What I’d Say to my Twenty-Something Year Old Self

So I think every writer does this at some point. But, I started thinking about this a month ago and I though I would put it down in words. I’ll add to this periodically. Perhaps your list is different. But this is mine today. I’m cleaning house!

Travel more.

You are not fat.

Stop wearing make-up. It’s not you.

Live every day to the fullest.

Read more books. I know you’re an historian. Read more books.

You are lovely.

People love you.

Life is sweet.

Music will always sustain you.

You love the rain.

You love a snow day. Particularly when friends are involved.

You love to hike.

You will meet people that will love to hike with you.

You are going to always be surrounded by amazing people. Fret not.

Being alone is a good thing.

You will never be lonely.

Some people will disappoint you.

Some people will never disappoint you.

Sadness eventually ends.

You will go to Ireland. With your best friend. It will be amazing.

You are going to find a bar named Joe’s, and that is where you will find your people.

Friends are the family we choose for ourselves.

You are a writer. You are a writer. You are a writer.

You will be invited to a writing retreat where you will own that you are a writer.

You will find your tribe. They are writers.

Your tribe are also music lovers.

You will eventually come to love bourbon. And then, folks will know you as “the” bourbon lover.

Every day is adventure. Embrace it. Even if you are on the couch.

Some days are hard. For everyone.

Some people will love you. Some people won’t. And that is ok.

You will always have people in your corner.

Bethlehem, Pennsylvania will end up being your home. Even when you thought it wasn’t.

You can and will get a Ph.D.

You are not an imposter. You are smarter than you think you are.

You will write a really good book.

You will write another really good book. And then, another one.

Your life will never be your job.

Your job is amazing, but not your life.

Life is hard. Own it.

Life is good. Own it.

On Ars Historica

Ars Historica

I love being a historian. I especially love everything that defines the profession. I’m an archive rat so I delight in researching in dust-filled, musty-basement smelling archives (something that is quickly becoming unnecessary as we move more and more into the digital age). I treasure the intimacy that comes with delving into the lives of those who have long since passed and who probably never thought that anyone would be interested in anything that they did or had to say. More than anything, I love to write about these individuals whose seemingly mundane lives tell us something about who we are today in the 21st century.

When reading the hundreds of letters and diaries and plantation records it is not lost on me how our lives are quite similar to these men and women who came before us. We eat and sleep. We get sick and deal with complicated family matters. We long for love and, at the same time, we long for solitude. Mostly, over the centuries, it seems that we all just want to feel like we matter; that in the long stretch of time that is our lives, lives that were not so long in the 19th century, we mattered to someone or something in this world. I think that at the end of the day, at the end of our lives, we want to know that we made a difference in some way in this world. At base, in every letter I read, no matter how brief or seemingly insignificant the missive, the overarching theme seems to be this: “What am I doing today that will live beyond me?”

Over the course of several months I read a long stretch of letters dating from the 19th century through the mid-twentieth century. These letters were mostly to the women I’m researching and are brimming with sentiment that is fascinating, intriguing, and funny. They are also, at times, quite sad. However, largely, they are not unlike what we Tweet or post on Facebook or spend hours discussing with our friends on a daily basis. There are men who are quite sappy and, to be perfectly frank, quite needy. There are friends who want to know the minutiae of someone’s daily life, from what they ate that morning to what book they are reading that week. There are seemingly inconsequential details about the weather and the crops and the myriad insects that exist in the Deep South, all of which mattered to a 19th century plantation owner. And in this particular case, because Cross Keys Plantation is located in close proximity to the Mississippi river, there are weekly reports about the water table, which seems to flood regularly threatening crops and roads to be traveled.

Beyond the seeming mundanity of the words, what these letters reveal are lives. And stepping back in time allows me to leave my life for a while. I have become immersed in the worlds of the Watsons and the McCalls and the Striplings and the Cooks and their neighbors and friends. I feel as if I have born witness to numerous births, illnesses, and deaths. I now have a personal stake in Lucille Watson’s fortune, particularly whether the year will yield a good or bad crop. I want to say, “Right on sister!” when she laments living with fleas and gnats and mosquitoes and sweating in swampy, oppressive temperatures that I long since left back in Louisiana. I could identify with Lucille’s alarm when a friend wrote to inform her that a gentleman suitor intended to bring her a watermelon, a gesture that meant he was determined to propose marriage (I’ll note that for the future). And, during WWII, Lucille and I both waited patiently for word from her love, Joe, a pilot who was lost somewhere over Africa in 1943. He did, indeed, return.

Still, what is tucked between the history and the incidental and the well-worn comments about the Mississippi and the weather, is so much sweeter. Love between brothers and sisters and cousins whose main form of communication was letters, not text messages or email or Facebook, immediate modern communication that we often take for granted. Genuine sentiment about what it means to be family who are far apart in time and miles. And bonds that form not because people are convenient, but because they actually mean something and are authentic and don’t wish to be anywhere else but with you when 19th century infrastructure didn’t make it quite so simple.

There’s something to be learned from stepping back in time. I encourage everyone to read 19th century letters. I think that we all could bear reminding how fortunate we are to be living here, this day, when we have immediate access to the folks that matter to us, and how we don’t have to wait for the river to subside to see them.