentials. I dedicated several hours to a simple introduction, making sure to illustrate the principles and to describe them in a way that would trigger their memory in my mind. The result was a notebook of several hand-written pages that turned out beautifully. I was immensely proud and even wondered if maybe a future calling in life would include writing math textbooks.
I remember nothing from calculus, not even the elementary principles. My own letter to myself, created with such care, is completely unintelligible to me. And it’s maddening to see something so foreign written in the very familiar scribbles of my own handwriting. I’ve wondered if it’s similar to the dreadful feeling a victim of dementia might have in seeing a picture of their past, knowing in some vague way that it belongs to them, but being helplessly unable to recall its fullness.
While this exercise now seems futile, I’m actually still very glad I did it. There is some reward in looking back on something that I once understood and having confidence that I’ll be able to return to it again someday. And there is always something gratifying about reading any old letter to yourself. In fact, that came up several times this week.
In church today, one of the teachers asked us to consider what we would write to ourselves if we wrote a letter not to be opened until five or 10 years from now. What sort of person would be expect to be by then? What would we have accomplished? How might we have changed? And, most importantly, what changes would we make today to start becoming that person?
That’s the crux, of course. We never become that future person we want to be if we don’t get to work now. Similarly, I’ll someday have a beautiful black walnut tree towering over my front yard. But since I’ve not even planted the seedling yet, that faraway day maintains a set distance from me. I’ll never gain any ground on it until I take some action.
In one of my favorite talks by Elder Henry Eyring, he describes the ruts into which we’re all prone to falling as we procrastinate the day that we work harder, develop talents, and change behaviors:
In youth, we may have thought, “There will be time enough to worry about spiritual things just before my mission or before marriage. Spiritual things are for older people.” Then, in the early years of marriage, the pressures of life, of jobs, of bills, of finding a moment for rest and recreation seem to crowd us so closely that delay in meeting obligations to God and family again seems reasonable. It’s easy to think, “Perhaps there will be more time for that in the middle years.” But the compression of time does not ease in the years that follow. There is so much to do, and time seems to shrink. The 55th birthday and the 65th and 75th don’t seem to be a decade apart.
With aging comes physical and emotional challenge. We cannot seem to get as much done in an hour as we did in youth. And it is harder to be patient with others, and they seem more demanding. It is tempting then to excuse ourselves yet again from rising to the standards required by our earlier covenants, now so long neglected.
We ran into an example of letter writing this week. As we continue to unpack and set up the new house, Wendy discovered an old letter she wrote herself in 2003, just about the same time that I was writing myself the lessons on calculus. Unlike my letter, hers was less concerned about clinging to the past and focused instead of building the future. She wrote to a future version of herself that would have a life we could then only dream of. This included: moving out of Utah, buying a house, staying faithful in the gospel, being a good mom, becoming a better cook, developing talents, and reading more. She also ended the letter with, “P.S. You have 2 kids.”
And so now I look at myself. I’m spending the last few hours of this restful Sunday wondering who I might become in five or 10 years. Thinking about what it will take to get there, what price I’m willing to pay, and how soon I’m willing to start paying. I think that, sometime tonight, I need to sit down and write myself another letter.