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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, 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?

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  • Jennifer Cheyne January 2, 2014 at 12:52 am

    I had the funny idea tonight to see if there were comments I had missed seeing at some point, from these other posts I’d written way back when, and what a new year’s gift these 4 are. Susan, Diane, Judith, and Mary, I loved reading your comments and the wisdom you’ve gained – the beauty of the women who frequent this site always gives me such faith in humanity. Happy New Year to you all!

  • Mary Wolfe Sullivan October 18, 2012 at 7:56 pm

    So well said ! We think we know so much no matter what age we are and when we stop to breathe, to reflect , to glean from others – we learn about ourselves. I am 55 and always thinking ahead , planning for the future … holding on to the past and relishing my friendships with older women.

  • Judith A. Ross October 18, 2012 at 10:38 am

    If I could sit down with my younger self, like Jennifer, I’d tell young Judith to focus more on goals than appearance, and on finding things she loves to do and to do them as much as possible.

    I’d also suggest to her and to any young person I encounter today that finding mentors is incredibly important. Stay in touch with those who take an interest in you and seek out others to guide you along the way.

    I’d also tell her to trust her gut more, and to block out the negative and unhelpful voices she was surrounded by after her mother’s death. And while we were on that topic, I’d let her know from where I sit now, that life does get better and she will have many happy moments once she grows up and gets out on her own.

  • Diane Dettmann October 18, 2012 at 10:27 am

    Wow, Jennifer’s “Wish I Knew Then . . .” really connected with my life experience. I faced the greatest loss in 2000, when the sudden death of my 54 year-old husband tore my life a part. The unbearable pain and heartbreak devastated me, leaving my me empty and hopeless. Twelve years ago, no one could have convinced me that the loss would reveal opportunities of growth, change my life for the better and inspire the creative spirit within me.

    The “voice of doubt” Jennifer mentions is a powerful force. “Celebrating”—and I use that term loosely—my 53rd birthday less than a week after my husband’s death, I doubted I’d ever be happy again. That naughty “voice of doubt” stayed with me for several years as I struggled to figure out who I was.

    Through writing and studying the family photo album, I dug back into my childhood trying to discover my true self. I remembered in high school how hard I tried to “fit in” with the popular group, but for some reason, I never really did. As black and white images of my mother, my aunt Miriam and my great-aunt Jane appeared on the album pages, I realized how strong these women of my past were. I too wish I had spent time listening to their wisdom and absorbing their strength. I could have learned so much about life and myself.

    Surviving the death of my husband was not easy. Yet now at the age of 65, I look back and realize I’m stronger today because of the struggle. The loss restarted my writing passion. In 2011, after seven years of starts and stops, I published my memoir, Twenty-Eight Snow Angels: A Widow’s Story of Love, Loss and Renewal, which is helping others find meaning in life after a loss. Thanks Jennifer for the inspiring story. I agree, “If not now, when?”
    Diane Dettmann:

  • Susan Lapinski October 18, 2012 at 9:03 am

    If I could have tea with my younger self, I’d tell her to try not to waste time worrying about what might have been or might still be, but rather to live each moment to the fullest. Living in the moment is a classic tenet of Buddhism and I’m grateful that I caught up with it. I now try to live it.