In my last two years of high school, when I was away working at a summer camp, I saved the letters I got. The funny ones that came with care packages from friends; the sweet notes on pansy stationery from my grandmother; large penciled primary print letters from my two little sisters: here is what our world is like when you are missing from it. All of these were tossed in a shoebox in my closet. I never dreamed of these as disposable in any way.
When I moved to Berkeley to go to college, my high school friends and I continued to stay in touch by letter. Even those only a few miles away in San Francisco or Hayward; or those who stayed in our home town -- we wrote each other. No one had a cell phone of course; and few of us during those years even had a direct phone line. I remember a pay phone in the hallway of a boarding house I lived in for two years. OK for calling out – but getting a call usually meant that the ring was annoying enough that someone came out and answered it and by that time were really pissed off; even to the point of just re-hanging the phone with a slam. Most rings were ignored, most calls dead ended. But I looked forward to the letters I’d find with regularity on the mail table in the shabby front hall. We even used letters to arrange the occasional rendezvous in a coffee house somewhere, or a getaway to the California coast.
These letters took on a philosophical twist. Who we were meeting, how our minds were being challenged; how we encountered and struggled with bigger ideas; how we threw off the chains of suburban oppression. So much in our basic identities were changing; that maintaining a connection to one another seemed literally to anchor us from drifting away forever. I will never forget my friend Carol in San Francisco who, in the course of a single week in her freshman year, bought a black beret, smoked a joint, and drank a Dixie cup of wine at some sort of post-section soiree with a teaching assistant. All of this, I learned by letter. Every letter went in the shoe box.
I’d forgotten that four friends had planned – by letter – to spend a weekend in Santa Cruz in a small cottage near the beach. It must have been a universal rite of passage that every college freshman of the era had to view Michelangelo Antonioni’s mindbending film Blow Up (made in 1966) because by the time of this gathering, all of us had seen it. This was like nothing else that had ever been shown at the Vine Theater in Livermore, for sure. In the suburban world we were leaving behind, this was a film to dismiss and ridicule.
Now, for us, the challenge was not only to see it, but to “get it” Dream or reality? It was mired in symbolism – so many layers and twists. Not to mention the sexual content, which literally blew the cork out of the Legion of Decency film rating system. “Condemned” hardly fit, it was worse than that. A menace to youth.
Every one of the four of us had seen it; but who knew what it meant? Who got it? Who got it “right”? The evening waged on; there probably was wine; there may have been marijuana... and then there was a “blow up” over the movie and who did or did not understand it; who had an original point of view and who was merely repeating the insights of our beloved high school English teacher, who’d started early to expose us to radical new ideas.
Fortunately, the weekend is preserved in the letters that flew around afterward, the ones I threw in the shoebox at the end of freshman year. What’s real and what’s not? Is there any such thing as an original idea, once you overcome the power differential of the older and wiser, the one you want to be someday? How does new learning intertwine with what you already know and believe to become something more than the sum of its parts ?
Anyway, I’ve been looking through the shoebox this week. Over the years of course a shoebox could no longer contain the history; several were brought with me when I moved to Nebraska, and eventually combined in a storage bin I’ve kept for such personally significant documents.
Last week, a friend came to visit. She asked me if I’d kept a bar napkin on which we had had rewritten, late one night, the mysteries of the rosary to reflect contemporary feminist milestones. Yes, it was mildly offensive. She was newly out of the convent at the time, and had some rebelling to do. And that’s what led me back to the shoebox this week. I never found the mysteries, but it seemed like the time to take stock of this trove. It’s nothing I’d ever want an executor, or my kids, to have to deal with. What in it can be let go? What still merits a second or third look? I’ve spent every spare hour this week in triage. I estimate the weight to be about 25 pounds; and; maybe 500 letters over the years. I’ve thinned that by about half . The rest, I am compelled to keep. The summary, the generalizations, the meta-analysis I have made about ten, twenty, or fifty years are challenged by some of the details I’d lost.
How does one become a writer? First get a shoebox.