i’ve always had a love affair with letters. stamps. postmarks.
there was a day, seems unfathomable, when a hand-written compulsion to say something to someone, drew into action a literal labor of love: nib to ink well, carefully formed script etched across sturdy thick paper, blotted to keep the words from melting as the paper was folded and placed into an envelope, glued shut, for your eyes only. stamped, sealed, delivered, i’m yours.
more incomprehensible, for the cost of pennies, that letter would be carried in a saddlebag of well-worn leather, strapped across the back of a bolting, sweating pony, reined and ridden by a u.s. mail carrier, the romantic, the urgent, the brave pony express. for mere pennies. coast to coast, city to city, town to town, house to house, hand to hand. imagine the dna gathered from just one person’s intent to communicate with another. mind-boggling.
so, gather around kids. yes, kids. because the rest of us still know that i’m talking about.
i’m the last one to lecture, and i certainly would never condemn the magic making that comes from our wow world of gadgets. i love ’em to pieces. really. typing away, my mind churning out words that go to some invisible place once i push ‘publish’, and the wizards of invention have typed some weird codes, built incredible space orbiting antenna, designed really cool looking laptops, and pop whiz shazaam: there appear my words on your screen. it puts merlin to shame.
but, back to my own, my very own love affair with letters.
i did something the other day that was just incredible. rather, incredulous. i couldn’t even believe that i was doing it until it happened. you know the difference between all of those hundreds and hundreds of emails sitting in your inbox, or saved folders? at a quick glance, would you know, really know, who wrote them? the only differentiation, right, is the name of the sender, and potentially, the subject line. but beyond that, it’s a pretty anonymous business.
in a super busy time, my phone buzzes, chirps, alerts the heck out of itself. text after text after text. how many times have i ‘mis-sent’ a text, something intended for person a that inadvertently, goes to person b? that’s a pickle! really: i get inundated and after a while, they all sort of blend together into one stream of words, discombobulated in their purpose, meaning, intent. impersonal. indistinguishable.
i have an old wooden wine crate in my office. my printer sits on top of it, neatly tucked beneath my glass-topped desk. i see it all day long. i tap my toes against it when i’ve got some really good music blasting. i nudge and push it out-of-the-way if i’ve dropped a pen or have to reload the paper tray. it’s right there, right in the open. and it’s filled with love letters. my love letters.
without opening it, i know exactly what an archaeologist (or voyeur…or curious kid: hey, you kids: stay out of there!) would find if they lifted the metal latch and tipped back the wood hinged top.
gingerly tied with ribbon, or wax string, or restaurant menu elastic cords, sit stacks of envelopes & postcards, bundled accordingly. i don’t have to look to know the size of each bundle: yes, some wrote more than others. first loves, middle loves, later loves.
they’re all in there. safe and sound, swaddled and cherished, each a paper proof of a moment, of a word, of dancing sweet hopes through decades of walking to the mailbox, spying an envelope, recognizing the handwriting, feeling my heart beat faster. waiting until i was alone, in my room, my apartment, my cab, my car, my office, or my house, and only then, carefully tucking my finger beneath the fold of the back flap, coercing the gum to give way, and pulling out the folded paper.
i know the handwriting, the kind of pen each person chose. i see the way my name is written out. i know how they’d sign their names. i know the year and the city and the country on each postmark without having to dip into that box, the box that i am staring at now as i sit and type away on this fancy contraption. yes, a letter is the farthest thing from impersonal.
there was a horror story that my friends and i listened to, years ago, when the first of our friends was about to be married. there had been some dashing college love that had swept her off her feet, just before she met the fellow who she was now planning to spend the rest of her life with. she made the right choice, deliriously satisfied with a wonderful family and that happily ever after thing i’ve heard about. but, this other boyfriend, wow, was he exciting. like, really an eyeful, and so charismatic. but, solidly out of the picture, a part of her past, as she delightedly counted down the days before her wedding. so, here’s the part that really bugged me. in some late conversation between the betrothed, a shoe box was found which was filled with letters from this former boyfriend, the casanova. what happened next wasn’t pretty. the fiancée was upset, and an ultimatum was delivered: burn the box and everything in it, or the whole thing’s off. period. so, basically, erase your past, prove that no one came before this man who you are going to give your life to, and then, sure, we can go on with our plans. do it or else. so, we all know what happened, right? the box, and each lovely earnest heartfelt word scribble out by a college boy, years before, the ink probably fading, went up in flames. done. gone. up in smoke.
i have to laugh: my memory is so intact, if i had been the girl with the burned letters (no one has ever had the nerve to ask, much less demand, that i destroy mine, and they’ve all known, as i’ve moved my box from apartment to apartment, house to house, relationship to relationship, exactly what’s in it.), the yellow-red-orange and purple flames eating those letters up one by one wouldn’t have made them disappear. maybe to a suitor, for sure. (there, now do you feel better, you silly jealous fool?) but to me, for me, i don’t have to touch them to know that they’re there. i don’t have to look at them to know that they exist. i don’t have to read them to remember how i felt, how much they mattered, how differently i saw the world as i looked at words written on a piece of paper by a person who loved me.
so, the terrible thing i did the other day? gosh, i think it was yesterday, actually. i recently had a brief, bright, electric, wonderful, powerful six weeks with someone, ridiculously recorded in about 800 emails. it ended suddenly, against my wishes or will or hopes, poof, gone. that’s the worst, by the way. vanished. so, i’d kept this little file, this little cyber wine box, safely tucked away in my stacks of ‘folders’, on my computer, pushed way down in line. it stung to see the name.
after a while, i started to wonder, what are these worth? what does this prove?
nothing. intangible, impersonal. if i opened up one of them they’d look exactly the same as the email i get from sundance catalog for goodness sakes! i thought it over, muddled around a bit, feeling out what my feelings were, and then, without question or doubt, i moved the cursor over the file, took a deep breath, and clicked delete. and to show my absolute resolution, i went immediately to the trash folder and emptied that, too.
i guess if you’re lighting your own bonfire, that’s a different story.
my letters are tokens of moments in my life that have lifted me into those fairy tale moments of love. romantic love. i’m surrounded by the other kinds: couldn’t ask for better children, parents, family, or friends. love abounds and it’s spectacular. (i save those letters too, but not in the wine crate!) but what good would it do any of us, for goodness sakes, i’m fifty-one, to pretend that those letters own me now? that they could possibly act as a toxic poison to threaten any new person’s chances to have a place in my life? honestly! but, they’re irreplaceable, safe-guarded treasures. tangible proof.
so, as is my fashion, i’ve gone way all over the place here, and let’s reel this baby in. the people who wrote those letters have all been rearranged by time and circumstance, and their place in my life now is different. but the moments that those letters re-tell are priceless, rare, beautiful, honest, lovely. personal. intimate.
each note, postcard, card or letter: country to country, city to city, town to town, house to house, hand to hand, heart to heart.