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Sundays in the Park

Teri Orr, Record columnist

I found the book not in a bookstore, I remember that. It was in a gift store or a stationery store, somewhere you find such little books that make lovely gifts. Books that have sage advice or bits of wisdom or thoughtful passages, to be consumed in tiny bedside/reading-chair bites. I have been the recipient of such gift books and, in fact, have them neatly stacked in strategic places around my house and next to the far side of my bed. This book I purchased to be given away, to the right person at the just right time.

In fact, I had pretty much decided who would receive it as part of a little birthday package in the tsunami of birthdays that fall into my life in the fall. So just to make certain I was giving an interesting gift, I made a pot of tea and sat down last weekend to flip through the tiny book booklet, really. It is more the size of a theater program than say a Harry Potter novel. It is small and thin and quite accessible.

The cover shows a notecard, tied with a piece of fabric ribbon, on which is embossed, "WHAT I KNOW NOW letters to my younger self." The kicker says, "Extraordinary Woman Share the Wisdom They Wish They’d Had When They Were Younger." And then, along the edge of the cover, is a list of some of the women whose one-page essays to themselves are included. It is such a rich cross-section you are forced to pay attention: Madeleine Albright, Macy Gray, Cokie Roberts, Trisha Yearwood, Maya Angelou, Queen Noor, Olympia Dukakis You get the idea.

The book, as it turns out, was the outgrowth of an article that journalist Ellyn Spragins created for Oprah Magazine several years ago. The premise was simple. She approached five well-known women and asked, "If you could postmark a letter back through time to your younger self, what age would you choose and what would the letter say?"

The answers were, for me, surprising and revealing and thought-provoking. Each mini-chapter and letter starts out with a heading that sums up the essence of the letter or the advice given.

"Don’t let anybody raise you. You’ve been raised," is the advice author Maya Angelou would send back to her younger self. "Learn how to celebrate," urges actress Olympia Dukakis. "Don’t be so quick to dismiss another human being," suggests Senator Barbara Boxer. And one of favorites, for so many reasons, comes from novelist Lisa Scottoline: "Your hair matters far, far less than you think."

I was especially drawn to the letter from Lisa Halaby, who was part of the first class of women to be admitted to all-male Princeton in its 222-year history. Her demanding father was president of Pan World Airlines in the 60s and she was part of my generation of women who came of age during the Vietnam War era, where rules were being broken left and right. Mostly left. Like many of us, she wanted to make a difference in the world. By age 26, when she married King Hussein of Jordan, and became his queen, she was suddenly in a place to actually effect world change.

The letter Lisa writes back to herself comes when she has taken a break from her first three semesters at Princeton and decides to spend the winter in Aspen. She arrives in a snowstorm on a bus from Denver and sleeps on the floor of a trailer from good Samaritan locals who know there’s no room at the inn in the middle of the night. She talks of her turbulent home life and the scrutiny of her first year of college where drugs, civil rights and the war are impacting this first group of women to ever try to learn in the hallowed men’s halls. She has been under tremendous pressure to succeed and hints at some health issues her first year, too. Midway through her letter she becomes tender to her younger self

Lisa, I know it may be hard for you to see right now, but you’re not alone. You also don’t have to be perfect.

The winter in Aspen is ideal for you. There are jobs to be had first as a maid in a motel, then as a waitress. By the time you are ready to go back to school in twelve months, you’ll have been a part-time gofer at the Aspen Institute and worked with an environmental architect – jobs that will help shape your future career path.

This is the first time you have acted so dramatically on your instincts. In time you’ll find they always point you in the right direction. You’ll also prove you can be financially self-sufficient, which is a piece of knowledge for women the world over. And you will continue to challenge yourself after university until one day a kindred spirit will inspire you to make a leap of faith in someone else whose indomitable faith, selfless example of service, all-embracing loving spirit and moral courage will help you understand the path to true strength and freedom. — Noor Al Hussein

Sitting in my comfy leather reading chair with my cup of tea, I put the tiny book down. I remembered who I was the first year away at college. I thought of all the hardships and heartaches that followed until the year I turned 26 and had dropped out of college, married, inherited some money, had two babies, opened a children’s clothing store and divorced an abusive husband. At 26 I tried to start a reset button to get back the carefree college kid I lost. But upon reflection I knew that wasn’t the younger self I would want to write to. I thought of a health crisis and professional failures and a romantic crisis that would become a textbook romantic failure.

But thinking about Lisa/Queen Noor, I realized I wanted to reach out to the younger self who moved to Park City in 1979 in the middle of winter. And I plan to write that with more tea and more time. But it had me thinking about all the eager young people who are right now, right now, trying to find houses and jobs (well, the job part is easy) here in town. About their optimism and enthusiasm and clean slates for adventures and romance and even failure.

So here’s a little challenge I offer, gentle reader: Take a moment this week and remember who you were when you moved here. What did you hold of value in your head and your heart? What would you tell that younger self about what mattered most and least? Then look around. Take stock of the new waitress, sales clerk, lift operator. Treat them with kindness. The same kindness you would treat yourself if you could reach back in time and be gentle with yourself. Because a piece of us exists in them. Collectively we are invested in the same dreams in the same town. We were given great breaks by generous people. And now we can be those generous-of-spirit people ourselves. And with the tiniest of effort we can recall the wonder that comes from discovering you can live your dream, especially when your dream changes. Who knows who works among us future queens, or presidents or best friends. It’s a thought I hope to embrace and reflect on later this week, when I carve out some time to remember my younger self who was so very, very scared, her first Sunday here in the Park

Teri Orr is the director of the Park City Performing Arts Foundation that provides programming for the George S. and Delores Dore Eccles Center for the Performing Arts and the Big Stars Bright Nights Summer Concert Series at Deer Valley. Orr is also a former editor atThe Park Record.


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