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Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Dear Reader, Whoever You May Be

Enter ghost town!

One windy afternoon here in the high desert, while removing membrane from sections of grapefruit for a citrus-based salad, I fell to musing about friendships in my life that have been nurtured by the exchange of handwritten letters. The thought was not unusual, since I am far, far from my Michigan home. Laurie, Ellen, and Leonore, all back in Michigan, came first to mind, friends very much still in my life. 

Laurie and I met on her return from a year in Spain and saw each other occasionally in Kalamazoo, since our husbands were old friends, but only when she left to live in South America and we began writing one another leisurely epistles recounting events in our respective lives did we begin truly to know each other. It was different with Ellen. She and I had worked together before she and her husband moved to Arizona for a year, and writing letters seemed natural to us both. Leonore and I were friends in Kalamazoo, where our children were in school together, but letters between Michigan and Colorado when she and her family were living out West brought us close in a new way. With all three of these friendships, someone I knew in one context went to live far away from the place where we first knew each other, so perhaps part of my interest in writing and being written to was a desire to enlarge my own world.

Sarah investigates cattle path

There is something intimate about a handwritten letter, too, and no doubt some of its value comes from the rarity of such communication in our modern lives. We have no need to write letters, buy stamps, and delay the gratification of knowing our efforts have been received and appreciated, when it is so simple to make a phone call or send a text or an e-mail. Because letters are not necessary, and time to write a letter must be intentionally carved out of a busy life, the friend who takes the time to write adds something valuable to the friendship. 

But — a confession! At least one of my friends understands that my letters to her are just as much self-indulgence as they are gifts to her! In one letter to her years back I quoted from M.F.K. Fisher, writing to one of her correspondents, the passage an admission on Fisher’s part that letter-writing, for her, took the form of an addiction. Yes, there is that, too! So the friends who receive my letters are doing me a great kindness, indulging me for having given way to an overwhelming compulsion.

Ed and I began writing letters to one another in French but have fallen off lately. I remember how long I would labor over letters to my friend Helene in Paris and how pleased I was when she complimented my efforts. Something new this year: thrilled that I am now working too learn Spanish, my friend Laurie encourages me to write to her in Spanish. These missives in other languages lack the spontaneity and ease I feel with English, but writing them affords me a particular sense of accomplishment — and I love the letters I get in return, too.

For many years I had a couple of good friends who never answered my letters in kind but would pick up the phone from time to time, and that worked for us in those relationships. I was uncomfortable making phone calls, and they were not good at writing letters. I still miss the surprise of a call from M., whose present whereabouts are unknown to me, though I have tried repeatedly to locate her. And I cherish the memory of an actual letter from L., the first and last I ever had from her, written in the winter before she died. We were looking forward to a spring visit in Arizona, and when she wrote she recalled our first Arizona visit twenty-three years before. Well, we did have the anticipated second Southwest visit, a lovely time of reconnection. I thought there would be many more to come, but though I can see her no longer, her letter assures me still that our meeting was as important to her as it was to me.

I miss my letters from Helene, another friend whose death hurt my heart, and I miss letters from Annie, too, mon amie philosophe fauve, her ashes now sprinkled at the site of the ancient stone circle of Avebury. What joy it was to find their letters waiting for me in the post office box!

Naturally, I have e-mail correspondence, too. In fact, e-mail letters are already an almost obsolete form, aren’t they? Old-fashioned! But the friends with whom I exchange e-mail messages are mostly of my generation (or are understanding family members a generation younger), and we compose our messages in the manner and with the care we would take to write letters on paper. “Dear Kathy,” I begin, and she begins “Dear Pamela.” Kathy and I pay attention to paragraphs and spelling, and we try to entertain each other with lively description. 

Recently a friend on Facebook sent me a link to a feature article about writers and their diaries and journals. Of all the writers appearing in the story, the one that meant the most to me, the only one that brought a catch to my throat, was Anne Frank. She had never kept a diary before and probably never would have except in hiding; in her normal, prewar life, she was a sociable, outgoing young girl, and had her family been able to escape altogether lands occupied by Nazis, I can easily imagine her writing letters to real living friends back in Holland, not to the imaginary friend “Kitty” she had to invent. When I first read her diary, I was the same age she had been when writing it, and I longed to have been able to exchange letters with the living Anne….

A diary may be hidden away or published in multiple volumes. Writers of private journals intend different ends for them, and it seems to me that the future a writer imagines for his or her diary — whether forever private or completely public — must affect the writing. Some writers wanted their private writings destroyed, but posterity decided otherwise. What would those writers think now, could they return and see their most personal and heartfelt struggles printed and bound and offered for sale in the marketplace?

I have never kept copies of my letters written to friends, and Books in Northport, this blog, now in its eleventh year and public though it is, is the closest I have ever come to keeping a journal of my life with any discipline. My letters, it should surprise no one, often contain more personal thoughts, but the images in this public log give it a dimension the letters lack. 

And what occurred to me over the citrus bowl — the goad to my sitting down and writing this post at all — is that every post published here is like a letter in a bottle, tossed out onto the waves, to be found and read by anyone or no one. When I release it to the world, it is out of my control. Sometimes, as was the case when I was 17 and went with a friend one night a week to a local radio station to take call-in song requests, I wonder if there’s anyone out there in the dark at all. Other times I am surprised to learn how far a specific letter has traveled, on what shore that bottle washed up. 

“Dear reader” is an old-fashioned literary conceit, but I am an old-fashioned person — a bookseller, a reader of print books, and a handwriter of letters to friends. I don’t even have a “smart” phone! All of which is to say, as I struggle for a way to bring this post to a graceful close, that when you read Books in Northport, you are reading as much of a diary as I will ever write, and you are also reading a letter from a friend, whether or not we ever meet face to face. And I do thank you, once again, for indulging me as you do in this strange compulsion.

Sincerely yours, 


Simple materials


Anonymous said...

Did you ever read Derrida's The Post Card? This reminds me of the imagery and playfulness at work there.

Edmund said...

Mon amie, Je suis désolé d'avoir été absent avec ma lettre d'écriture. Mea culpa! J'espère m'améliorer cette année! Je vais faire un séjour linguistique en France encore cet été.

Tal vez podemos hablar en español. Es más fácil para mí y veo que estás estudiando español.

Diga "Hola" a David.

Barbara Stark-Nemon said...

Any which way you choose to write your thoughts, Dear Pamela, they are a pleasure for your readers!

P. J. Grath said...

Have read considerable Derrida (in years past) but don't recall THE POST CARD. Will keep in mind for future reading.

Ed, I didn't mean to call you out in a bad way. My fault as much as yours. And now the dilemma: Spanish is easier for you, French easier for me. Si on écrit moitié français, moitié espagnol?

Barbara, it is always a pleasure to have a line or two -- or more! -- from you, too!