Eileen Fisher, Designer and President of Eileen Fisher, Inc.
You have only to lay your eyes on Fisher's elegantly understated clothing to appreciate her talent for paring away the unessential. Now 52, presiding over one of the top privately held female-owned businesses in the country, Fisher recalls her early 20s, when she lived unhappily with her boyfriend in a dark SoHo loft. "I think it's the most lost I've ever been," she says. "Everything was hard. I felt depressed a lot of the time." One by one, her friends had fallen away because her boyfriend didn't like them. She couldn't turn to her family because her parents disapproved of her living arrangement. And, having fulfilled a long-standing ambition to move to New York from her home in Chicago, she didn't want to reveal herself as anything other than the strong, independent person she'd always presented to the world.
I see you in the kitchen, the only real room in that huge loft. You're there because you're trying to make space for yourself. You feel so negated, so erased, that you're looking for a corner to call your own. But here's what you don't know: The space you're searching for isn't physical. You need psychological space.
You need to be alone—but you're afraid. It feels incomplete, wrong somehow, to be without a man. When you have a boyfriend, you feel defined as a person. But, Eileen, that's a trap.
What I can see, almost 30 years later, is that you need time with yourself, not a friend or a man. When you sit with yourself, you can't ignore your thoughts and feelings. You may have to go through pain, but on the other side is the good stuff. You don't have to be afraid of being alone.
I feel so sad to think of what will happen if you don't learn this huge lesson. You'll lose pieces of yourself along the road. You know how much you love to dance? You've danced for the fun of it from the time you were tiny. You went dancing with your boyfriend in college and rocked out with friends in your college dorm. All that joy is going to fall away and you're going to stop dancing for 20 years.
Meditation has become the best way I know to listen to myself. The gift I give you is the words I often say when I begin to meditate:
Stillness is the ground of being from which all else emerges. It is within and behind every breath, every thought, every action. It is my starting point, my resting place, the home base to which I can return again and again.
In stillness I notice how time and space disappear. All there is, is the present moment and my willingness to listen...to allow the stillness to speak.*
Next: Breena Clark, author of River, Cross My Heart, on barriers
* From Meditations & Rituals for Conscious Living, by Nancy J. Napier and Carolyn M. Tricomi
Breena Clarke, Novelist
The author of River, Cross My Heart, Clarke was raised by parents who believed that a neat appearance, good public deportment, and education were paramount for well-mannered, middle-class Negro girls. Much of the message was encoded in a torturous hair-straightening ritual that Clarke and her sisters endured. "We'd been bombarded with the idea that our hair in its natural state was not good," Clarke says. By the time she went to college in 1969, antiwar and black power ideologies were sweeping college campuses. As soon as her mother dropped her off, Clarke stepped into the shower and emerged with her first Afro, an official revolutionary.
Your hair is not politics. It is not about the war. It does not make you Angela Davis or Sonia Sanchez or Diana Sands. The Afro is only a hairstyle.
A whole lot of people are making the same mistake you are—wearing Afros and dashikis and thinking they're life issues. Brainy as you are, girl, you don't know that hair is just hair.
I tell you this because right now you are drawing invisible boundaries for yourself everywhere. You're creating a set of beliefs about yourself that are going to box you in. For example, now that you're wearing an Afro, you think you've crossed the Rubicon—your hair will have to be nappy until the day you die. Your brain is telling you that you can't be crossing the line.
There are other barriers you're erecting: You're spending a lot of energy getting out of your phys ed classes because you're either a sports type or a Shakespeare type, and you can't be crossing the line. Breena, you're cheating yourself. You're guaranteeing yourself a sedentary life. Worse, you won't know how strong and athletic your body is. You won't get to enjoy using it until you're 49 years old. That's too long to wait.
You may never get to send your soul into a song the way you secretly want to. Some people think there's a singer deep inside of you, but you don't believe it. The truth is you've never allowed yourself to find out what kind of voice you have because you're a writer, not a performer, and you can't be crossing the line.
Breena, honey, try more things. Learning to swim won't stop you from reading Shakespeare. Finding your voice won't stop you from writing novels. You should be cooking on all four burners.
Breena, 30 years later
Next: Singer/songwriter Trisha Yearwood on trusting yourself
Trisha Yearwood, Singer and Songwriter
Raised in Monticello, Georgia, a town so tiny it didn't even have a movie theater, Trisha Yearwood did the highly improbable: She carved out a phenomenal singing career. Her first, self-titled album went double platinum in 1992, and a single from it reached number one on the charts. She has since cut nine more albums and won three Grammy Awards. Now divorced and married to singer Garth Brooks, Yearwood writes to herself in her early 20s.
I've got something to say to you, and I hope you will listen with an open heart. Don't be so worried about what everybody else thinks of you, and don't think your happiness depends on someone else. I want you to just trust yourself. Trust that if you take care of yourself on the inside, follow your instincts, and let yourself evolve naturally, your potential for happiness will be so much greater.
You probably don't think you need to hear this. Mama and Daddy brought you up to be independent, intelligent, and educated. And you are. I'm proud of the way you've stuck with your music, even though the odds were against you.
But there's another part of you that's less independent. You're hearing everyone ask "When are you going to get married?" The friends who didn't tie the knot right out of high school are doing it now, after college. Somewhere inside you, you think that's the way it's supposed to be.
There are going to be times when your gut instinct is telling you something isn't right, and you're going to go ahead with it anyway. If you keep that up, I know exactly what's going to happen: In about a year, you'll be standing in the back of a church with Daddy, getting ready to walk down the aisle. Daddy's going to say, jokingly, "We can duck out the back door if you want to." You won't dare tell him that's what you want to do. Everybody will be sitting there, everything will have been paid for, and there will be a ton of cake to eat. You'll be afraid of the embarrassment of calling it off. And so you'll get married—for all the wrong reasons—to a wonderful guy.
There's another way of living, and it has brought me a sense of peace that I want you to have. Know that God has a plan for your life. Turn your life over to him every day. Stop looking outside yourself for validation and approval—you're letting other people define your happiness. Instead of trying so hard to manipulate life, take care of yourself on the inside. Then all those other attributes you're so desperately seeking will find you naturally.
Your 37-year-old future self
Next: New Yorker cartoonist Roz Chast on health and happiness
Roz Chast, Cartoonist
The women in Roz Chast's world flirt daringly with leaving Soccer Momhood, fantasize about a remote control with buttons labeled "brush your teeth" and "change that awful shirt," and are likely to receive a "Bad Mom" card for giving orange soda to their children when they run out of juice. We take our anxieties a little too seriously, her panels suggest. Chast started her worrying as a young hypochondriac. Here, she writes to herself at nine years old.
You are not going to get leprosy. I promise.
Again, I promise. Don't ask me how I know. I just do.
Those nights you lie in bed feeling that your tongue is suddenly eight times bigger than normal, testing your jaw for stiffness, gulping down saliva repeatedly to gauge if you're having difficulty swallowing—they're over. YOU WILL NOT GET SICK.
I'm not one of those adults who think kids have the best lives. I know how much the world's traps and dangers burden you. Ever since you learned that Helen Keller sensed the heat of an electrical fire by putting her hands against the wall, you occupy your idle minutes fretting about the wires behind the plaster. Ever since you read how Trixie Belden had to suck the venom out of her brother's foot, you've been keeping a watchful eye out for rattlesnakes on the occasions when you're forced to leave the safety of your Brooklyn apartment.
But you're going to be okay. Roz, here's the other thing I want you to know: Being an adult is better than being a kid. You're going to grow up—healthy and whole—and everything you're feeling now is going to be great material for your work.
From Somebody Who Knows
Next: Senator Barbara Boxer on picking yourself back up again
Barbara Boxer, U.S. Senator
After working as a stockbroker and a journalist, Barbara Boxer, 62, found her voice as a political advocate. At first she thought she needed only clarity and determination. This letter is for her 32-year-old self, the mother of a seven-year-old boy and a five-year-old girl, preparing to run for office for the first time. Boxer lost that election, for the Marin County Board of Supervisors (in California), but won the office four years later, and went on to win election to the House of Representatives five times before being elected to the U.S. Senate in 1992 and again in 1998.
You're full of fire. You're passionate about children, choice, and taking care of the environment. I know how strongly you feel about all these things in your heart, but look, you have to understand that the next person may not agree with you.
Don't be so judgmental or dismissive. Don't jump to the conclusion that another person can never, ever see it your way.
The name of the game in politics is to move forward an issue you deeply believe in. You're just starting out and young enough to be impatient when people don't see your point of view. Stop and listen to what you're saying: "I can't believe you feel that way!" and "How could you possibly think that?"
When you do this, you've shut off the potential to be understanding and compassionate, and in the end you'll lose what matters most: the chance to advance an issue you care about. There's something else you may not want to face: It's easier to be judgmental. It's less work than putting yourself in another's shoes.
Every single person is important and has a story to tell, just as you do. Open up your mind and heart to differences—and you may not have to experience how losing an election can take you down a peg or two.
Your staunchest supporter,
Come Back From Any Setback