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It’s funny how different the future looked at 13


Contrary to anything I might have expected even a couple of months ago, I now find myself in Europe participating in a couple of short-term volunteer projects in France and Northern Ireland. Just goes to show that life’s a lot more complex in my 20s than it seemed when I was 13.

After I graduated from college in May, I got a letter. The address was printed in an oddly familiar handwriting, but I couldn’t place it. I opened the envelope to reveal the long-forgotten letter I had written -- under the instruction of my eighth grade home economics teacher -- to myself more than eight years ago.

It’s a neat project. I’ve done it other times on retreats and at summer camps, but all of those “letters to myself” were sent back to me only a couple of months later. This one I truly had forgotten about. I am amazed that my teacher remembers to send them each year, and I wonder if she looks at the name on each letter and tries to recall the awkward 13 year-old who went with it.

“Tara Dix, 8th Grade, Thompson Junior High,” is printed boldly across the top of the first page. The text goes on to describe me, the eighth-grader. I talk about who my friends are. I strain now to connect many of the names with faces. Then, I continue on about how utterly obnoxious the goofy redheaded boy sitting across from me is. He is now one of my good friends.

I talk about the clothes I am wearing, what is “in” and what is “out,” but most important, I outline my goals for the future, at five years, 10 years, 20 years down the line.

Most of the five-year goals are pretty on track -- I would say I score about an 80 percent. I wanted to be a freshman at a “good college like Notre Dame.” Check. I wanted to have lots of friends. Check. I wanted to get straight A’s. Half-check -- B’s is more like it. I wanted to play my saxophone in the marching band. Whoops!

After college, my goals were to get married and go to law school. Here’s where the whole scheme starts to fall apart (or maybe I just better get cracking!)

Around the beginning of my senior year of college, I realized that if I had to go to school one more day past graduation, it would surely be the death of me. Someday, I’m sure I’ll end up back in the classroom, but for now, let’s put it back on the 10-year list.

As for the wedding bells -- well, I’ll keep you posted.

At any rate, I wrote that I would become a public defender while raising “six or seven children.” While the part about the public defender seems plausible, I’m not even going to touch that last one.

What I didn’t write in my letter to myself -- what my 13-year-old certainties didn’t anticipate -- is that I would take a yearlong volunteer position after college that would end bitterly three months later. I didn’t write that this situation, which I entered spilling over with excitement and enthusiasm, would leave me feeling unappreciated and rejected.

I forgot to mention how I would go back to live with my parents for four months to figure out what in God’s name I would do with the rest of my life.

I forgot to write of the bittersweet freedom that experience would afford me -- the knowledge that I could go in any one of the hundred directions before me and a secret wish that my plans were already laid out.

Wouldn’t I have been surprised to know, as a 13-year-old, that today I would be a little less goal-driven, a little less sure of what tomorrow will bring? Yet because of that open-endedness, I could decide to take this time to fulfill a couple of other dreams. I’m now embarking on a European adventure.

First stop: the Bardou Restoration Project in Southern France. It’s a medieval village in the Chevennes Mountains. There, I will help to rebuild the 15 stone cottages that make up this tiny place and try to experience a little of the history that was born there. I won’t have electricity in my cottage, nor hot running water. I will get my warmth from the fire in the hearth, and my light from it as well.

Then, it is off to Northern Ireland and a volunteer position at the Corrymeela Community, a widely known center for peace and conflict resolution. Corrymeela means “hill of harmony.” I have wanted to be a part of this place ever since I visited Northern Ireland two years ago. It’s one of the only places in that country where people from all sides of the conflict come together to try to find common ground. There are weekend and weeklong retreats for adults and families, summer programs for children and educational workshops -- and there is harmony.

When I get back, well, maybe it’s law school after all. Then again, maybe I need to write a couple more letters to myself.

Tara Dix is on the road. She may be reached at taradix@hotmail.com

National Catholic Reporter, April 2, 1999