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  • Writer's pictureZanny Merullo Steffgen

How Does it All Lead Here?

Inspired by Mari Andrew’s latest newsletter about “getting rid of stuff for a clearer future,” I decided to focus on decluttering my life this month to make way for a much-needed fresh start after returning home from travels. Part of that decluttering has meant diving into my Gmail, where I’ve accumulated over 8,000 emails in the last eight years. Apart from deleting the odd Upwork notification or note from a “long-lost cousin” who needs $5,000 fast, I’ve left much of my inbox untouched during that time period, choosing instead to shell out for extra cloud storage. I’m too sentimental to “select all” and delete, and would rather wade through old memories and eliminate unnecessary messages one by one. You might call me pausing that task to write this blog post procrastination. I call it the undeniable pull of the creative spirit. You’re probably right.
Because I’m barely into my mid-twenties, I can’t yet call myself an expert on looking back at life. Even so, I have learned that, once a phase of life becomes a memory, it also becomes a set narrative in your head. After a few years, you begin to so strongly believe in this polished narrative that any fact from that time that doesn’t quite fit catches you by surprise. Or at least that’s how I feel looking back at old emails. There are the mundane messages–school essays I sent my dad for a once-over before submitting, articles forwarded to me by family members and friends with the subject line “you’ll like this,” confirmation emails from hostels I booked a bunk in while traveling–and then there are the ones that provide an intimate glimpse into my former world and state of mind. The kind of glimpse you don’t quite get from diary pages, photographs, or stories.
There’s the email I sent a prospective study-abroad student after returning to Massachusetts from my half-year of high school in Italy. With far too many exclamation points, I confidently gave a young teenage boy (someone the program connected me with) tips for convincing his parents to let him study abroad. Then there’s the link I sent my dad to a web page about a volunteer program in Naples, Italy that I’d stumbled across while planning my gap year (his response: “I like the looks of this… If you don’t mind living in a room with eight people.” the reality: I loved some of those eight people so much I met up with them two years later for a reunion in what became my second favorite city in the world). There are the weekly notes exchanged with my fellow volunteers when I spent Thursday afternoons playing with homeless children as part of a program near my home in Western Massachusetts and the emails that show how we went to battle for the kids after they’d confided in us that some of the other volunteers mistreated them. Next, I found the many magazine rejections I received after submitting one of my first polished essays, and the supportive emails from my dad, who reassured me that I wouldn’t always feel this overwhelmed; that someday I’d build a life I love. “For now, enjoy this day.”
As I click further and further through my inbox (after fewer deletions than I probably should make), it’s as if I see the forming of the human being who is now Zanny Merullo Steffgen, one email at a time. To some, the Worldpackers confirmation email from Siem Reap’s Tipsy Turtles Bar and Hostel might just look like proof from the website that I’d signed up to volunteer for room and board. To me, it’s the first interaction I had with my future husband, and the email that solidified a massively important part of my future. What’s even more fascinating to me than the markers of future steps I took, however, are all the emails that show parts of my life that fizzled out into dead ends. There’s the volunteer trip to India I almost signed up for, taunting me with a “your interview was successful! one week left to confirm your trip!” (read: what I almost did instead of meeting my husband in Cambodia), or the email from the temp agency that placed me in a part-time catering gig after high school, this time offering me a full-time office assistant job I briefly considered taking.
Then, there are the emails that stand as reminders of small yet beautiful moments that have since blurred into the memory of the passing days, moments that are not necessarily part of the narrative I cling to about my earlier days. Like the notes exchanged with beloved teachers after high school, or the fan email I sent after I loved an adventure memoir I picked up in a bookstore on a road trip. The author’s response revealed that he lived just up the road from me, so then there were follow-up emails setting up a time to meet for coffee, then a walk, then a Thanksgiving party and a weekly singing group with my new friend and mentor. I stumbled across the email denying my request to audit a Russian Literature course at Smith College, which I’d ignored in favor of asking the teacher if I could sit in on classes anyway. (Even if I wasn’t officially a student, it was still one of the best classes I’ve ever taken). During that time in my life, I worried about finding a future that fit me and wondered if any of the activities I pursued would help bring me there. Looking back five years later, I realize that those experiences didn’t bring me to my future life or career, exactly, but served as the building blocks of my future mind. Looking back, those seemingly random moments were central to my foundation.
Perhaps the most important realization this little decluttering exercise has prompted is that all of those emails (and the experiences, people, and opportunities attached to them) led me right here. I haven’t found a place to live that feels like home, and the future (near and far) feels more obscured than ever, but I found a person who feels like home and pushed through all those rejection letters (and a few dozen more) to a place where I now write full-time. I don’t wonder about all the paths not taken, mostly because the path I did take was so magnificent that it leaves no room for regrets. But as I hit a phase of life almost as bewildering as ages 18-20, it’s comforting to know that all the rejections, opportunities, seemingly insignificant messages, and confirmation emails I’m receiving right now are paving the way toward that next strong, glorious, and unshakeable future version of myself. So I’ll weed out the old emails, leaving the few that feel the most significant, and look forward to the next time I’ll do this–5-10 years down the line, with some 10,000 odd emails accumulated, and whole new stories of what was and what will never be.

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Jul 08, 2022

Wow! The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree! Your writing is amazing. You have at least a dozen or so novels in that post! Live your passion!


Dennis DiPaolo
Dennis DiPaolo
Jul 07, 2022

Wow. You have a wonderfully intelligent and mature outlook on yourself and life. Plus, you're a great writer.

Your parents have to be amazingly proud of you.

Thank you very much.


Ed Travels
Ed Travels
Jul 07, 2022

I love reading your articles. I truly appreciate your honest insight. Keep it up.

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