Love Letters, Emails and the Impossible Task of Memory

Memory

I’ve been writing. I have created drafts of the first 2 chapters of 10 Cities / 10 Years: The Book (not the title). It was in those first cities – Charlotte and Philadelphia – that the foundation of the whole endeavor was set, both in experience and in patterns: Move; Meet; Learn; Love; Detach; Disintegrate.

For much of what I’ve written, I’ve relied on memory, an imperfect capsule. I didn’t start out trying to capture every moment as it happened. I didn’t keep meticulous journals and notes to document my travels or my evolution as I progressed through 10 cities. Instead, I have snippets of remembrances: poetry, letters, rants written down, the occasional diary entry. The fullest details are left to be reconstructed through the loose connections and misfilings of my frayed synapses.

This is how myths form.

How I reassemble this story, as a series of events building up to a decade, will not be how the other participants – those who only appeared for a short time, a year or less, maybe only a month – will remember it. I will tell stories that some people won’t remember at all. I will leave out happenings that others will have believed to be of utmost importance.

The final product will be a version of history. Not history.

Emails

I have taken to reading old emails to fill out the memories. I’m lousy with names, always have been. If I’m introduced to someone, there’s a 50/50 chance I’ll have forgotten the name by the end of the conversation. Part of the problem is that I’m a visual learner. When I see something written down I am 10 times more likely to remember it.

The other problem is I prioritize my socializing: If there’s a pretty good chance you’re going to leave my life and I will never see you again, I won’t put much effort in storing the information.

Now, as I’m sitting down to recount old stories, I am realizing that there are ancillary characters who, though not particularly vital in the grand arc of my story, still played an important role for a brief moment. And their names are mostly lost in a mixture of time, space and liquor.

Thankfully, I was a better documentarian than I realized. It turns out that my aversion to phones (seriously, don’t ever call me) served a purpose: I have written literally thousands of emails to friends and lovers over the years. Sometimes they were nothing more than a single sentence, a brief greeting when I was feeling lonely or I knew the recipient was having a rough day. Much of the correspondence is built on long forgotten inside jokes.

But there are longer letters in those digital file cabinets in which I wrote at length about the events of my days. In one email to a friend, I discussed attending a house party after my first week in Philadelphia. I have no memories of that party, and the letter is short on specifics, but I did list the names of my neighbors: David (the landlord), Phil, Seth and Alexis. None of these people were especially important to the direction of my life, though I did spend a number of nights attending parties and shows with Alexis. Knowing her name doesn’t strengthen my memories of the year, but it does provide a precise detail by which a reader can latch onto her as a character.

It’s these kinds of details that make me grateful for the nearly limitless storage capacity of Gmail. And yet, in those dusty tombs are also the fragments of many lost relationships.

Love Letters

I have never intentionally thrown out a letter or a note from a friend. If it was handwritten, I most likely have it somewhere. Even if it’s nothing more than a Post-it note, it’s likely stored somewhere in my file of papers. When I was a child, I received an odd penpal letter from a boy in Russia (odd because it was in response to a letter I had never written) and I’ve kept it ever since (I never wrote back). There is just something about words written with pen or pencil that hold so much power.

Most of those notes are from old lovers. There are letters of courtship and eroticized notes from the height of romance, but there are also desperate recriminations and sad postmortems from the failing or failed end of a relationship. I’ve kept them all. They are history, not told by the victors, but by the defeated.

In the early goings, when I left a city for the next, I had 1 or 2 ex-girlfriends who were reliable e-companions. I was always trying to stay friends with exes in those days, and so our emails back and forth still included pet names and the occasional admission that feelings had not faded. But we were trying (or trying to try) to be platonic.

There is nothing sadder than an old love letter, except perhaps an old love letter that was never meant to be a love letter. To sit down with the specific intention of expressing one’s feelings in a letter is a reflection of love, albeit a calculated one. To sit down, though, with the simple idea of writing about one’s day, only to be so overwhelmed by your need and longing that you pour out your feelings on the page, well… that’s just love.

11-23-2010

And it’s gone.

Ex-lovers move on, as they should. They get engaged, they get married, they have children and they don’t go through their old emails and love letters and reminisce about some phantom to whom they once foolishly devoted themselves.

Well, perhaps they do. Even in happiness and contentment, they must wonder about the past and try to remember how both the pain and the pleasure could have felt so intense. They wonder if it was ever real. They have their doubts. They have their memories.

An Impossible Task

When this decade ends, I’ll string together a through-line from Charlotte to Brooklyn, attempting to assemble a cohesive story out of 10 disjointed, directionless years in which I spent as much time trying to forget as I did remembering. I’ll piece it all together with love letters, emails, notes on scraps of paper, photographs and, most importantly, memories. Yours and mine.

It will be a lie. It will be a myth. It will be a kind of truth. Like a love letter.

Scientology Is a Stupid and Dangerous Religion

Dear

In your photographs, you’re not alone
and if marriage isn’t here, it isn’t far off.
That’s a happy life that I tell with my happy lies
now that you’re happy to be
anything but with me.
You grew sick of playing second fiddle to a dream
and I admit I put the fix on you.
But what better did I know?

You were a vision and I was an oracle and
we had country love on a city dime.
Getting out was always the goal but we had different prisons,
different prisms by which we saw the world and now you’re seeing the world with all the open skies of freedom and when you smile
under the great towers I wonder about all the things

I’ve lost
and what I’ve gained.

All or nothing.

Sincerely.

Pressed to Death

An Empty Passport

Yesterday, for the first time in my life, I applied for a passport.

Before I was born, my parents lived in Sicily and Bermuda. My father fought in Vietnam. My siblings have traveled to Jamaica, Germany and a host of other nations throughout this world. But other than a couple of family trips to Tijuana, I have never left the United States. This has always been a point of embarrassment for me.

I have visited 40 of the 50 states, lived in 10 (plus one district) and driven across vast swaths of this nation’s undeveloped land, yet I’ve never even been to Canada. The world is so much bigger than the United States, so much wider than North America, and for all my travels I’ve always felt exceptionally shallow in the scope of my experiences.

It’s beyond time to change that.

Wyoming

What’s Next?

I’m going to keep getting that question. It’s inevitable. Every week somebody asks me what I plan to do after the end of 10 Cities / 10 Years, and then a month or so after I’ve answered, “I don’t know,” they ask again. I don’t blame them. I’m asking myself the same question.

I know that my travels aren’t done. I can be proud of what I’ve accomplished (even if it’s an accomplishment with no obvious results), but I’m also acutely aware of how much I still have to see. For these first 6 months of my year here in Brooklyn, I was seemingly surrounded by foreign-born residents, like French, Belgium and Italian students studying abroad, or the European/African roommates I have.

For as much of this country that I have seen, for all the places that I have called home (and I’d imagine I’ve lived in more cities than 99.99% of the people who can be labeled American citizens), I can’t deny that my experience of this globe has been confined to a decidedly small portion of one hemisphere.

Even if what I’ve experienced would be sufficiently diverse for the vast majority of the population, it isn’t enough for me. I’m not done traveling. I’m not done seeing the world. I’ll travel Europe next. And Asia, Africa, South America, Australia. Heck, maybe I’ll lay a flag on Antarctica. And I’ll get around to the other 10 states, too. Count on it.

I’m not sure what the next phase will look like.

I don’t know how I’ll get to all the places I want to see. I don’t know if I’ll live long enough to see all 7 continents. I don’t know what any of the future has to hold. For the first time in pretty much my entire life, I don’t have even the faint outline of a plan.

But in a few weeks I’ll hold an empty passport and I think that just might be better than any plan.

the Road is Life.

Eidyia; Queen of Colchis

I know you wish I wouldn’t
but I think of you often
in the arms of another
suicidal bout.
You were a pound of sugar
in my gas tank
when I tried to leave home
so when you stole the courage
it was I
waving from my door.
Out there, among the dragons,
you were as a night
sunk into despair and stuck
with a dozen needles.
And then you’d call me.

I could hear it in your voice,
the tin and the smoke,
the siren’s song
of a squad car or, maybe this time,
an ambulance.
I hung up once,
though I’m sure you don’t remember,
you were barely the myth of a human then,
barely alive.
I forgave you, you weren’t yourself,
I said,
but I didn’t forgive me, not myself,
for knowing I could not know.

I know you wish I’d forget
but I think of you often
as the girl you once were
to me.

“The Last 5 Percent”

I’m pretty good at math. Especially for a writer. I was doing my older sister’s algebra homework when I was still in fifth grade. When my brother was struggling to even pass his math courses, I was haughtily taking on all challengers. There was a time in my life, before discovering writing, when I thought I would find a career in mathematics.

I say all of this as pretext to this little anecdote.

After work tonight, I sat and had a couple of post-shift drinks with the bartender while we discussed the paths of our life. He talked about some of his regrets having put his musical ambitions on hold while he got a “real” college degree. I told him about the tumultuous period of my project in which I lived with a girlfriend.

Eventually we came upon the inevitable: The end of 10 Cities / 10 Years. August 31st, 2015 will be the official last day of a decade long pursuit. March 1st marked the beginning of the last 6 months.

The bartender poured me another beer and shot of whiskey and casually asked: “What are you going to do with the last 5 percent?”

My first instinct when he said that was to correct them. That’s ridiculous, I thought, it’s not just 5 percent. It’s much more than that. A few seconds of mental calculations later, I realized he was right.

As good as my mental math skills are, I’ll admit that for a brief moment the numbers didn’t add up. It couldn’t possibly be that little, right? Well shit, the math checks out. After 9 and 1/2 years,* I am 19/20ths of the way through a project that has been the raison d’etre of my entire life. 1/20th remains. That is, indeed, 5 percent.

Holy flurking schnit.

I don’t know what to think about that. I don’t know what comes next. I don’t know.

I’m…

I don’t know.

I’m not sure what kind of precedent exists for what I’ve done. I’m not naïve enough to believe that what I’m so close to completing is groundbreaking or even slightly important. It was (and is) a self-indulgent endeavor taken on because I was too lazy or too bored or too selfish to attempt a practical life.

But I did it, all the same. And save for getting hit by a bus or getting knocked off by one of Obama’s Death Panels, it looks like I’m going to pull it off. 10 Cities. 10 Years. 120 Months. 1000 detours.

The last 5 Percent.

Sacrebleu!

This Way Out

*Okay, so technically I spent an extra 3 months in Costa Mesa (the 3rd year) which messes up the percentages, but I’m going to ignore that for the purpose of this post. You have a problem with that, you can go fuck yourself.

            the road is life

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