Kibbutz, Making Friends, Memory, Mindfulness, Relationships, Writing

Return to sender

I let go of Shira yesterday.

I called her up on the phone, walked over to her house, met her on the path there, and let her go.

She laughed.

So did I.

It was swell.

I had in my hand 18 year old Shira.

With love, I gave her back. To 40 year old Shira.

Some would call this surreal. Others would call it silly. I call it an extraordinary gift.

How did it happen?

In my cardboard boxes, I found letters. Shoeboxes filled with letters. Composition notebooks bookmarked for years with unsealed envelopes torn open by younger hands. Manilla folders stuffed with old exams, but peppered here and there by notes unsigned; the author’s identity only revealed by her handwriting.

I found a few from Shira. (Even if she didn’t live across the street from me here on this kibbutz in Israel, I would have recognized her 18 year old handwriting. It’s distinct. And handwriting, like phone numbers from childhood, is something I tend to hold on to strongly in my memory.)

The letters were from 1991 and 1992. The summers she and I respectively traveled to Israel for the first time.  In 1993, we’d arrive here together one winter break during college as participants on a 2-week volunteer program. We’d be stationed on an army base that’s now less than an hour drive away from where we live.

shira and jen 1993

The letters, when I read them yesterday for the first time in more than 20 years, emphasized a certain awareness I’ve already arrived at on my own.

Shira, I’m so grateful to say, has known two different Jens, maybe three, maybe even four or five, depending on where you slice me.

It’s a gift, indeed. A friend who knew you as a girl. Who knew you when you were thinner, blonder, filled with greater energy than you are now.

But an even greater gift is a friend who notices how much you’ve grown since then. Who knew you when you were less worldly, to say the least, less clever, less kind …and has forgiven you your youth.

In reading the letters, I remembered a younger Jen and a younger Shira, and a much younger friendship. I remembered the moments that punctuated that time. In her short letters — one scribbled in cursive on airmail stationery, another stuffed inside letterhead from her father’s business — our world in ’91 and ’92 came  alive for a moment and made me smile. In a different voice than the one I know today, 18 year old Shira reminded me of who we were then.  I was touched by the Shira I had forgotten; touched by the Shira I had never known then. I also fell in love for a moment with the Jen I must have been then. A Jen I never knew I was; not at the time.

It’s complicated — the gift of old letters, of old friends — but it’s also so very simple.

I could have thrown them away, the letters. Like I’ve tossed other papers found inside the cardboard boxes.

Instead, I decided to return them to sender.

It seemed symbolically appropriate. I can’t explain it, though I’ll try.

I returned them not because I was certain Shira would want them or need them (though it was a kick to laugh over them for a minute or two), but because handing over Shira to Shira seemed like the right thing to do.

Giving Shira’s letters back to her — instead of holding on to them — allows Shira to be whoever she wants to be in the world. Now.

And forces me, in a way, to accept her as such.

Not the Shira I used to know. Not the Shira who was what she was then. Not the Shira I thought she was yesterday.

Just Shira. Now.

Giving Shira back her letters gave me the opportunity to explore a concept I have great difficulty with (and the chance to practice on someone I knew would make it easy on me!)

The concept? Giving up my past so I can be present.

I can’t say I know what the outcome of this experiment will be. But something about it just seemed right.

Just like, I suppose, something felt right about saving letters in a shoebox.

* * *

This is one in a series of essays inspired by my cardboard boxes. If you like this post, and want to know how it began, read A Case for Hoarding. One post in the series, Note to Self,” was recently featured on Freshly PressedAdditional posts are tagged “the boxed set series“.


10 thoughts on “Return to sender”

  1. I understand what you were doing. I’ve always felt that sending someone a letter (the real, paper kind) was a special sort of gift, because you give that person a piece of yourself that they are allowed to keep forever, and over the months and years you forget what piece that was. You forget what secrets you bared. What feelings and thoughts you unveiled to them. You entrust them with a part of yourself that you may or may not be proud of in times to come.

    I think it’s really cool that you recognized the power of the letter. And that you chose, over twenty years later, to give the letters back. To make another, very significant gift.


    1. Thanks Sharon. Imagine all those forgotten shared secrets out there. Perhaps, they’re not really secrets anymore … so many people have heard them. 😉


  2. I despair over the loss of handwriting. Finding letters in a shoebox. That tenuous bit of self we leave behind with the ink. I love that you gave them back to her. That’s she’s still in your life. That you’ve weather so much life together.


  3. Love this line: “But an even greater gift is a friend who notices how much you’ve grown since then. Who knew you when you were less worldly, to say the least, less clever, less kind …and has forgiven you your youth.”

    And such an interesting and gracious idea. I have two boxes of letters I’ve kept from people over the years. I keep thinking I’ll go through them and I haven’t yet. I love the idea of sending them back to the person who wrote them. I would LOVE to get an envelope like that. What a treasure.


    1. Thanks for the comments, Nina. I wonder how I would feel about getting the letter back. It’s really such an intimate act — both the original exchange and the return. I found a draft of an unsent letter in one of my camp journals (I even wrote in the letter it was the SECOND draft) — to a summer boyfriend I was so much crazier about than he was me. I imagine I sent a version of that letter to him in the end, though I don’t really remember. Just reading the unsent 2nd draft, I was both impressed by hints of maturity and mortified by the put-on drama contained inside of it. Who knows, though — maybe returning letters, instead of creating embarrassment, opens up a space for conversation that might not exist otherwise. It would surely be an interesting experiment!


  4. When I was 47, my mother moved from the large house where we had grown up and lived for 40 years. I had the daunting task of cleaning out my old third floor room and came across a garbage bag full of letters, new year greeting cards and photos that I saved from my high school and early college years. It was a fascinating experience to read each one and to relive the thoughts and emotions of the teenager I had once been. Some of the senders were people I have totally forgotten over the years, so I had no trouble discarding their correspondence. But I gathered the many letters I received from a few close old friends who I am still in touch with today and mailed their letters back to them. I felt the events and memories they shared were about their lives and they should have them. They really appreciated it and in return I received some letters that I had written and they had saved. It hurts me to think that with email and the delete button, our grandchildren won’t have the experience of both holding written correspondence in hand and having concrete reminders of their past.


    1. Thank you so much for sharing this, Judy, and letting me know I am not alone in thinking it was a thoughtful thing to do to return the letters. I also feel sorrow about the emails/SMS generation missing their letters. Something tells me, though, there will be a next generation version of this.


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