“A letter is always better than a phone call. People write things in letters they would never say in person. They permit themselves to write down feelings and observations using emotional syntax far more intimate and powerful than speech will allow.” –Alice Steinbach
I love letters! You remember letters, right? They were written on paper and you got them in your mailbox. They came from people who thought enough of you to take the time to not just write to you but also to buy a stamp and put them in the mail. You could save them in a special shoebox under your bed and bring them out when you were in the mood to feel that person again. In that way, letters achieved something we all long for: timelessness.
I have only one problem: I never send them anymore. Email came along and brought a convenience and immediacy that letters couldn’t compete with. Then social media took that convenience and immediacy to a whole new level. Like Main Street small businesses when Wal-Mart comes to town, letters have withered and died on the vine in our digital age. One thing that instant messages will never have, however, is the thing that letters had in spades: timelessness.
On a picture perfect afternoon in Rome, eighteen Autumns ago, I emptied myself wholly onto several pages in blue ink. It was a letter to my brother, Jacques. He and I, quite frankly, hadn’t been very close for most of my life, but he was nonetheless a hero figure to me. He had a magnetic personality. He was always doing such cool things in the outdoors. And, he was a writer, which I highly romanticized. We had only just begun in recent months to connect in conversations, and I truly revered him. Quite simply, he was a mythic figure to me, and I fancied the idea that he might be interested in my journey, both on the map and in the landscape of my soul.
I was in the midst of my epic journey across Europe–my first and greatest–and my mind and spirit were absolutely on fire with growth and discovery. Although I had been journaling for a few years by then, it had been very sporadic. The start of that epic adventure with my backpack, however, marked the start of my daily practice that has continued all these years. And I was filling up the pages like a madman. It was almost as though I had opened up the top of my head and was simply pouring it all out in the white pages of my new best friend. I was the embodiment of “high on life,” in the midst of a full-blown spiritual revolution that had me nearly unable to catch my breath several times per day. It was a truly extraordinary time, as I was seemingly communing with God.
God, and no one else. I traveled alone through strange lands and languages, and I spoke to my parents only occasionally for a few brief moments as the phone card ran itself out like water down a drain. My outlet was my journal. But on that beautiful Italian afternoon eighteen Autumns ago, I wanted to write a letter. I wanted to share what I had been experiencing. I wanted to tell my story. But I also didn’t want to share my story. I wanted to keep it close to my heart, where the journey really was taking place.
So, I compromised. I wrote the letter to my brother, but I wrote it into my journal, where it would remain forever. I realized that I just wanted to write the letter to clear my mind, like the way a storyteller wants to unload the latest baby of his imagination, just to get it out there and let it go. And so, on a Tuesday in Rome, with my brother squarely in my thoughts, I opened my second journal to its last handful of pages, and I began:
3:54PM Tuesday October 21, 1997 Roma, Italia
I am sitting here on the Spanish Steps, and Bob Dylan is playing in my head: “Oh the streets of Rome are filled with rubble…From the Spanish Steps to the….” I have not and probably will not write a letter or postcard on this trip, but it seems like the one I am always talking to when I pretend to write one is you. For whatever that means, here is my letter. It cannot be put into words what an amazing adventure I am having. The feeling I have each day is really quite indescribable. I believe it is what is commonly referred to as “unreasonable happiness.” Honestly I do not know where to begin. I suppose a chronological trail might be best. After my excellent stay in New York, Amsterdam was where the plane dropped me first. It is said that the best trip to Amsterdam is the one you don’t remember, but it was still pretty cool in a sober state, though the smell from the coffee shops was enough for a bit of a buzz. I didn’t go so far as watching a “real live sex act,” but I did go to the Sex Museum and through the red light district , where all the whores lean out of the doors and their two-high glass apartments wearing only high heels, bra, and panties. I laughed my ass off. After less than a day in Minneapolis-like Hanover, I headed down to Munich and those crazy German stein-hoisters decked out in the full Clark Griswald get-up, as it was Oktoberfest. It was damn wild as both men and women slugged down massive amounts of beer in mugs that looked like they weighed 50 pounds, empty. Germany is a lot like Wisconsin in the north and central parts, while in the south it reminds me a bit more of the eastern states of New York, Pennsylvania, and Virginia. Itching to get down to the sea, but not wanting to miss anything, I took the rails down to Vienna. It is a majestic old city, with all evidence from its days as the capital of a great empire still intact. I walked the amazing lawns of a castle and took in an opera for two bucks. Salzburg was next. Set in a Bozeman-type landscape, check out “quaint” in Webster’s and you might find a picture of this beautiful city. Westward through the Tirol region and on to Switzerland I rode, through clearly the most beautiful landscape I have found here. It’s like the most beautiful part of Montana everywhere. Perhaps “Paradise Valley with steeper, more beautiful mountains” is a better description. Switzerland was beautiful and expensive, and the Great Sea was calling, so I ascended and descended the Alps into this amazing land called Italy. I was in love immediately and vowed to learn the language when I returned to the States. And the air was so thick, with the sea, the passion, the garlic, and the love. I was intoxicated. The boat landed me in Greece, and I was wondering if the correct spelling wasn’t actually Grease. It is essentially a desert, with only its history and the Great Sea as attributes. I was glad to see the ruins of Athens, but more happy to hop on that boat bound for the islands. If you have ever seen a postcard of Greece, with the brilliant blue sea as a backdrop for little whitewashed dwellings with blue shutters and doors, it was not the mainland. The islands are essentially deserts as well, but the villages are charming and that amazing water is all around. It is clear like the waters at Glacier, and the sun portrays your shadow on the bottom, even in deep water. The first night I got there, the surface was ripe for waterskiing and I just had to take a dive through the cool night air. I was whooping and howling at the moon, my version of whistling zippity-doo-da out of my asshole. It was a welcome relief from hauling my pack around and sleeping in a different bed every night. And I was a savage within a few days. Oh, was I peaceful. I laid on the black sand and listened to those light waves gently lapping at the shore. After my ten-day “vacation” on three islands, I spent three dreary nights on boats and trains to get me here to Roma. But what a reward for my troubles. It is a wonderful city. Though I believe Venice is the most beautiful city I have ever seen, I hear that my next two stops, Florence and Siena, give it a run for its money. That was a pretty superficial brush-over of it all, but it is not the places that are most important but rather the experiences and growth the journey offers. And I have had much of both. What I am most happy to report is that I have written an incredible amount. When I left I didn’t even conceive of finishing this book before the trip was done, but here I am with two pages to go and a month left of travels. I have written a minimum of two pages every single day since I left home, and it seems to increase with each day’s passing. I have put down my first three short stories, thanks to the inspiration of one Mr. Ernest Hemingway. They are so damn fun to write! One night in Vienna I was writing an essay on withdrawing from the world to draw closer to God, and some remarkable ideas came into my mind. It was an unbelievable experience. I was sweating. My heart was racing. I couldn’t get the pen to move fast enough. It was a true revelation. In the end I had the idea for my first book and a depleted supply of adrenaline. I have felt for some months now that I am growing closer and closer to God. I have really ceased using my mind for the intellectual, in the controlling manner I once did. I use it now as a channel to the higher world. I shut up and listen for the way. I find myself increasingly in tune with the Lord. There is no tension, no obstruction in the channel. Everything feels so very right at every moment in my life. All of the energy that flows is of the positive nature. The secrets are showing themselves to me more clearly with each passing day. The result of it all is that “unreasonable happiness” I spoke of earlier. But that’s the whole thing. I have realized this “unreasonable” thing is the one to which we are intended to feel always. This is the will of God. In our world we have made it seem so unreachable, but it is right there for us. All we need to do is change our minds! It’s not easy, but it is truly simple. Enough of the sermon, but I just want everyone to be feeling the way I do. My time is coming and is here now. The world will be a better place for my time here. This much I know. The guy I stayed with in New York said I could choose three paperbacks for the trip. On The Road, Hemingway’s Short Stories, and The Portable Emerson were the winners, and I because of them. In barely over two weeks I had finished the Kerouac and the Hemingway. I couldn’t put them down. I was so in love with Sal and Dean in the Kerouac. This is raw life. It was so romantic. And the Hemingway was simply brilliant. As soon as time permits I will be into his novels. Now my guidebook of Europe, the Emerson, and my 900-page History of Western Philosophy keep me fully occupied. Mostly I’m writing now though. I love it more than I can say. It feels like my avenue toward helping the world. Who can say? I am just so happy to be who I am and doing what I am. And I am so very happy for your presence in my life. I love you so much, Jacques. You may never physically see this land called Europe, but you will have been here, because you travel always with me. God bless. Always, Willy
That letter was therapy for me somehow. It was therapy on the day that I wrote it, and it was therapy again this week, when I came across it while working on The Journal Project. I think all letters are therapy in a way. Like the quote at the top says, we allow ourselves to express things in letters that we would not—or could not—otherwise express. And so, whether I actually decide to send them or not, maybe it is time I sat down and wrote my words for someone specific. Maybe it will even be worthy of a shoebox under a bed far, far away, there basking in its most treasured state: timelessness.
How about you? Is there a letter inside of you, dying to get out? Open up your journal and think about the people you are compelled to share yourself with. Who is on your short list? Are they mostly people whom you have lost contact with? Or, rather, are they people currently in your life—perhaps family members—whom you would like to have a deeper relationship with? Is there someone you should write to strictly for therapeutic reasons, even if you never intend to send it? Perhaps it is someone who has hurt you deeply and who you need to forgive in order to find peace. Perhaps it is someone you have long needed to thank. Perhaps it is God. Why do you think we express ourselves so much more clearly—and daringly—in letters rather than conversation? Is it the time to prepare the words precisely? Maybe it is the distance away from the audience, knowing we are safe from the initial reaction? Is it the intimacy of immediate feedback that we fear? I know that I am much braver with the pen and keyboard than I am with my mouth. Do you save old letters? Whom would you most like to receive a letter from now? Imagine going to the mailbox tomorrow and finding a letter from that person: the warmth and gratitude you would feel knowing that you were deep in their thoughts and in their heart. Who might be the person whose day you could make by writing to them? Are you ready? Leave me a reply and let me know: Who will get your letter?
Give your gift today,
P.S. If you were touched by this, I encourage you to share it. We need each other’s best!