Midway through the journey of life, I found myself in the dark basement rummaging through boxes from my past. I'd held onto them like life preservers, as if they'd keep me from drowning when the present was a roiling sea.
Now, the basement was loaded down. I needed to cast off something to make way for the new.
One box held all the letters I'd received from family and friends. Although letters have gone the way of the telegraph and fax, I loved them the way I loved mixtapes — they were windows onto a world that no longer existed, a world vividly sung, a world one person shares with another, not a Facebook status update.
Sitting in my basement, I hungrily reread 25 years of them. I read them, in truth, not simply to toss them, but to cast back to who I'd been, who others thought I was.
Although I'd originally rubber-banded them haphazardly in clumps, I now stacked the letters by author on the plane of our pingpong table.
Small hills and mountains of carefully handwritten words began to grow — the largest Rockies from my wife and from my parents, but substantial Appalachians from friends, some of whom I had not seen in years, even decades.
There was the childhood pal, always the wildest of our group, who during his frat year got arrested. He wrote a 10-page letter from jail trying to explain how he'd thought it would be funny to use his BB gun to shoot someone in the butt.
There was the old college buddy who, stuck at home for the summer, questioned the goodness of God and confessed his own fears of failure.
Girlfriends and would-be girlfriends penned lines I'd considered as carefully as what I'd hoped was between the lines. When my wife was my girlfriend — how beautifully, how enticingly she could put words together, better than anyone else, painting a picture I wanted to enter.
And, through the years, my parents offered the constancy of their encouragement — encouragement that was both gift and weighty inheritance.
Although I loved catching up with the past, I didn't need the letters anymore. So I sent handfuls back to the friends who'd written them. I wanted to give them back an older version of themselves, one perhaps they'd also lost touch with, and maybe get in touch with the new version, the one I didn't really know.
I also asked them to send back any letters I'd written to them, hoping to close the circle.
The friend who'd used his BB gun against the backsides of passersby joined the Army and went to medical school. He is now both a veteran and a doctor, saving and healing lives.
In one letter, which detailed his romantic exploits and future prospects, he named Jenny, saying, "This one could last awhile." She has, and they have. Twenty-plus years later, he emailed that they are still married, with teenage boys — the age when he began to go wild.
The college buddy who questioned God is now a priest, working with young seminarians who are the age he was when he wrote that letter. When he emailed back, he said that it caused him some sadness to see he'd questioned God, because he felt God's presence so fully now.
Maybe, I wrote back to him, it's good to recall our dark nights of the soul.
It's hard in midlife's confidence or turmoil to recall just how thorny and turbulent life can be in early adulthood. (When I went back to my college journals, I was shocked to see how much I'd struggled, since I'd long thought of that time as full of richness and joy — though there was richness and joy as well.)
Everyone who read the old letters I'd sent them expressed embarrassment at their youthfulness, their dorkiness, their dark nights.
I loved them as I had loved them then — maybe even more so, for being so human, so open.
I can't tell you how many letters I received back then, whether from family or friends or girlfriends, that ended with "love." As if we were less ashamed of expressing love when we were younger or the letter's distance of space and time allowed it.
Other than my wife and my parents, nobody had kept my old letters.
That window into who I was, how I put together words to connect to far souls who I wished to bring near, had closed.
I miss the patience and care and Eros of handwritten letters. Page after page, we were trying to draw someone closer simply by describing the details of a day, by recalling a shared past, by expressing hope that in some future we would, again, be together — a future when all these words would be almost unnecessary.