Photo by mctrent via Flickr

Do you ever muse with friends about how differently you’d have acted (and thought) when you were younger if you’d had then what you have now—life experience and its conjoined twin, perspective? I think each of us could write a book . . . and probably should!

Last week I was talking to a friend—someone “our age”—who was lamenting her lack of a backbone when, years before, the man she’d been in love with for five years was dying.

His sister, a trained nurse, swooped in and managed the minutest details. Her taking-over left no space for my friend in the house, in the experience, in the care, or even in the good-bye. My friend was young and incessantly polite, and this left her feeling powerless. But ever since, she told me, she has been mentally replaying the scene in Alice in Wonderland where Alice pushes the Queen of Hearts, and all the cards just fall like a row of dominoes. She knows now that she could have pushed, and that this woman (who was perhaps well-intentioned, perhaps not) would have simply made way—but she didn’t know it then.

We shared stories about all the times we could have—and should have—stood up for ourselves and pushed just a little. How intimidating others seemed when we were young! And how well we now understand the reality of most situations!

In conjunction with this month’s first annual International Day of the Girl Child (October 11), several news sites offered similar thoughts from women who have made a positive impression in this world, from Oprah to Cherie Blair to Melinda Gates.  My favorite meditation is from Arianna Huffington (on CNN.com), speaking to her 15-year old self.  She said, in part:

In your life many things—especially the biggest heartbreaks—will only make sense as you look back, not as you’re experiencing them. Many of what seem at the time to be your biggest setbacks will end up leading to your biggest opportunities—and in ways you can’t predict.  So don’t let that voice of doubt, that obnoxious roommate in your head, have the last word.

Naturally this made me look to my 15-year old self with a sympathetic sigh.  Here’s what I wish I had known then:

        • I wish I had realized how sexy girls with goals are; if I had, I’d have given my goals more attention than my hair and makeup.

         • I wish I had known then how precious little time it takes a dripping faucet to fill a bucket, and that efforts toward goals work just the same way.  

            • I wish I hadn’t second-guessed my decisions and actions so much, since I know now that you can never get the million details back; it’s better to trust that you did what you could, with what you had, where you were (to quote Theodore Roosevelt).

            • I really wish I’d known that my mother’s version of parenting had a lot more to do with who she was than who I was—if only to save myself the therapy dollars at 30.  (That tidbit alone would have saved me a Mercedes’-worth, for heaven’s sake.)

            • Perhaps most of all, I wish I had known how interesting older women are to get to know. I admit I wrote them off as pretty boring when I was young, even my great grandmother, who was born in 1889.  What stories she could have told me! It is a bit of a tragedy that my younger self could not know that people are made of layers, and that the surface layer is no more informative than a driver’s license.

Happily, I know these things now. I talked with someone this week who is a high-level accountant, and I discovered that she had studied French literature all through her college years; she has the soul of a poet.  I spoke to another whose smiles and jokes at the office copy machine belie the fact that she  escaped an abusive marriage with her children one night and built her life back from scratch. And I know yet another who is in college (with me, here at UC Berkeley) who is 65 and who plans to go to London for graduate school next year because “If not now, when?”  It makes me wonder what each of them would say to her younger self.

It makes me wonder what each of you would say, too. Could we, do you think, grab a cup of tea and look at all we know now, and then send some wisdom down through the years to our younger selves?  Assuming that Einstein is right—that time is relative—who knows what might happen?