Rod Dreher's columns in The American Conservative are my new must-reads, and I was moved this morning when I got caught up with his latest and found "Advice for a Weary Ghost." That was one self-serving agony aunt, I have to say, speaking as a former agony aunt myself.
Instead of yammering on about refusing to be blinded by shame and advertising her latest book, the agony aunt could have told "Haunted" to stop mourning the past and obsessing about the future but to take stock of what she has today and ask herself what she can do now to make tomorrow better.
I felt for "Haunted" because I felt that I had "blown it" in some cosmic way when I was 35, too. I also had credit card debt, which I paid off gradually, partly with the help of a family member, me paying back the family member before my father found out and just paid him/her the rest.
(If you don't have generous and solvent family members, apply for a low-interest bank loan, and pay off the credit card that way. Then buy nothing but food, rent, and utilities until the bank loan is paid off.)
There is no point telling a 35 year old American woman that moving around the country and creating different groups of friends to whom you eventually bid farewell and may never see again is not a recipe for lasting happiness. It MAY do some good to tell 20 year olds this. However, there is no guarantee that getting married to your most determined suitor at 25 is a recipe for lasting happiness either.
It is for quite a lot of women, however. I will say that. Anyone who thinks that becoming a published author is a comparable path to happiness hasn't read many biographies of writers--or their children's memoirs. Many of us book-loving girls got our expectations of what life brings from the Anne books, so it's salutary to know that Lucy Maud Montgomery committed suicide in the end. Sad but true.
By the way, Little Women is a very dangerous book, I now realise, for it is the first place we are likely to read about a girl who hates being a girl and wants to be a boy. It would have been nice if Jo March Bhaer had voiced remorse for this later and emphasised how wonderful it was to be a woman, for womanhood meant she could be a wife and mother, as well as the foster mother for the dozens of boys and girls at the school she ran with her husband. She might have observed that her I-should-have-been-a-boy fantasies had been silly. Tall girls are no less feminine than short girls, Jo March. Don't be an ass. But yes. Life for middle-class women in the 1860s was indeed rather more restrictive than it was for men. On the plus side, fewer women than men lay dead on the battlefields of the American Civil War.
But to get back to credit card debt, which is a truly horrible thing, it is SO easy to see how so many people get sucked into it because A. the minimum payments are so small and B. when you want to hang out with a gang of people, restaurants beckon. Single people are often lonely people, and lonely people long for companionship, and when single people live in cramped rented accommodations flung out across a big city, it seems easier just to meet at a restaurant and split the bill, even or especially when you can't afford it. When you don't make very much money, or you don't like your job (I'm looking at you Statistics Canada), the temptation to "treat yourself" can be overwhelming.
The impulse to heal a hurt with a treat dies hard. A couple of hours after discovering that ONCE AGAIN I can not go home for Christmas, I was in a snazzy bar drinking a badly made Cosmopolitan beside B.A., and the bill was £15.90. Had I not been reading books about Stoicism, I would have had a second cocktail, too.
The solution to this problem is to find free medicine, which for me comes from the library. We're a generation addicted to entertainment, so thank God for the public library system--and the internet, although that isn't free at home.
Meanwhile, my advice for writer-wannabe "Haunted" (Dreher asked readers to supply advice) was to start a blog about finding meaning in her life with an eye to helping other women in the same boat. That's what I did when I was 35, and it worked out very well for me.
UPDATE: One incurable regret is the age-related loss of fertility. Although I am still adamantly against women settling at 25 or 30 or at whatever age, I recognise that unintentional childlessness is crushing and the fear of remaining childlessness is worthy of honour. The only solution I can see to this is accelerating your character so that you are as wise about yourself and others at 20 as you would have been at 40. I haven't the slightest idea how a teenager could be expected to do that though.
UPDATE 2: Doing art is fun. Writing things is fun. Writing can even make you money although writing fiction rarely, or only after writing fiction for almost nothing for a very long time. But "being an artist/writer" in itself does not make you happy. It does not necessarily bring you into contact with great friends because artists and writers do not necessarily make great friends.