We are stardust, we are golden…

It was the Friday night before the July 4th weekend, about 8 o’clock, and I was puttering around my apartment, gazing happily at a clean expanse of freshly painted white brick and batting away the occasional dark thought of social and professional failure

Too restless to be productive, I checked Facebook. Then my email. There was a new message, from a name I didn’t recognize, and the subject line: “A Beginning”—your story? I read it by rote, skimming, until I realized with a tiny shock that the sender was asking me about a story that I had written when I was 15, that had won a contest and been published in Seventeen magazine. In 1965. Do the math.

I went back to the email and slowly, as if I were sneaking up on myself, I read:

Dear Tracy: I just received my eBay purchase: the January 1965 issue of Seventeen with “A Beginning” in it. Then I found your web site and I’m hoping with that I have found the author.

I’m turning 60 this fall, but when I was 15-/12 and read this story, it touched me so deeply that I have never forgotten it. The memory came back to me for some odd reason a few weeks ago — I still remembered the first lines — so I began cruising to see if I could find it. Really, whatever your want is out there somewhere and pretty easy to find these days; so, now it’s back home with me. In high school I cut it out of the magazine and carried it, folded up, in my journals for years it seemed, but somewhere along the way in my 20’s it got lost.

I thought re-reading now at this late stage in my life it might seem different, less powerful. I wondered if it would lose its magic, but no. No. I re-read it and that young woman that I was came pouring back. I am writing just to tell you that your writing and that story in particular helped get me through many hard adolescent times. The young woman who wrote that story, the young woman in the story, was like a soul sister to me, and I recognize her still. So, thank you.

I found your web page on the internet and was so happy to discover that you stayed with it and have had such a creative life. I’m sure those with whom you have worked and lived also felt blessed by your talents. So put this in your pile of fan letters along with my best wishes and my hope that your dreams continue to come true. — Mary Pougiales

I sat stunned for a moment. Then I went to my bookshelf and searched in vain for the yellow spiral notebook where I’d scratched out the story—a sort of journal, really—that I’d sent, as a joke, or a dare, to Seventeen.

I hadn’t reread the story in years, and when I did— after blowing the dust off a hardcover volume of Prize Stories from Seventeen—I found myself less impressed by my precocity (frankly I was appalled) than by this stranger who had gone to the trouble of tracking it down after all these years.

“Everything that exists can be found, ” said my friend Mike Shatzkin, when I told him about the email. “That’s the source of the revolution.” Mike is a publishing visionary who blogs about the digital apocalypse. And he has a point. There is something deeply thrilling about Google, and even eBay.

But what thrills me even more is the power of imagery: that words you read when you were fifteen, if they contain an image that is alive to you, can stalk your thoughts at sixty. Lynda Barry talks a lot about this in her writing workshops and her latest book, What It Is. “Images do not decay,” she says. They travel through space and time unhindered,

When I wrote the story, so many years ago, I had no idea what I was doing, or why, except that it helped me in some way. I was a gloomy, self centered adolescent, in deep shit at school and estranged from my family. When the story was published, I felt vindicated, even though the boy I loved loved someone else, my best friend wasn’t speaking to me, and I didn’t get into Harvard. I had gotten a letter from a young woman in India—India! — who wrote that she identified with the young girl in the story.

Suddenly it all made sense.

Somewhere along the way, I forgot the point of the story. I spent decades living a charmed life, I guess. I won a few more contests, and best of all I was able to make a living as a writer right up until just a few years ago when I was spit out of my magazine career in the first wave of casualties: too old, too expensive, already a dinosaur in a soon to be extinct industry. Is it any wonder I have the occasional dark thought?

So I am sitting home alone, wondering if I should do something more productive than futz with my hard drive, and if so what exactly is it that I should be doing, then ping! the email. Now I understand all over again.

So here is what I decided to do. I retyped the whole story into a Word doc, and posted it. You can read it if you want right here.

Then I wrote to Mary and told her that I wanted to write about getting her email—as long as she didn’t mind. She replied:

Dear Tracy,

Please feel free to write whatever you wish about this sprinkle of stardust — that’s what it feels like to me. I think we all have a sweet obligation to let poets (in whatever form they arrive) hear of our gratitude so that the quick and easy criticisms can’t do permanent harm to their spirits.

Thank you again, Mary, for the stardust. I hope I can spread it around.