Tuesday, 16 February 2016

Love letters

A sketch of Clemency from a letter I wrote to her in 1973

My niece Tania started it. She said, on Facebook,  she would love to see what was in that note that I passed to Clemency all those years ago. So I asked Clemency if she still had it and she disappeared into the garage and emerged a few minutes later with a couple of boxes containing everything I had ever written to her. And there it was. Written on a page torn from the cheap newsprint pad I used for notes, with the red pencil I was using to underline things (hilighters hadn't been invented yet, remember) were the first 51 words that ever passed between Clemency and me. And no, Tania, you can't see them. Ask Bridget after Clemency and I have departed for wider shores.

So we read the note. And remembered. And then sat down together to read through the rest of the contents of the boxes. There were envelopes that hadn't been opened in 42 or 43 years. There were letters that had, back in the day, been read and reread and handled and savoured. There were others that had been read once and angrily jammed back into their envelopes. The letters were filled with jokes and puns and riddles. There were pictures: little cartoons of myself and Clemency mostly, but I note that I was pretty darned good at drawing Asterix and Obelix. These letters were passionate and eloquent and inventive and funny. They were angry and full of self doubt and confusion and ignorance. I found maybe a half dozen poems, and no I'm not sharing any of them, but looking with the objectivity which 4 decades brings, I am surprised at how competent they are. I found a sketch, the one above, which I had completely forgotten drawing and which I know I could not now draw .

I've kept a spiritual journal from time to time but never a diary, so for the first time ever I was looking at a fairly full written record of my own life, and it was strange. This was the time I learned to love. This was the period in which I came to faith and the period when I began to make my own way in the world. As far as the details go, I had forgotten most of the letters and most of the events they described, so it was like reading the correspondence of a stranger. I was looking over the shoulder of this young man who was not me and yet was completely me, and reading his most personal thoughts as he lived through the most anguishing, the most joyous, the most bewildering, and confusing, the most hopeful and optimistic and adventurous, the most humiliating, the most lonely, the most deeply connected couple of years of his life.  I felt such pity for him; such exasperation at him; such pride in him;  such compassion. How is it that this young man, whose beliefs and life experience and feelings are so utterly other is still the same single consciousness as writes this post? How am I still him?

There was an evening when I first said to her, "I love you." And there was the letter I wrote the next morning. It was so full of doubt and insecurity. It was so certain. It waxed philosophically on what love is, and struggled to explain what it was that I felt. Last night I read it aloud to her, and we both felt the power of it still after all these years: clumsy, eloquent, heartfelt, accurate, strong and tender. Back then we were so confused, so damaged, the pair of us, we didn't know what the hell we were doing. Yet we blundered onwards and here we are all these years later with a collection of old paper that describes a journey we were led on; and it describes the agency of something greater than either of us which was determined on our healing and growth.

And which has led us here: through all the certain paths and byways and missteps and faults and errors and sufferings and joys to which human beings are prone, on a 44 year long pilgrimage to this little house on a hill with its flowers and trees. And to this couch with tea and a box of old letters and each other.

7 comments:

Kate said...

Wow. And it hasn't stopped yet.

Kathryn said...

Wonderful for you both to read all those letters from the beginning

Alden Smith said...

Change, growth and transformation. The long hard track to the little house on the hill brings new perspective in all directions; and flowers unfolding.

Kelvin Wright said...

Found one or two letters of yours, also, Alden. And of course you get mentioned quite a bit.

Alden Smith said...

'Letters'.. now that's a name I haven't heard in a long, long time. Do you remember? pens and paper and stuff and things called envelopes and the sharp bitter taste when you licked the back of the 'Stamp' before affixing it to the envelope ... seems like all those old traditions have gone the way of roof thatching and keeping your own family house cow .... and there was a time when you would hear someone whistling happily as they walked down the street, where's all that music gone eh? Oh aye, I 'member old Josh, even when there was trouble at Mill di'int stop im a-whistling.

Kelvin Wright said...

We've lost so much and gained so much. One of the things that is both a gain and a loss is the speed. A letter sent would take 2 days to arrive, even it was only travelling from Browns Road in Christchurch to Bealey Avenue in the same neighbourhood. There was time to reflect and consider and choose words. Time for feelings to consolidate. I wonder how it would all have gone if we had been texting? I suspect faster. Both in getting started and in ending, which nearly happened a couple of times in our first year.

Some people still thatch their roof. Early in our marriage Clemency and I had a house cow... or a quarter share in one, at least. Maybe I should start writing real letters again.

Alden Smith said...

Yes, time to reflect, consider, choose, consolidate is something our culture is fast loosing especially in our huge cities. Your words reminded me of how C G Jung would find balance in his very busy life by going on retreat to his other house, (built with his own hands) on the shores of a lake. There he would chop wood and carry water from a well, do gardening, cook on an open fire and reflect, consider .. etc.

We all don't have access to Jungs' idyllic setup but the wilderness visited in simplicity or a deliberate commitment to retreat in our own back yard is still a viable option for us all.