Words

I used to write letters to a woman I was dating.

No, let me go back further.

The first time I was in love, I wrote love letters almost daily to a girl and she wrote me back. I still have a box of her letters. A collection I compiled in two years of correspondence. In some of my darker moments, those letters have held me together. They brought back the moment that I went to the town post office and opened up the mailbox. The scent of paper and wood, brass keys, and vanillin, which the post office still smells of today. To read those letters takes me back to being 17, 18, and just past 19, almost like a negative space of a memory, since what I can read is usually in response to what I had said.

A moment when someone was giddy to see me. Someone who valued me as only young lovers do.

Among the things spoken of in those letters were typical teenaged worries. Getting into college. Trying out for the basketball team, pondering what the future held. Expressions of affection and brief flirtations with passionate moments between two kids on the verge of adulthood. In those times, phone calls were expensive and the distance we had to travel to see each other in person was prohibitive. You could send a ten page letter for $0.29 and keep that conversation forever. Well, half of the conversation anyway. A summer romance turned into a nearly four year relationship, which eventually ran its course. The letters stopped long before that, especially since we lived only about an hour apart for the last few years. Somehow that three week romance in person set the groundwork and we continued to grow together through our letters.

I never wrote my ex-wife letters. We met in college. We saw each other all the time. And as it goes with bad marriages, I don’t think we ever really communicated well. I can attest that we lacked the intimacy that those letters provided in my past. Maybe one of us had a set impression on who they wanted the other to be. We didn’t grow together. We could only grow apart. Funny how that happens between two people. Actually it isn’t funny at all. It’s tragic. Telling.

So, after my divorce, I dusted off that romantic part of my heart that had either been unappreciated or unused. It’s hard to tell which. I dated a woman for a few years. But she stopped reading my letters, saying they were “too personal” as though she were reading my diary or something. The idea of something so personal made her cringe. And when things fell apart, which they sometimes do between people, I saw that my letters were not the same as that first love. Oftentimes, they were discussions on what was going wrong, which were never answered.

As you continue to grow, people come and go from your life. You meet, sometimes fall in love, and sometimes realize that you weren’t as compatible as you thought. The next relationship was better than the one before it, but a red flag was that the few letters I wrote to her, she only finished reading one or two. Over the years my handwriting has gotten bad. Arthritis and took much typing have turned an already difficult work of penmanship into something arcane and almost illegible. In the end, she couldn’t be bothered to finish reading them. And not to be one to keep track of affection–which I dislike–but I never got one back either.

Talk about throwing your heart to the wind.

I like writing letters because the words come together as a permanent stain of ink on paper. There is no deleting what was said at the moment. A hard drive can’t be dumped. You can carry it around with you all the time until the paper loses its scent and every word is etched into your memory, or you can keep it in a box that never needs updating or a subscription to keep. You have those words forever. Maybe your children or grandchildren have those words. The double edged sword is that a letter you write when you are sad also stays on the page forever, unlike a text which will just scroll away into obscurity. On those pages are heartache and tear stains.

I’ve had those too.

I used to work with an old rancher who corresponded with the likes of JFK and Johnny Unitas and many others. He told me the key to writing a letter was to just put the words down like you were having a conversation with someone sitting across the table from you. He wrote a letter of recommendation for me when I got my Eagle Scout award. He held true to his word. It was like he was just saying what he thought. The meaning was clear and concise. Sparse and ommitting anything unnecessary to weigh it down. I lost that letter in my divorce, but I can still see the way his words had found themselves on the page in my memory. He had such hopes for seventeen year old me, just starting out in life.

I don’t read the old letters anymore, because I have outgrown them like an old favorite sweatshirt or pair of boots. I’m in my forties now and ready to make new memories and have new adventures. Reading those letters to my old self feels a little too much like intruding on someone else’s life. I wish him the best, since he eventually grows up to be me. I’ll give him his privacy now.

Maybe I just keep too much old junk around the house.

But unlike typing something out or thumbing it through as a text in messenger, when you take the time to find a pen and paper and put words down, trying to write them as carefully as you can so that the person receiving them can read what you said, and doing it in such a way that your thoughts have to be linear enough to convey meaning–because there’s no cut and paste function in a spiral notebook–that carries weight. It has meaning. It’s about as close to a magic spell as any of us will get.

Or maybe I’m just an anachronism. I’d rather begin my message to someone I care about with “Dear…” than “Hey, you up?” And just maybe you’ll find that out of all the methods of expression that have fallen out of favor over the years in preference to instant gratification, there are just a few romantic souls out there who cannot wait to rip open that envelope and see what is waiting for them inside. And sometimes the scariest thing about getting a letter back is the anticipation of what the other person will say. Good or bad. There’s powerful magic in that too.

A stray piece of quiet

Today I hung my wet laundry out on the line. It was the first time in nearly twenty years I have done this. It was a different line then, just some old cotton clothesline between the slats in a corner of fence at a house we were renting as poor newlyweds. When the wind blew, it would thrash the clothes against the fence, taking splinters and seasons of dirt with it, depositing them back on our wet towels and sheets. We bought a dryer shortly after that, sending us further into debt. Just for the luxury of fluffy towels without needles of wood in them.

Today was a clear and calm day in the mountains. The sky is that shade of blue that you could almost cut yourself on. Just a few whisps of icy clouds drifting through to join thunderheads massing over the mountains to the east. I hung out my towels and sheets, comforters, and quilts on the twisted steel wire line. My grandmother’s old clothesline. Not some amateurish rig, this was a highly functioning, and unless it was raining or snowing, extremely reliable way to get the job done back in the day. Not long ago, every back yard had one. Long before we were being scolded by this generation about the kind of world we were leaving for them. We hung our clothes on the line and let the wind do the rest.

This evening, I felt a sadness, like eyes watching me from across a crowded room. Like someone watching me over the rim of their drink as they sipped at it through a tiny cocktail straw. And every time I tried to look in its direction, it shyly looked away. The house was quiet, the laundry brought in and folded and put away. The last light of the day fading as the sun slipped behind the mountains. The sadness became more pronounced. I recognized it as loneliness, regret, longing. It wasn’t mine, I knew that much. It was more like hearing a conversation through the walls of a house. That warm sound that used to fill the quiet of morning when you wake up in a new place and people are busy making coffee and speaking in that low tone to keep from waking anyone else.

What was this loneliness and why had it found me? Was someone missing me? An old lover who had been flooded with nostalgia and thoughts of what could have been? I wonder sometimes if they still think of me and what might have been. Though I am at peace with it now. I have my own path to walk, and wish them the best on theirs. May they never cross again.

Could it have been a close friend feeling overwhelmed but thinking their problems were a burden and rather than asking for help to carry the load, they just watched it boil over like a pot of noodles. Or was it my kids in some far off place, feeling shut off, but powerless in their world right now to do anything about it? After all, missing their dad would be a betrayal. The weight of growing up is hard and frightening and more than anyone should have to face alone.

Or maybe it was some stray feeling on the wind, caught by the hanging clothes like a net, which I unwittingly dragged in with the rest.

I invited this loneliness in and listened to it and started putting words down on paper. That sadness. That longing. Like the scent of tobacco clinging to old walls. Or the sound of peeper frogs singing in a creek, but are seldom seen. That desire for connection manifested itself into words and ink and expression. And when I was done, it was laid to rest.

Closure

I have often been told not to expect closure. But sometimes you find it in strange ways.

I mentioned in an earlier post that it was the anniversary of the end of my last serious relationship. The woman I dated and I had a big trip in May 2020 planned. Ten days in the UK. London then up to Edinburgh and back again. I had always wanted to take a trip like this, but because of COVID quarantine our relationship ended and with that, so did our plans.

I had $350 in AirBnB credits for my part of the stays that I had to use up before they expired, so when my mom, son, and I went to Washington to visit family, I used the balance to rent a cottage in Seaside for a couple nights that was just off the beach.

The strange thing was that my former girlfriend had lived in Oregon for nearly twenty years before moving back to Colorado. It was strange to be seeing and visiting many of the places she often talked about, without her. What was really strange about it was I didn’t feel haunted by her.

Truly a horrible place. *eyeroll*

Her take on Oregon was that it was a miserable place where it rained constantly and that the state flower was mold.

I don’t think I have seen a more beautiful place, even at the tail end of winter. The cold sea, the mossy trees, the sunsets, and yes, it did rain. It even snowed a little on the shore one day. But it wasn’t anything like she described. It was a place I could see myself returning to again and again.

I guess what I am saying is that my eyes were opened in many ways. I began to see fundamental differences in who we were as people. What our tastes and values were and more importantly how they diverged.

On this trip, I used up the last of the funds I had set aside for a trip with her, in a place she had lived, and in a weird way, I got closure out of that. The page was turned and the book was closed on that part of my life.

Photo by Clinton A. Harris March 2021