How many ghosts can fit in a suitcase?
Its covered in dust, and the handle is broken. I open it for the first time in years, trying to find a legal document from 2002. Whats in there? Old catalogues... pamphlets... photocopied journal articles...
And letters. An avalanche of letters. Hundreds, easily. And for each one in front of me is one I wrote, out there somewhere, in someones attic or an accommodating landfill.
Im not surprised, but I am a little disturbed. These letters bring with them a sense of failure, and loss.
For anyone under 30 who might be reading this, a letter is sort of like an email, except made from paper, and with a delivery time measured in days rather than nanoseconds. My friends and I used to write them to each other. This was not casual. Many of the letters stretch out over several pages, and are carefully composed. Mine were of similar length and quality.
Strange to think what a large part of my life letter-writing must have occupied. But it did. It kept me constantly engaged. If I had time between classes, or a spare hour before I went to bed, there was always something to do. I kept up with it. Not obsessively, but doggedly, steadily, throughout my late teens and 20s.
I started writing letters in earnest after I went away to college. I had friends from high school to keep up with. Most of these letters were mundane, just summaries of what was going on around us. We talked about our feelings, but only briefly, and for the most part only to insist that we felt the way we thought we were supposed to feel. This was not dishonest. We tried, we really did, but self-knowledge is a difficult, elusive thing, and we werent ready for it.
Over time, the letters to my high school friends became less and less frequent. No ones fault. When I graduated, I had a new group of friends to keep up with. College friends.
The tone of these letters is different. I am struck by how impressed with ourselves we all were. We were educated, or so we thought, and we wanted to show this. We were so desperate to be profound. The value of simplicity was, for the most part, lost on us. We had not yet learned the difference between cleverness and intelligence.
Sincerity, I think, saves these letters from irritating pretentiousness. We werent smart, but we did truly want to be. We were willing to make sacrifices for that. We thought ideas were important.
Reading these letters, I can see the adults we wanted to become. I have, in some small measure, achieved this. I write more in a typical week now than I did then. Ive read many more books. If I havent gained wisdom, Ive at least managed to put my foolishness and ignorance in context.
Why, then, the sense of failure, of loss? Because I no longer write letters like these. All of my correspondents have slipped away. I still have brief, rare exchanges with a few of them, but whatever we were trying to preserve, was not preserved.
A few correspondents I lost for a particular reason. Like J, who became so insufferable after he decided he was in love. And A, when we had that argument about Shakespeare that wasnt really about Shakespeare. Most of them, though, just faded over time. No fight, no animosity, not even any formal goodbye.
I have email these days, but somehow this isnt the same. Its instantaneous nature makes people impatient, and good letter-writing requires patience. Very few of the emails I have received are worth saving.
What can I do with all these letters? I certainly cant throw them out. The ghosts are well-mannered now, but if provoked they would respond with vicious, regretful haunting, reminding me of what was lost.
I sometimes think about organizing the letters. One stack for each correspondent, all of them arranged in chronological order. This I will never do. The resulting piles would look too much like monuments grave markers and I dont need that point driven home to me any more than it already has been.
Back in the suitcase they go.