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“.

 

Exchange of letters

I was thinking of Sarah this morning when I realized how many similarities there are between the online friendships I’ve cultivated and the pen pals I used to collect as a young girl.

Sarah and I are planning to meet in real life for the first time. Despite the fact that we both are former Americans living in Israel, and only live an hour’s drive from each other, we’ve never sat to drink coffee together; have never spoken on the phone. I don’t know what Sarah’s voice sounds like even, and this is what I was thinking about when I realized that Sarah exists for me like my much-loved pen pals from childhood. The deep way one knows someone through letters. Except the letters are blogs, and Facebook chats.

When I was a girl — mostly from the ages of 12 – 16 — I exchanged letters with a few other kids my age. I vividly remember two of them, for they were strangers.

Thanks Ali Martell for the pic

Thanks Ali Martell for the pic

Unlike Robert, my camp friend from Texas, or Natali from Mexico, both of whom became active pen pals of mine after shared experiences in real life; Kim and Phillipa, I never met. We starting writing each other because we were subscribers of Bop! magazine. (The original Match.com for pedophiles, Bop actually published in each issue a list of names and addresses of pre-pubescent girls. Can you imagine???)

Unlike my school friends, Kim and Phillipa exist in my memory only as curvy, bubbled Ms and skinny, drooping Qs; as unevenly snipped wallet-sized portraits taken during Picture Day. I never knew their voices so I can’t hear them in my head even if I try. I never knew how tall they were. Whether or not they were skinny or fat. Pimply or clear-skinned. Popular or tortured. Smelled like Chloé or B.O.

We never got in fights over a boy. We never stopped speaking to each other in the halls. We never shared sleepovers or sundaes.

And yet, I loved them in a way. I was grateful for their showing up in my life. In my mailbox.

I knew Kim’s hobbies; Phillipa’s favorite American movie stars. I knew about their jealousies of their siblings and their crushes on the neighborhood skater boy. I imagine they told me secrets they never shared with their school friends. I know I shared with them a few of mine.

There’s something sacred and safe in living and loving only through letters.

Isn’t that what most of us with online-only friends would say about many of those friendships? There’s something sacred and safe about them?

No, we don’t ‘know’ each other in ‘real life’ … but then again, what is ‘real’ life?

The almost, so-very-lost, art of the letter

I’ve been finding letters.

Long lost letters.

Long saved letters.

Long ago, written-by-hand letters.

As and Es and Is strung together to form laughter and love and pain.

Through my veins runs remorse

then retraction

as I read the letters aloud.

Loopy script

Straight uppercase caps

Bubbled Oooos and lowercase bees

All of them stamps of time and postmarks of personality

Who knew then that you were a poet, dear Friend?

Who knew that you could dance with your words, dear Lover?

Who knew, Mother, that you missed me with an ache you hid away so I would never know

until I, too, was a mother?

Aching…

Who knew then

what I know now?

Did you?

And I simply

missed it?

Did you know I would read your words aloud

and fall in love with a version of you I never knew?