Donna Cleary
Brooklyn, NY

Illustration by
Rachel Suen

Hello Donna,

I’m sending you this letter from nearly 30 years in the future. Perhaps what you will learn about quantum physics will allow you to use this knowledge to create an entirely different life in a parallel universe. Wouldn’t that be interesting?! Don’t forget to send a letter back to this universe if that is the case!

But for now… You are 25 and you are getting married! Of course, you think he is the answer to your prayers and everything that you ever imagined and wanted: smart, handsome, funny, athletic and gregarious. He draws people to him with his outgoing nature and you have fallen hard. A part of you is uneasy but you suppress it and tell yourself that everyone is nervous when they’re about to be married.

Here’s the lesson of this lifetime: Trust yourself, trust your intuition, trust the universe. Trust that it will all fall into place.

You will soon come to understand that the man you’re about to marry is a child psychologically, a Peter Pan. He won't want to grow up and it is impossible for him to be monogamous with you. He wants freedom and independence and cares only about his own needs. He likes the idea of marriage but finds the reality limiting and fights against it. You will lose faith in love and marriage and can’t imagine a way out. This makes you very sad because all the divorcees you’ve met seem miserable, so you feel trapped.

You. Will. Be. Fine. It won’t feel like it for a while but you will.

You will have two children with this man (your hormones overriding any concern about your relationship). Your choice to bring life into this world guarantees your stay in this marriage – it’s what you were taught to do and it feels right. These children will be as much a part of you as your skin and you will never, ever regret their presence. Fierce and protective of them from the start, you swear: Nothing and no one will ever harm them. You stay for them – so that they can have a family. You know that if you leave him, he will find someone else and your children will be fatherless. You stay for you – because it seems to be the easier choice – to raise your children in that context rather than to go out and face the world as a mother of two, alone. Instead, you focus on your children and help them become the best people possible - you find happiness in that. They will be given enough love, enough guidance and enough support. It is the right choice.

As they get older, they will strain against your boundaries, but they will live and grow into stunningly beautiful young people, eventually breaking from you to become themselves. Secretly, you will be hurt by this break but you will also be extremely proud. It will come; it will be necessary. In the end it is a blessing because it will leave you time to find out who you are.

At 25 you have been working as a Registered Nurse for three years. You love the people and the knowledge but you know it’s not your calling. So in a couple of years, you start to search for another path. The children fill your days and mind so you put your head down and get to work. You stay for another decade until a new option surfaces.

At the age of 35, you discover fine art. By this time, you will have tried out different iterations of making while continuing to work as an RN and mother. You set up a variety of cottage industries which eventually lead you to take a class in oil painting and instantly, something in you lights up. You are right: this is what you are meant to do. You are an artist. All those tests you will set up along the way will prove accurate:

“If I sell a painting in this show, it means I should continue.” “If I get into this class, it means I should continue.” “If I get into grad school, it means I should continue.”


You – my 25-year-old self – don’t understand this at this moment, but when I look back from where I am now, I have an overwhelming sense that we have been guided. Every step you take in the direction of art is considered and cumulative and you will end up exactly where you want to be. It is all that you imagined. It continues to be reworked and redefined and you become even better at letting go and letting it happen. Even your past traumas and time in your dysfunctional relationship give you rich material for art making. So, feel gratitude for the depths and difficulties of your life.

Part of me wants to shake you and tell you to fight for yourself, to leave sooner, to find a man who can reciprocate the love you have… but you aren’t ready. You need to feel enough pain, have had enough failed relationships, have spent enough time with your stomach in knots to make you say, “I’m not going to do this to myself any more!” Only then will you allow yourself to see clearly what is at the root and start to use the skills presented to you to rise above it once and for all. You are in the middle of this process as this letter is being written. You have hope. It is getting better.

You’re finally learning the very hard lesson that being selfless is folly. You were taught to think of others first, to make peace, to not fight for what you want. You will discover that being selfless is harmful. To deny yourself is like applying a tourniquet – without oxygen, you shrivel up and you become resentful.

True, you won’t be ready to go it alone until your youngest goes off to college. Then you will discover that it’s not nearly as hard as you thought and you become kind of “baller” (as a lovely class-mate from the future will call you – thank you, Pik-Shuen). The difficulties will teach you about yourself: They are the big lessons you are meant to learn in this lifetime so you won’t have to in a future lifetime. Learn to lean into the challenges and deal with them head on. You will grow, feel deeply and gain empathy for yourself and for others.

Try not to second-guess yourself so much! You spend a lot of time rehashing your actions and wondering if you should have done things differently – so many “what-ifs?” STOP! You’re doing it right – all of it. It is meant to unfold this way. You think you can control things but you can’t. The beauty of your life is that everything that leads up to your divorce prepares you for a second go: You hit the reset button and start over. You will do things you didn’t think were possible.

You will get better at letting go of expectations about what your life “should” look like. You will start to see patterns - and then they are completely broken – surprising and delighting you. Life leads you in unexpected directions. Keep your eyes open – there is much more to come.

You will learn to speak up. You start to say what you need to say and deal with the outcome. Your voice is your power. You can only hone it through use. It blows my mind, here in the future, that it takes you until now to figure out how to use our voice in our relationships. That early training to sit quietly and behave will take a long time to unlearn. You will make a lot of mistakes but you're gaining momentum.

A lot of your traumas resurface when you meet Marc as a 54-year-old woman. He helps you recognize your patterns and where they come from because he triggers you constantly. He reminds you of your ex but thankfully he has evolved in his own development. He made a lot of the same mistakes but the suffering caused as a result of his mistakes makes him ready for change as well. When he shows up, you’ll be able to see what love can be and you fight for it. What you have now at 25 with your husband is practice: in patience, in self-reliance.

Don’t worry so much. You will learn to insist on accountability from your partner. You’re also learning to trust yourself. Relax. You have plenty of time. Don’t concern yourself with what you might be missing.

Taking care of yourself is a good call. All those years of eating healthy and exercising will give you physical strength and youthfulness that allow you to navigate what you’re going through as this letter is being written. New relationships and establishing yourself as an artist takes stamina, determination and all of the years of training you’ve had up until now.

By watching people in the art world, you’ll begin to understand that none of it happens instantaneously. It unfolds at a frustratingly slow pace at times. That pace gives you time to make mistakes and learn. You are on your way and you are learning to enjoy the slow, steady unfolding of inspiration and art. You understand that the same dysfunctional behaviors that lead to problems with your love life are mirrored in your friendships and professional relationships. Your work with Marc will help in those areas as well.

WAY TO GO, GIRL! I’m really proud of you. Keep your head up, keep striving to be better. You’re a fighter and you have a long and exciting road ahead of you.

I’m sending you lots of love from this end of the spectrum. Feel it, roll around in it and maybe in that alternate universe, you will start to heal sooner. Don’t forget to write!!