Falling In Love With Letters

 

Once I fell in love via a correspondence of letters.

Well, maybe “fell in love” might be a bit strong language. I had met him only briefly, we had both stopped our bicycles at the same stoplight. I told him his bicycle was beautiful (which was true) and he told me it was borrowed (also true).

Turned out he was only visiting an old friend and was leaving town in a few days, to return to his job leading groups into and out of the backcountry of Colorado.

The correspondence lasted a number of years. There were some periods when we did not write at all, and other periods when I would stay home for a whole day when his letter arrived reading it again and again and crafting the words to send back.

The experience was powerful, dreamy, romantic. There was a winter that he wrote me many letters from an observation tower, where he sat watch over a horizon of snow covered forest. The latent fiction writer in me writes Rapunzel on a chalkboard and draws an arrow pointing to the word, crossing their arms in front of their chest.

There are pieces of myself that can only really be reached with the written word, parts of the human experience that can’t be testified in conversation. These are the parts that I sent in my letters, and these are the parts I received back. We wrote of dreams and ideas, thunderstorms and runes in canyon walls, mountains, hope. What we exchanged were prose poems, were symbols and images. I came to know him through the shapes of his letters on the page. I came to imagine his hand, pausing uncertainly, leaving a small bleed of black ink into the fiber of the paper. It was an intensely intimate relationship, an exchange enacted entirely through a language of papers and handwriting, envelopes and drawings, scraps, poems.

Although no word was ever written explicitly acknowledging so: I was entranced.

One day I opened a letter that said he was coming back to Knoxville again, to visit his family. My heart raced. I looked around the bedroom beyond my desk. Coming here? It was impossible and thrilling

It was fall, the grasses dry and rattling, the sky constantly looming grey. We walked the mowed path along the bend in the river that holds Seven Islands Wildlife Preserve, hands swinging uneasily at our sides. Later we sat at a booth in Pres Pub until the bar closed, drinking pints and arguing amicably with my friends. Even later we hiked the 12 miles to Mt. Cammerer fire tower and back, digging our boot toes into the snow and watching the spindly trees emerging from their crusted white blanket, tracks of animals long gone preserved in crystal and filled with purple shadow. We tried hard to find it, but we were left grasping at straws without our language of papers and ink.

In the end we had to resign ourselves that something had been lost forever when we met in presence. The relationship that had sustained itself in deepest intrigue for as long as it existed in written word had instantly crumbled at the physical meeting of two incongruous individuals. We have not written since.

 

 

Do I think that our letters lied? No, nor do I think our relationship of correspondence any less true or valuable.

For the last six weeks I have sat with an amazing group of writers as led by Holly Haworth in a writing intensive held at the Birdhouse Community Center in 4th and Gill. One of the gifts of this experience has been an essay entitled The Limit by Christan Wiman. In it, he tells us:
To be a writer is to betray the facts. It’s one of the more ruthless things about being a writer, finally, in that to cast an experience into words is in some way to lose the reality of the experience itself, to sacrifice the fact of it to whatever imaginative pattern one’s wound requires.

 

The act of writing shapes our memory of our experience in the world, but this is the way that our memory is structured, as well. The act of remembering deteriorates our memories, and every time we revisit a favorite moment the experience becomes less the reality of what it was. Over time it becomes a story that we tell ourselves. It becomes part of our personal mythology. I do not see this as a loss, I see this as meaning-making.

 

 

I have been writing for my whole life. I can remember a lined journal bound in blue denim printed with glitter stars full of wild and looping little-girl handwriting telling the stories of my dreams. I wrote a heap of mediocre five paragraph essays in High School, a heap of slightly less mediocre 5-7 page essays in college. I have written scores of letters, and many of my favorite relationships have been sustained in this way. And all this time I have kept a journal.

Mediocre assigned essays aside, all of this writing has been only for me. Even the letters were mostly for me. Writing has been the way that I transform the infinite and disorganized information of my experience of being alive into a mythology of sorts, into a set of stories that I tell myself, into who I am and where I come from.

When I started this blog it was mostly for myself, too. I wanted a reason to push myself to a sort of coherence in my writing. My journal is, as it should be, full of half-thoughts and half-sentences, streams of consciousness and the occasional seething rant or wallow in miserableness. Sharing my stories seemed like a great way to push myself to the next level of crafting them.

Last I checked, 170 people read my last blog post. Frankly speaking, that scares the shit out of me. The first post I wrote two months ago got six views. All of a sudden people are calling me a writer, and at least once a day in the middle of a conversation someone will say, “Yea, I know. I read your blog.” Somehow it dumbfounds me every time. “You read it? Why?”

Just to be clear: I don’t have the slightest idea what I’m doing here. I’m just trying to make some sense out of being alive, the same as everybody else.

Just to be clear again: I’m so glad you all are reading this. If the sense I make is of value to you, too, then I am so happy. Just don’t go getting any funny ideas like I’ve got it all figured out, cause I can assure you I’m just as muddled as the rest of us.

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