On throwing away love letters

thewheel42/Flickr/CC BY-SA 2.0

Last month, engaged in a cleaning frenzy as I awaited the arrival of baby #2, I rediscovered two packets of love letters hidden in my old elementary-school Lands' End backpack. Rediscovered because I had put them there myself a few years earlier; hidden because I did not want my husband to see them.

One packet was from a high school boyfriend, though 'boyfriend' feels like a strong term for what was a single summer of dating, then a year of email correspondence via his university account and my dad's Hotmail one. (Yes, dear reader, I printed all his missives.) The other packet, all handwritten, was from my college boyfriend, though in this case 'boyfriend' doesn't feel strong enough for who was essentially my first love. The first was innocent and sweet; the second, more passionate and raw.

The letters—and the experiences—have been with me for twenty years, through multiple storage containers in multiple residences, yet I had never reread them. Sitting then on my grown-up couch, heavily pregnant, in a home I have made with my spouse of five years, I chose to finally leaf through them. And what I felt was ... aggravated.

Aggravated because the letters were woefully one-sided. I possessed only what these young men wrote to me, not my half of the communication. Thus my perspective—really, my essence—was refracted through their responses. So how meaningful was this correspondence without my voice enclosed? 

Moreover, two decades had passed since they were written. As I scanned the mentions of people and events, I could barely recall the context, much less the details. And beyond that, the letters' version of myself—again, interpreted through another person's lens—no longer existed in the same form (if that version ever did exist in the first place). So why must I maintain an incomplete and inaccurate record of someone who kept evolving?

And the final aggravating knock: If even I, the person directly involved in the correspondence, couldn't draw meaning from them, who in future generations would care to read them or be trusted to interpret them? What might they think of me, rightly or wrongly? And regardless, why should these young men's voices survive over mine?

At this point I'm sure you're wondering exactly why I held onto these for so long in the first place. Three reasons:

1) For much of my 20s, I feared I would never find lasting love, so in the event that life passed me by without a great romance, I kept these letters as evidence that I at least had something sort of once upon a time—a fear now rendered moot by my joyful marriage and growing family.

2) I remembered the letters as being more interesting and illuminating than they really were. For proof of my skewing self-absorption, check out what I wrote about general handwritten correspondence in 2011:

I find an irrepressible power in pulling out these letters and opening the envelopes anew. I daydream about passing them down through the generations. I wonder if one day I’ll become famous, and then my biographers will thank their lucky stars they have all this extant correspondence to shed light into what I hoped for and believed.

Wow, was I offbase. Nothing I hoped for or believed in at the time is captured in these letters, penned by young men who had specific visions of—and desires for—who I was to them. So not only would they be useless in that regard to future biographers, they actively betray who I am and who I will continue to become. You want my voice, dear descendants and future chroniclers? Turn to my journals where I speak in all my warty glory, honest and unfiltered and wholly myself, page after page, year after year, as I grow in real time.

3) This one I'm abashed to admit: More than remembering, I want to be remembered. Holding onto letters is my puny bid at immortality. But no amount of preserved paper is going to keep me from dying one day, and considering the impermanence of both medium and recipient is tough, humbling, and ... freeing.

Accepting that my time is fleeting—and my storage capacity limited—frees me of the desire to possess objects, people, and past versions of myself. It frees up space to accumulate self-knowledge and wisdom rather than basement clutter. And it frees me from the obligation to remember. Ultimately consigning the love letters to the recycling bin gave me permission to forget, for we are not meant to relive every detail of our life while we are still living it.

And really, I haven't forgotten the most important lessons from these relationships and their documentation—that I deserve love, am worthy of love, and have ample love to give. May embodying this wisdom become my true legacy, the one that ends up papered on others' hearts.

Prayer #369: Negative Space

Negative space: an area of a painting, sculpture, etc., containing no contrasting shapes, figures, or colors itself, but framed by solid or positive forms, esp. one that constitutes a particularly powerful or significant part of the whole composition; also in extended use. (OED)

Help me grow more comfortable with holes in the narrative, gaps in the picture, rests in the melody ... all holy silences that appear blank but, upon closer inspection, unfurl and brim with movement. These mark my moments of change, where I exceeded once-snug frames, illuminated new scenes, and struck fresh chords. 

And like any outstanding work of art that draws its power from the ephemeral pop of transformation, help me examine my life up close and at a distance—close not with smothering attention but with loving discernment, and distant not with cool detachment but with the rich benefit of space, time, and wisdom.