For last month, I’ve been on an archeological colonoscopy into my past as I sorted through boxes and big plastic vats of papers and keepsakes. I was spurred into motion after Pittsburg State University enthusiastically agreed to house my papers, creating an archive of my writing and life, that at the least will serve as an auxiliary basement for a bunch of my stuff 136 miles south of here. But there’s an unexpected boon to dealing my past into many piles of paper: I discovered the riches I reaped through the letters I wrote and received.
I ran with a letter-writing pack, back when long-distance calls were astronomically expensive and long before emails and texts. Being a writer who connected with other people who loved to write, and even more so, loved to read, I found astonishingly in-depth correspondence with dear friends still central in life as well as ones I lost track of, and somewhat disturbing, some I can’t remember at all. Who were Dave and Ginny in Chicago, for example? What happened to beloved friends Margaret (last spotted in Arizona) and Carolyn 9last known address in New Mexico — it seems quite a few pals vanished into the Southwest)? 2hat was the last name of Steve, an old flame turned friend who wrote funny, wise, and sometimes fierce letters calling me on my shit (“Caryn, you shouldn’t be sleeping with you boss!”)?
The letters themselves are hardly ever short notes, often going on for three or four pages, front and back, sometimes much longer. There were beautifully penned letters from my sister-in-law Linda about adventures in Winnipeg and my pal Kathy about traveling the world as a journalist, piles of international missives in thin blue envelopes from my sister-in-law Karen from when she was in Kenya for three years building houses with Habitat. Some of the more local letters told me, “I’m sorry I didn’t listen to you when you were crying and freaking out the other day — I was just worn out” (oh, I was so dramatic in my 20s!) and “You helped me get in touch with my anger by borrowing my car without my permission and getting so many parking tickets” (I was so inconsiderate at times too). I was especially moved by a short note from Holly, a friend who died decades ago, written before her cancer, about how she loved me, and since we never know what’s coming in life, she was telling me now.
There were ten-page extravaganzas from old sweethearts or new colleagues-turned-friends-and-collaborators as well as heartfelt notes (with lots of hearts) from my sisters Jennifer and Lauren when they were kids. I found lovely cards full of words, often three times underlined, from my step-sister Wanda and typed slice-of-life intrigues from my mom. I even discovered a long letter I wrote to my dad about the failing state of the world in 1981 and how we needed to transform our political system, which he returned with a note on the bottom that said, “Your way will never work. I hope you find yourself.”
Mostly though the letters unfolded deep grappling with how to haul around the overpacked luggage of our emotions or the empty cupboards of our self-esteem. I was moved by the tender and raw honesty in many letters people sent me or I sent them (I kept copies along the way of some of my letters), looking face to face at where we found ourselves lacking or thought we were failing and, in equal measure, searching the mutable and abundant world for signs and wonders. It seems I confessed often to self-sabotage, pettiness, obsession, and mere stupidity while also praising bird song, the feel of the wind on my arms, the lush green fields (although they were full of chiggers and snakes), and the setting sun.
Out of wandering through the fields of my letters, I realized how much I missed some faded friendships, so this week, I’m going to Kansas City to have lunch with my old friend Ellen. I’m going to give her — as I’m also doing with other friends who are interested — the pile of her hilarious deep-dive-into-life letters. When I go to Vermont at the end of July, I’m handing Suzanne — one of my oldest friends (we met in a cave in mid-Missouri in January of 1980) — a bundle of her beautifully-written travels through interior and exterior landscapes.
Meanwhile, I’m wondering, even in this age of instant communication (such as I’m doing right now in this blog) if it’s time to start writing and mailing out letters again. Each one a meditation traveling in slow and real time that reminds me of the ties and the lines that bind.