Burning the letters
What compelled me to destroy a record of my life in the ’70s?
I recently received a big packet of letters I wrote to my friend Bob between 1972 and 1977—hundreds of letters. He was cleaning out his garage and came upon the cache, and since he didn’t want them anymore, he gave them back to me. The first several letters I read so annoyed me and upset me and embarrassed me, that I burned them, the woodstove in my office handy for the swift eradication of printed matter.
But then I regretted burning the letters; and a moment later I was glad I burned them; and then I regretted the burning; but then I was glad. I didn’t like who I was in those letters. I didn’t like how I came across. I loathed how self-deprecating and self-aggrandizing I was, sometimes in the same sentence.
We were having a long-distance dialogue, Bob and I, but because I didn’t have his letters to refer to, I could only guess at what he might have written to elicit the various responses from me, most of which seemed insensitive and pompous and stupid and obnoxious, so much so that I marveled Bob had stayed my friend. We disagreed about many things, but we also clearly loved each other. We couldn’t find our own ways in the world but had reams of advice for the other. I was forever apologizing for being such an asshole in my previous letter, and then I would proceed to be an even bigger asshole.
In some of my letters I thanked Bob for sending me postage stamps or a few dollars. I was poor in those days and he had a job working for the state, so he had a little money and shared some with me. In many of these letters I wrote about being poor, and I also wrote about what I would do if I ever struck it rich. I wanted to own a house with some land so I could have a big garden and a greenhouse and an orchard. I wanted to start a collective of artists. I wanted to make world-saving movies. I wanted to be a famous writer and musician. I wanted people to truly, madly, deeply love my music. I wanted love and sex and understanding and sex and to be left alone and to never be left alone. Forty years later, nothing has changed, and everything has changed.
I read a few more of my letters to Bob, and I burned those, too, though some of the letters I burned were terribly interesting to me and full of things I had forgotten. I wondered why I felt the need to burn these letters. When my father died five years ago (two years after my mother died), I inherited several hundred letters I’d written to my parents, and I burned all of those because they were the same letter written over and over again begging my parents to love me despite my being and doing everything they did not want me to be and do.
But these letters to Bob were a record of my life in the 1970s, and they contained bits of wit and insight amid the bravado, as well as some fascinating remembrances. Political events, movies, travel experiences, and relationships I’d long forgotten were chronicled therein. Even so, I continued to read and burn, read and burn, until Marcia said she might like to read some of the letters, and her saying that stopped me from feeding more of my past to the flames—the pile diminished by half.
Today I read a letter I wrote to Bob in 1975. I imagined Marcia reading the words, and I realized that the reason I burned those other letters was because of the very thing the letters so vividly described, which was that I was ashamed of myself for not succeeding as an artist, ashamed of being poor, ashamed of not owning a house, ashamed of not building that creative collective of fellow artists I so continuously dreamt about, ashamed of having done so little of what I set out to do so many years ago.
And this shame is something I still occasionally feel, despite the modicum of success I attained now and then in the intervening years. I understood that I burned those letters because they confirmed my lifelong suffering from two huge and insanely competing ideas trying to share this one little body-mind-spirit consortium called me: the idea that I am good, and the idea that I am no good. Yet when I imagined Marcia reading these letters, I realized that despite the persistent (and annoying) neurotic overlay (which she is well aware of and forgives) the letters have their fascinating moments, so why not keep them around a while longer?
Miraculously (or matter-of-factly, if you can’t stomach the idea of miracles), Bob and I still correspond by regular mail, a letter a week back and forth, though we no longer save each other’s letters. We just don’t. We are still the best of friends, having gone through thick and thin together for 45 years, having been teenagers and young bucks and middle-aged farts together—nothing changing and everything changing so fast it doesn’t seem possible—waiting for Godot but no longer overly concerned that he hasn’t showed up yet, because we now know he’ll get here when he gets here. Right, Roberto?