The December January summer break is a time when the psyche can take its own direction. I find that satisfying. Things build up through the year, and then there’s space to sort it all out. This summer I was so happy. I got letters, both with interesting enclosures. Traditional personal correspondence is somewhat archaic now, and pretty scarce.
Nonetheless paper is stuff. Both of my friends asked the same question: what should I do with all the letters you’ve sent over the years?
I wrote back saying that I’d kept their letters, and that one day, when I’m at my leisure I’m going to review all my correspondence. Yes, it takes storage space but I treasure it. Envelopes, stamps, handwriting. The inclusions. I’m not letting go! I couldn’t suggest what they do with mine.
Associations and worlds
What is it I find so nurturing about correspondence? It’s to do with the voice-handwriting association. I hear the voice more strongly on folded pieces of paper than I do in email. Or is it a certain voice that I hear that I don’t hear on email? The reflective voice. The voice that composes while listening to the world. Handwritten personal letters come from a private world. There’s a pot of tea. A window. And the weather outside.
We had a beautiful steady healing rain falling all night. This morning’s bird calls sound like water flowing.
It’s been the coldest spring in 15 years, making the first sunshine this June even sweeter. WASHING DRIES OUTSIDE. It is so exciting. Ferns are unfurling …
We’re experiencing very hot dry weather at the moment. A lot of the lawns round town look like ploughed paddocks. I’ve been saving the washing water to put on our grass.
Personal correspondence in the digital age is informal, brief, quick and can even be to a template! It’s usually to the point. Generally easy to let go. Hearing from you by email can be just as wonderful as by snail mail. Why don’t I ever think of printing it out and making it stay? By its nature email is a public, passing medium. Every email can immediately be sent on to someone else. All the messages on any topics pile together holus bolus in the ever-full Inbox.
The correspondence love project
When I think of correspondence as a love project, I think of the words Dear and Dearest. Not Hi. The way Thank you often appears at the start of letters. Or an impression of the other: I’ve thought of you so many times. How are you?
Love projects are mysteries with their own life. In the case of correspondence, there’s the paradoxical idea in its etymology of mixing or ‘together, with (each other)’ and respondere ‘to answer’.
Writing to and fro from Melbourne and San Francisco, my friend Tova and I have always shared poems we’ve written, drawings and paintings we’ve done.
We also bring publicity for events we’ve attended to each others’ notice. We practice Zen Buddhism. In November, at her Zen Center they’d just had an event Sickness, Ageing and Death. I wished I’d been there.
‘At San Francisco Zen Center, we view death as a normal process, a natural part of life,’ the flyer says. ‘As Zen Buddhists we consider death as a teaching. It reveals and enriches our understanding of impermanence, compassion and interconnection.’ Tova knew I’d have a strong interest. She didn’t write much, but when she visits next year I know we’ll talk about it.
Those letters I’m keeping are not going to last. Impermanent, infused with compassion and interconnection, they’re a love project for now. Someone else may well have to deal with them when I go.
Going through papers
‘My cousin … and I going through my mother’s papers, came upon a poignant and upsetting correspondence,’ writes Annie Proulx in Bird Cloud, in a family story. For those of us who are not letting go of letters this is something to think about. My friend Janet once told me of the time after her father’s death when she and her sisters found a letter written when her middle sister was six months’ old. He’d written that she was an unprepossessing baby. This reinforced unhappiness that had simmered between them at different times in their relationship, and became a lasting bad memory.
Letters are powerful. ‘I can now barely open the box that holds those letters,’ says Annie Proulx.
We’re impermanent. It’s a fact. If possible, let’s be compassionate in considering what happens with our letters, knowing how they they connect to others even when we’re out of the picture.