April 28: Post Office

The main post office on Gorky Street in Moscow. A line of squat beige phones —  a line of people in thick coats to their ankles standing beside them. Staring at them like half-boiled pots, waiting for them to ring. Waiting to hear the voice of someone from the other side of the Iron Curtain.

You’ve filled in the required forms. When do you want to talk? Whom do you want to talk to? For how long would you like this conversation to continue? Be careful: they’ll give you exactly the amount of time you ask for, no more and no less. But the phones are ringing, your mind is buzzing, you can only make awkward, half-thought-through calculations.

Not long after our phones ring and we lift the receivers to our ears like stones, we realize we answered all the questions wrong. The conversations should have been earlier or later, longer or shorter. The people we are talking to are not people we really know. We’ve forgotten the languages they’re speaking. We live in different countries for what we now know is forever, though we meant it to be temporary. “Wait —” we say. “It’s about to end —”

The phone makes a noise that means my life has returned to me. Everything goes silent until it’s the next person’s turn. Down the line, feet shuffle, stirring the hems of coats.

.

melting snow —
letting go
of what I meant to say

___________________________________________________________________________

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(Chrysanthemum 9, April 2011)

June 3: 1: A sort of haibun (Old Letters)

For my 100th post I thought I’d try my hand at haibun (which for the uninitiated is haiku preceded by a sort of brief prose commentary), but as usual I am unable to be brief in prose, so this is more like a wordy, boring essay with a haiku tacked on at the end, like an afterthought.

*

Down in my basement I have a plastic tub full of rubber-banded sheaves of hundreds of handwritten letters, most of them 80s-era. I went to boarding school in the mid-80s and my friends and I, tossed to separate corners of the globe (Ohio, Vermont, Saudi Arabia) over the summers,  wrote each other obsessively. A letter arrived in the mail for me every few days, it seemed, and I would repair to my bedroom, take it out of the envelope as if it were a holy artifact, and read it so many times I practically memorized it.

What did we write about? What we would have talked about, if we’d been together, or excessive long-distance phone calls hadn’t been prohibitively expensive in those days. Or, these days, what we would text or IM about. Boys, a lot of the time. (Or girls.) How bored we were. How much our parents drove us out of our mind. How crazy we were, and weird, and how nobody understood us except each other. We could write really long letters about all this stuff.

I rummaged through the piles lately and found I could still recognize different friends’ letters from the different styles of envelope they used and from their still-familiar handwriting. My best friend had terrible handwriting and liked to send ten-page missives in manila envelopes. She wrote crazy things all over the outside of them. She ended up dropping out of school our junior year and spending the rest of the year as a beach bum in Hawaii, but now she’s an anesthesiologist, married with two lovely children. Or so I see from her Facebook profile. We all seemed to have a lot of difficulty finding ourselves as adults. Maybe we were as crazy and weird as we thought we were.

Like everyone else I don’t write letters on paper anymore and I love the immediacy and convenience of email and other online communication, but these letters, as artifacts, as physical representations of my long-ago friendships and the personalities of my long-ago friends, filled me with an intense longing for that experience of missing someone and then receiving a talisman of them, one which would sustain me until the next one arrived, one which I could keep piled up with the other talismans and hold whenever I needed to. Are things better or worse now? Just different, I suspect. It seems impossible that teenagers today could ever feel as lonely and longing and isolated as I felt then on a daily basis. I wish I could have emailed my friends in high school and college. I wish I’d had a Facebook page, an online support group, a way of getting instant feedback when I felt like I was making important and difficult decisions all alone. But I still kind of wish for letters with scrawled, handwritten addresses to show up in my mailbox from time to time.

*

old letters
the strangeness
of handwriting

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100 posts in 34 days does seem excessive. Things should slow down considerably once I start my summer school course in a couple of weeks, and even more when I’m in grad school full time in the fall, in case you’re concerned.