On Finding a 25-Year-Old Letter from My Sister

It was in a copy of The Prophet by Khalil Gibran. My parents gave me this book in 1981 as a high school graduation present. There is an inscription from them to me in it. My sister must have recommended that my parents buy the book; otherwise, I don’t imagine they would have known at the time that I was interested in such things. The book also contained a letter written to me by my sister in 1981, also on the occasion of my graduation from high school. I took the book down from my shelf for the first time in 25 years because I want to include Gibran in the encyclopedia of aphorists I’m working on. (Insert shameless self-promotion here: It’s due out from Bloomsbury USA in November of 2007, so consider your Christmas shopping for next year done!) In her letter, my sister complains that she can’t concentrate because her kids are climbing all over her but she wants “to write something you’ll never forget.” Reading her letter, I was astonished at how drastically some things have changed and how, equally dramatically, some things have remained exactly the same.

One of my favorite Arthur Schopenhauer aphorisms is:

If you want to know how you really feel about someone take note of the impression an unexpected letter from him makes on you when you first see it on the doormat.

I was delighted to see my sister’s letter, again. The tables have turned on us. Twenty-five years ago, she had three young children to contend with; now, I do. Back then, I was just embarking on my college education; my sister, after raising her family, has recently finished hers, and is now starting a career as a therapist and academic. In a strange but pleasant exchange of fates, we have switched roles. Today, I’m a bit like my sister was 25 years ago: a work-at-home parent, struggling to write something unforgettable amidst the din of a boisterous family life. And my sister is a bit like me as an 18-year-old: a recent graduate excitedly setting out on new learning and work experiences. We both, happily, still have our whole lives ahead of us.

I remember reading The Prophet during “senior week” in 1981. That’s the week after graduation in June when every high school grad in eastern Pennsylvania travels to the New Jersey shore for seven straight days of debauchery. I enjoyed my debauch, but in between I was reading Gibran, grateful that my sister had suggested that my parents get the book for me. I was deeply into the history of religion and spirituality at the time, with a particular interest in Gnosticism, a religious/philosophical movement that peaked in the Middle East around the first and second centuries. The Prophet is very much in the Gnostic tradition: Passengers on a ship implore a wise man travelling on board to share his wisdom, and the book consists of his aphorisms on life, love and death strung together into miniature essays.

When I told my sister I had found the letter, she quoted from memory one of the aphorisms that had meant the most to her. It was:

Your children are not your children. They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself.

Just the day before she told me this, this was one of the aphorisms I had selected for inclusion in my encyclopedia.

In her letter, my sister wrote that she hoped I would carry my ideals into my future life and she wished that all my experiences would be growing ones. I had a lot of ideals as an 18-year-old. After graduating, I remember vowing to my parents that I would never wear a tie again. I had to wear a tie throughout primary school and high school as part of the school uniform. To protest what I felt at the time was a constricting concession to conformity and fashion, I deliberately wore the most outrageous ties I could find—bold pastels, brazen plaids, anything with golf clubs or ducks on it—and then I scribbled aphorisms (yes, aphorisms) on them. Some of my other ideals were more sophisticated, like the promise I made to myself never to sacrifice my inner, creative life in order to make a living.

I have not always lived up to my ideals over the past 25 years. I don’t mind wearing ties now, though my taste in them is still appalling. And my inner life has often been in conflict with the need to make a living. Reading my sister’s letter, though, I was happy to recognize the person she was writing to. It’s me, as I was then and still am, struggling to keep my ideals real. And I was happy to read again her words of encouragement, since I realized too that I need them just as much now as I did then.