An old friend and colleague of mine and I were talking about how short the time gets in middle age — not just because it’s finite and you start calculating how much is left, but because you suddenly have all these obligations to family and career, and the hours and days evaporate. When you’re in your twenties and thirties it seems like you’re just goofing off until your real life starts, but once your real life does start, it turns out to take up all your goddamn time, and you yearn for the goofing off. Last summer I made a conscious effort to spend some afternoons doing what I used to devote most of my time to when I was young — writing long, thoughtful letters to friends. It was one of the few things I’d done in recent years that felt really voluntary, lazy, free. It was such a pleasure it felt like procrastination — just as it did in my twenties, come to think of it. I used to think I should really be working on my novel instead, not realizing that those letters were my novel. They were what made me a writer. Friendship and goofing off were always my real vocation; writing was just a by-product, one that now, luckily, makes me a little money.
Maybe all of literature is just what Burian described: a note hastily handed off to someone as you pass in transit, some stray observations and a few fleeting thoughts, before you have to go.
I’m not sure the opinion of your adolescent self is the surest moral polestar. You make most of the biggest decisions in life, the ones that’ll determine its trajectory for the next decades — what you want to do, where you’ll go to college, who you’ll marry — when you have the least amount of data to base them on, and not the vaguest understanding of what their real-life implications will be. Later, you get so lost in the thicket of complications, compromises, and forfeitures that the memory of what you thought you wanted when you were 12 is often your only clue to who you really are, like an ice core sample from a thousand centuries ago, before there was a particle of pollutant in the virgin sky. Herman Melville kept a quote from Schiller over his desk: “Stay true to the dreams of thy youth.” Whether this advice worked out for Melville depends, I guess, on your priorities: He left behind one of the most cryptic and astonishing monuments in world literature, but ended his days stuck in a crappy day job he hated.