In his 1903 Letters to a Young Poet, Rainer Maria Rilke advised his eager and aspiring friend, to “be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart,” to try to love the questions, the “locked rooms,” the hidden alcoves and secret chambers of what lies ahead when we are young—”so young, so before all beginning.”
If only we could all go back to that time before all beginning. If only we might be privy to ourselves not after the fact of our coming of age, but en route to becoming the men and women we are today. If only we could pace along the sidelines of our decisions, ready to catch the foul balls that hurl toward us as children trying to find our way, as if now and back then were one and the same, as if we could pull ourselves aside to nurse our bumps and bruises before heading back out to the field, back into the water, back to the awkward date in the dimly lit bar.
Ryan Van Meter’s debut prose collection, If You Knew Then What I Know Now valiantly confronts this idea—that we cannot seek answers too early because we would not then be able to live them. In a series of fourteen essays that shift organically, and more or less chronologically, Van Meter looks back to the transformative moments of his past, reeling readers in as captive witness to his rural Missouri childhood as a closeted boy and his life as an openly gay man.
In “First,” Van Meter describes his five-year-old self sitting side by side with a boy in the very back of a station wagon. “What I know for certain right now is that I love him,” he writes, “and I need to tell him this fact.” Sitting backwards, turned away from their moms and dads “in this place that feels like a secret,” Van Meter faces the oncoming headlights, staring down a world they are steadily leaving behind.
It is this intimate observation, this secrecy, which lays the foundation of Van Meter’s collection while artfully spinning anecdote into essay. Van Meter’s prose is grounded in a present tense narrative, such that as readers, we, too, grow ever present, leaning in as we tour the back seats and back yards, the bedrooms and barstools, that hold the secrets of his most precious and awkward moments. As he plays with varying essay forms and point of view, Van Meter’s style illuminates his own journey of adaptation as a boy-turned-man, who both conforms and refuses to conform to the expectant world around him.
In “Lake Effect” we see Van Meter as a boy on a fishing trip packed with fathers and sons, where it is clear he himself is like a fish out of water amidst the noogies and headholds of male bonding. We see the image of him as a young boy on a houseboat, “so much water shimmering and vast in every direction,” as he considers the nature of names, definitions, labels: “There are some names for things that don’t fit if I think about them too much,” he writes. “How much does a thing have to resemble its word?” Like houseboat, or butterfly, or boy. Like a fish caught and released towards the water where it “splashes back into its own darkness.”
Raised in a household where it “seems unbelievable that a boy wouldn’t like sports,” and in a town where the men, who all attend the same 4H and steer shows, swap duck hunting stories at the gas station, Van Meter navigates his own alternative identity against the current of expectation. In “Practice,” he perseveres through a dreaded summer baseball season. In his adult lucidity, Van Meter illustrates how the act of practicing with his father, fielding (and inevitably missing) ball after ball, turned this all-American father-son pastime into a psychological pursuit, ad nauseam of “trying to be certain kinds of men we probably weren’t ever meant to be.”
Van Meter’s style carries a distinguished elegance and acuity that keeps us paging eagerly through his experience with our own childlike wonder, keeping pace on the heels of his attempts, following, sometimes playfully, sometimes painfully, as he essays towards understanding and ultimately, illustrates the profound discomforts of youth: a mix of pouty melodrama, sullen disobedience, and the longing that accumulates through overly practiced gestures and captured silences amidst the muted warnings and hushed stares that seem ever to solidify Van Meter’s childhood shame. Like those of his parents, who repeatedly throw him glances, mouthing, “Don’t do that.” Or his grandmother’s look of silent forbearance when she finds an eight-year-old Van Metter wearing a blue satin gown and watches him set the dining room table, adjusting the silverware, as he feels the hem of the gown swish around his legs. “We look at each other, a woman in her dress, a boy in his, one of us on each end of a perfectly set table for four,” he writer. “Here is a secret we both helped make, and in this moment we feel it dropping fully formed down into each of our bodies, whole and heavy, where it will sit forever.”
With each essay, we come to love this boy, who even in the third grade knows he would rather be “lying on blankets spread in the shade with a picnic packed for one, pretending to read Little Women” than practicing baseball. Or who knows, when he is on a youth group camping trip to Colorado—again, sitting next to a boy but this time in a bus, this time fourteen—that sitting anywhere else would be more comfortable than being crammed against the window in the last row of seats except that it’s next to the tall and solid sophomore on the varsity football team who Van Meter likes to imagine being helpless from a spider bite. We love, too, the man Van Meter becomes, who sits on a first date with a man and lists all the things he wants to say but won’t. How “like a sixth-grade girl with a pink notebook,” he writes, “I’ve thought about how our names go together.” Or, “That when I see you, I don’t know what to do with my body.” We come away not only with a greater passion for the intricacies of youth, but that what we recollect and reconcile as adults can carry as much urgency as a child’s cry for help.
Van Meter writes with generosity—sympathy perhaps—for even his most complex antagonists, the most twisted of the bullies. This is, after all, what Van Meter knows now. The title essay, “If You Knew Then What I Know Now,” written as an address to Van Meter’s sixth-grade self, revisits an exchange between boys and their encounter years later as men. You can almost imagine him reciting his title to a cast of characters—each more fully realized, more fully loaded with expectation than the last—each a greater threat to his world, which, like the back seat of a station wagon, like a lone dock on a still lake, or the seduction of a satin gown, is like a secret.
It seems easy to say if only we could all go back to address our former selves, our childhood selves, our vulnerable unknowing selves “so young, so before all beginning—.” But as much as we deserve to have known then what we know now, we wouldn’t be the same if we did. Van Meter is a writer who skillfully reveals how the convoluted thing called “coming of age” can be caught and released again, how past and future grow ensnared, how it burns and heals like a skinned knee or closeted crush, in all its discomfort, in all its charm and grace.