You Can’t Escape Your Themes

How much have you changed? Or have you?

How much have you changed? Or have you?

Miles run today: 0

Cookies eaten today: 0 (big improvement)

Blog posts read over Christmas break: 0

My parents moved from my childhood home when I was in my 20s, so returning “home” for the holidays is to a different home: no ghosts of 10-year-old Annes greet me as I climb the stairs; no boy band posters cling to bedroom walls.

But many, many things from my childhood haunt the closets, the bedrooms, the bookcases… One night, cozy under my mom’s quilts, raindrops pattering on the windows, ย I woke from a nightmare where someone was calling my old name, my maiden name. And when I made my way in that direction, no one was there.

Because my sister and I want my parents to move up to our area in the not-so-distant future, we cleansed some of the spaces of our junk over Christmas break.

My sister, Dancer Extraordinaire, went through boxes and boxes of old dance costumes: ruffly can-can skirts, sailor-girl get-ups, swirly ballet skirts and funky jazz shorts.

I finally packed up my middle and high school yearbooks and put them in the back of our minivan. I’m surprised that the covers closed: you would not believe the amount of Big Hair photos contained in those pages.

But as you can imagine, the things that stopped me cold were the written things… my tenth grade English journal, my AP English papers,ย the letters.

The letters, for someone sentimental like me, were heartbreaking.

People used to write letters! I can picture these younger versions of ourselves spending time sitting out on The Quad, balancing a notebook on their knees, writingย four pages, back and front, about boyfriends, girlfriends, parents, school, work, the weather. And wow, did we write! How did we find the time?

Of course, I only had the letters from other people; I have no idea what I wrote that prompted the letters or what I wrote in response. In some cases, I prayed that I had responded: one acquaintance from high school wrote from her first semester at college saying that everyone else had opened their mailboxes to get letters or care packages from home. She got nothing. She begged me to write to her.

Did I? I don’t remember.

I was busy falling in love. I was juggling too many class hours and, unfortunately, Calculus (aka Bane of My Existence).

This past week, my family and I sat around my parents’ dining room table, and I read them snippets of their letters from when I was away at college: they often described the same mundane weekend events in very different ways.

My parents’ letters often opened with, “I’m worried about you. Are you feeling better?”

And my sister’s: “Mom and Dad are mad that you haven’t been to the doctor yet.”

I must have picked up every cold the freshman dorms offered that semester.

Most touching were the ways that we have not changed: my mom still searches for the perfect home phone, simple and indestructible. My dad still gets baffled by home improvement projects. My sister is still in pursuit of the perfect haircut.

But here is the letter from one of my best guy friends the summer after we graduated, the one that showed me exactly how little I have changed in 20 years:


Ah yes, the glorious summer–that which we longingly wait for each spring. Too bad it kinda sucks, huh? You didn’t sound too excited in your letter. What’s wrong?

So you don’t have a job… big deal. Jobs are just time-consuming anyway, you know. I mean, I can see how you might get a little stressed not having one, what with jobs being the popular thing to be doing these days…

He went on to get a Ph.D. and is figuring out how to wipe cancer off the face of the world.

I waited tables for six months while I looked for a “real job.” And when I got one, I made less money than I had while I was waiting tables.

And here I am, 20 years later, looking for a “real job” after freelancing for years. And like before, wondering if it will ever happen.

Where are all of those pep talk letters and the young people who had so much time?

And why can’t we escape the themes that keep coming up in our lives, over and over, as evergreen as the three basic arguments we recycle with our spouses over a lifetime?

What are your personal themes? And do they show up in your writing?


29 thoughts on “You Can’t Escape Your Themes

  1. As much as I struggle to make decisions with small things, when it comes to big life changing decisions, I have repeatedly made them in an instant and then lived to regret them. I think that’s my recurring theme.

    • annewoodman says:

      I think that making decisions decisively is a good theme. At least you’re not hemming and hawing and avoiding making a decision, right? Better to make a decision and change your mind later than deliberate forever. Kudos to you!

      • I wish I could agree, but no, they have been bad decisions where it’s too late once I’ve realised that. Anyway, I don’t wish to be all melancholy – Happy New Year Anne! ๐Ÿ™‚

  2. Carrie Rubin says:

    How wonderful that your parents saved so much of your stuff. Maybe that’s why I remember so little–not much got saved; only what I thought to keep myself.

    As far as my theme? Maybe restlessness–I like to venture out and try new things, because I get easily bored. Don’t suppose that’s too good. But I can certainly stay focused–focused enough that calculus was one of my favorite subjects in college. ๐Ÿ˜‰ But remember, we both carry the title of mother, and that requires a bit of flexibility. So I think you’ve done well to be able to freelance for so long. Kudos to you, in fact.

    Oh, and by the way, I can’t even begin to tell you how grossed out I was by this: “Iโ€™m surprised that the covers closed: you would not believe the amount of hair contained in those pages.” Ewww! ๐Ÿ˜‰

    • annewoodman says:

      Ha! It actually wasn’t meant to be a gross-out moment: the hair was the Big Hair in the photos! The late ’80s were a time of big hair… and we all had it. The senior photos are absolutely HILARIOUS.

      I like that you try new things–that’s a great theme! And by the way, that ties in nicely to your Do Not Go Gentle… title on your blog (which I liked very much, considering my high school obsession with the Romantic poets). ; )

      • Carrie Rubin says:

        I can’t believe I took that hair thing so literally. Normally I can read a little better between the lines. Yikes. Especially considering the big hair I had myself!

    • annewoodman says:

      I just had to edit the “hair” part of this post. I didn’t want people to envision wads of old hair matted between the pages. ; )

  3. jmmcdowell says:

    While Vanessa can make the big decisions, I struggle with all of them, great and small! That is one theme of my life. Another is the feeling I’ve always had that I’m supposed to be doing something that I’m notโ€”or that I’m doing something different somewhere else.Maybe that’s why the characters of my WIP Summer at the Crossroads chose me to write their story.

    And don’t forget that freelancing is a real job. Maybe there aren’t set hours with one employer, but there’s something to be said for the variety of work and assortment of people encountered!

    • annewoodman says:

      Yes, I’ve enjoyed freelancing. Very true. ; )

      I love the alternate universe conundrum. (And I’d like to read Summer at the Crossroads sometime.) Maybe you are doing something else, somewhere else. Sometimes I fantasize that my other selves are having more fun in Bora Bora. ; )

  4. This post was brilliant, Anne and sums up why you are SUCH a phenomenal writer.
    I LOVE how you started with the number zero ….and how that number sets the tone for what’s changed 20 years later….And how it applies to the “house with no ghosts” because zero is the amount of physical time you lived there.
    Seriously, you make my day with this type of writing. thank you!

  5. J-Bo says:

    I’ve found that I can throw away anything from the past except anything written. I keep a scrapbook of all the old letters I received back in high school. They’re great. I love re-reading them when I’m down. They are probably the one thing I would save in a fire. I’m sad letters aren’t so common anymore.

    And I’ve also been doing some thinking about the themes in each of our lives. Sometimes I will talk to someone very briefly and it becomes so obvious what their themes are- they aren’t shy in discussing them, and they are the things they bring up again and again. Other people keep them more hidden. I tend to be one of those people.

  6. 4amWriter says:

    This was a touching post, for me, in many ways. I don’t have a childhood home any longer, and many things that I might have kept from my adolescence are gone. Letters, especially.

    Sadly, I know a major theme in my life growing up was lonliness, but I can’t say that about my adulthood. It’s pretty chock full. ๐Ÿ™‚ But related to that is a sense of insecurity/lack of confidence that I have always battled, and I would consider that a theme. I know my protags in my stories suffer from it!

    • annewoodman says:

      Your novels will probably be ones that many people can relate to, then, Kate. Many people struggle with insecurity, if not all the time, then certainly about specific things or situations. Maybe you can fast-track to best-seller-dom! ; )

      I gave my mom a hard time for saving all of our stuff, both meaningful (letters) and non-meaningful (dusty stuffed animals). I guess, after reading everyone’s responses, I now feel thankful that I got to reminisce. Hoarding has its good points. ; )

  7. Teresa Cleveland Wendel says:

    What a great post. I’d forgotten about those 4 page letters we used to write back and forth to friends and family. My college chum sent me a packet of all the letters I’d sent her after we graduated. It was so fun to read the thoughts of a younger me. After reading your post, I’ll have to dig them out of a box and check them for themes. :o)

  8. Melissa says:

    The Hubs found a box of letters in our attic and wanted to know why I’d kept them….I said because that was my life back then. Those letters remind me of things that I swore I’d never forget, of who young me was. In middle school, the theme was boys. In high school, the theme was boys. The theme is still boys. Only now it’s the ones I gave birth to, not the ones I crush on ๐Ÿ˜‰ Happy New Years!!

  9. David Gentry says:


    Great post! I was hoping you would write about your old letters.

    Your mother and I had the good fortune to attend some of the Atlanta Symphony’s performances when we lived there. One performance was of a young woman playing Tchaikovsky’s violin concerto, my favorite piece of music. I’m sorry I don’t remember her name. She received five standing ovations, more than anyone we heard. She was fifteen years old! When we were in the crowd leaving the symphony hall, a woman in her thirties behind us said to her husband, “Don’t you feel that you have wasted your life!” I had to smile because the speaker gave voice to what I’m sure was in everyone’s mind.

    After a speech by Joe Sacco, author of the captivating Where the Birds Never Sing, a true story of Joe’s father’s service in World War II, I overheard Joe’s mother saying to Joe, “Your father’s destiny was to serve in World War II. Your destiny is to write about him.”

    I read Where the Birds Never Sing, and I wrote an email to Joe Sacco. I told him that I cried. I told him that he had written an important work that will always be part of our American heritage. I implied that I would be proud to have written such an excellent and meaningful book.

    I read a Veteran’s Day editorial by an American veteran. He says that the only real way we can thank veterans is to live an honorable life. I add that we can attempt to pass on our American heritage.

    We all feel envious when we hear of a friend working to erase cancer from the face of the earth, but we play the hands we are dealt. There are people who are envious of you and rightly so.

    Love, Dad

  10. Ravena Guron says:

    Am I weird in wishing people still wrote letters now? It could be Pride and Prejudice-esque and we could all sit around reading letters all day. It would be fun.

    I still have notes my friends used to pass me in class… But I don’t know where they are ๐Ÿ˜€

    • annewoodman says:

      Your notes are probably buried in the back of your parents’ closets, like mine were. We even folded ours with neat little tabs. With my college-era letters, I’ve had to save the envelopes (with the date stamps) because we all assumed we’d know which year we were in when we read the letters… except years later, it’s impossible to tell without checking the envelopes.

      And yes, I still wish people wrote letters. That’s why I still do… sometimes. Now, they’re even more fun because they’re so rare.

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