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.

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3 thoughts on “Love Letters, Emails and the Impossible Task of Memory

    • Love can be expressed in a myriad of different methods, but the most timeless and most treasured will always remain the classic love letter. Thanks for sharing! I enjoy reading the page.

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