For years I told anyone who'd listen all the reasons I planned to move to New York someday. I wanted to act, or maybe write, and I wanted to do it while living in a cozy brownstone somewhere in New York City. That's what I said, what I illustrated for an eighth grade art project, and what I wrote about again and again here on the blog. In more recent years, I'd explain that New York was the "ghost ship" that didn't carry me — a reference to this, my favorite of Cheryl Strayed's Dear Sugar columns, one that was written (serendipitously, I liked to think) on my birthday.
"I'll never know and neither will you of the life you don't choose. We'll only know that whatever that sister life was, it was important and beautiful and not ours. It was the ghost ship that didn't carry us. There's nothing to do but salute it from the shore."
And so I saluted New York from the shore. From the opposite shore, the one in California, the one where I actually landed. When we lived in our bright and airy San Francisco apartment, I'd sometimes sit in the nook of the bay windows and wonder if it was the right place to be. The chilly bay breeze would sweep in through the screens, hot sun landing in slants along the light wooden floors, and always I'd think yes, this is it. In my heart, I'd know: I chose the right life.
You can't ever really know, though, so this would become a cycle — a series of thoughts that would slip in and out of my mind every few months or so, usually as the seasons changed or as I'd take a step in some different direction. I'd wonder, and then I'd reassure myself, and then, weeks later, some song or moment would bring me back to New York and I'd start wondering all over again.
The wondering came to a full and final stop this past November. I was back home in Chicago for Thanksgiving and for my ten-year high school reunion, the kind of thing I know you're supposed to dread but I'd actually been really excited about. I couldn't wait to see the familiar faces, to remember people I'd forgotten, to get a glimpse back into my past. And what I really couldn't wait for was the chance to read my letter.
During our senior year of high school, my sociology teacher assigned each of us to write a letter to our future selves, one he'd make sure we received a decade later at our high school reunion. He asked us to write about our families, our friends, and our relationships. He told us to share what we really cared about and where we thought we might end up — who we imagined we'd be in ten years.
In a hilarious and totally predictable moment, as soon as I walked into the downtown bar for our reunion, the class president handed me a thick white envelope, saying, "Of course your letter would be the longest." Radley laughed as I looked around at other people opening their notes, most of them typed and one page long. Mine, on the other hand, was a solid twelve pages, front and back, handwritten. I decided to save it for the next morning.
It was surreal. I sat cross-legged in my freezing cold childhood bedroom, the blankets curled up around me, a steaming cup of coffee cradled in one hand, my letter in the other. Within minutes of reading it, I was laughing. The letter was just so high school. One entire page listed my date to every dance from each year of school... plus the dress I'd worn, where we went, and what it was like. Another full page was dedicated to a list of sixty friends I loved with a special section highlighting all the people I should "definitely check out" at the reunion. So ridiculous, and so perfect.
And then I got to the end of the letter, the predictions. My chest sort of tightened. This is the space where I expected to see New York splashed across the page beside dramatic descriptions of all my acting and city dreams. That's not what I found, though. Instead there was an eerily accurate, down-to-the-details account of exactly how I'd spent the last decade. Every single thing came true.
I wrote that I'd probably end up at a school in California, then fall for a guy from California and end up marrying him — "around 25, I bet." (Good bet.) I wrote that I'd become a writer for some kind of magazine or publisher (check) and that I'd welcome my first child at 29 (check). This went on and on for a page and a half, my eighteen-year-old self knowing, so confidently, the details of my life.
At first I found myself cracking up in disbelief, shaking my head as I heard the voice of my teenage self telling the story of who I'd become. Eventually, of course, I was crying. It was something like relief, I think, because for all those years there had never been any doubt. Not really.
New York may be the ghost ship, but that's it — it's just the ghost ship. And I'm standing on the shore, grounded, right where I was always meant to land. Right where I knew, deep down, I'd end up.
It's a lot easier to wave to that ship now, to salute it goodbye and watch it pass. But that's always how it goes, isn't it? You can't quite let go until the dust has settled and you're sure, if only a little bit, that you're doing the right thing. That in your heart, you know: You chose the right life.