So, one of the things I’ve decided to do for Pride Month is spend the entire month talking on her about, well, being a gay American and how that impacted (and continues to impact) my life every day. I have written numerous essays over the years, many of them with a very limited audience, and I’ve always had an eye to collecting them into a book, or using them to build a memoir of sorts around. But…this one I am sharing with you all this morning was very well received. I was asked to write a letter to my sixteen-year-old self, agreed to do it, and then completely forgot about it. I received a reminder email about it, which I read when checking my phone at the train station in Florence where we were waiting for the train to Venice. Horrified, I sat down in the first class car (we splurged), opened my laptop, and started writing. I reread it several times, made some edits, and then, as we were pulling into the station in Venice, I emailed it in. It went live overnight while we were in Venice, and when I checked in on-line the following day (taking the train back to Florence) I was shocked to see it had gone a bit viral (for me), being shared a lot and getting lots of likes and comments. Anyway, here it is, my letter to a sixteen year old me while on a train in Italy. (Rereading this made me laugh–as I pretended I had written it before the trip, so they wouldn’t know I waited to the last minute. For the record, I always wait till the last minute, and I also didn’t want them to know I’d forgotten about it.)
Dear Greg as a 16 year old:
I am writing to you on your birthday; our birthday, I would suppose. We have just turned 53 (I am going to henceforth refer to our disparate selves in the singular; Teen Greg as you; current self in the first person—the royal-sounding “we” sounds a bit on the pompous side). In two days, I am leaving for Italy. Italy! As a teenager, you are perhaps lying on your bed, either reading a book (if I recall correctly, that summer before your senior year you worked your way through James Michener; Centennial being the last one you read before school started) or daydreaming of being a writer, of being an adult, of getting out of Kansas, of being a success and traveling the world.
I know there are times when you wonder if you will ever leave Kansas, if your dream of being a writer will come true. I know there are times when you despaired of this; but please rest assured that on your 53rd birthday you will have published over thirty novels and fifty short stories. You will be president of the local chapter of Mystery Writers of America as well as serving a term on the national board and chairing several committees. You will have edited almost twenty anthologies, and been nominated for awards more times than you can remember—and will have even won some.
I know you think you are different from everyone else you know at your school, and in some ways you are. Your classmates will fall in love and marry, have children and watch those children grow up and marry and have children of their own. But that difference you are so ashamed of, the one you carefully hide from everyone you know and deny when confronted, is nothing you need feel shame for. I know there are nights when you lie in your bed and wonder if you will ever feel love, will ever be worthy of being loved, or whether your difference will force you to live your life, and walk your path, alone. I know that in 1977 it seems impossible not to be ashamed of who you are, and weight of that secret weighs heavily on your heart. But I can assure you that not only will the day come when you can hold your head high and shout at the top of the lungs I am a gay man, but likewise, you will find a love so pure and beautiful and remarkable that some nights before you go to sleep you will think about how lucky and blessed you are in wonder. There will be times when you are reading a book and you will look up at the man you love as he sits on the couch playing with your cat and you will be so suddenly overwhelmed with love that your eyes will fill with tears.
And several months before you turn 53, you and the man you love will decide to jointly celebrate your birthdays as well as the landmark of your nineteenth anniversary together with an eight day trip to Italy, visiting Pisa, Venice, Florence and Tuscany.
Just as you once dreamed.
As for never getting out of Kansas, you will find your true home on the day you turn 33. You will get out of a cab and step onto the cracked and tilted sidewalks of New Orleans and become overwhelmed with a sense of belonging and home. And two short years later, two weeks before you turn 35, you will move to New Orleans where you will hopefully live out the rest of a life that proved richer and more amazing than you could have ever hoped.
Yet as I write this, I realize that knowing these things lie in your future will affect the decisions and choices you make. Part of who I am now is because of the sorrows and sadness and bad choices you will make in your future. Even one different choice, one different path, will change your timeline and it is possible, even very likely, that I would not be sitting at my desk after packing for this trip to Italy writing this letter to you. I would not change my current reality for anything. I live in the city I love with the man I love doing the work I love living a life I love.
So I am glad I cannot actually let the 16 year old me know what the 53 year old me knows. I prefer to believe that writing this letter will send the positive energy back through time to give you the strength to always persevere, always survive, and always keep moving forward.
And maybe that is where my strength came from; maybe that is how I managed to find the way to hold my head high and keep chasing my dreams.
As lovely as it would be to tell you this, that every one of your dreams will not only come true but better than you dreamed them, I am glad that I cannot.
With all my love,
Greg at 53
Almost ten years ago. Wow, that was a long time ago.