Memorabilia; A Writer's Reflections
Literature is the messenger of freedom at the price of insecurity.
My cousin, Ellen, in Seattle called to say she'd saved a letter I wrote to her at a "trifecta" in her life: her mother had a recurrence of breast cancer, she was pregnant, and starting a school with her husband, Paul, the now famous Northwest School. It was a pleasant surprise to hear she'd saved a letter from me. I was relieved it had provided some solace; her mother, who had suffered so much, was a favorite aunt. But it still felt creepy that an artifact of my psyche from decades ago was extant, on the page, and that someone had preserved it.
This is what writers must experience when an (unauthorized) biographer gets to work poring through letters, diaries and emails while they are still alive, I thought. Ugh.
It's not unusual for most writers I know to feel this way. It's even difficult to return to published work and feel satisfaction, or total satisfaction; or it feels like a stranger wrote the work. A detachment sets in as we quickly move on to the next project. This is why readings in public spaces in front of strangers often becomes a burden to a writer, unless you are David Sedaris. He's more like a stand-up comic—a performer—who happens to write really well.
I have moved so frequently in my life, across a continent 2x and an ocean 2x, that it's been necessary to cull books, clothes, furniture, and memorabilia. It's not easy to discern value in the moment, unfortunately, and the culling must be done before the moving truck arrives. And I've never felt regret. But when Ellen's square blue greeting-card envelope arrived, and I saw my mother's handwriting, I did feel a soupçon of regret. In addition to my typewritten letter on thin brown paper, there were two scrawled messages from my mother.
Suddenly a surge of vulnerability set in. What have I done throwing so much away? Why did I do this? Why have I moved so much? Why are my suitcases always at the ready and boxes left unpacked in the closet? These are not rhetorical questions: they have an answer.
And there it is, the genocide again. One must be unencumbered and fleet of foot to escape and survive, then flexible enough to reconstitute a life in a new country. Think of the refugees amassed at the border, what they have carried besides water bottles and their children, and what they have left behind.
Ellen is a child of Holocaust survivors also, but she's a musician, and was a school administrator, more grounding, perhaps, than being a writer, though that may be my imagination. I must ask her, I decided. In the meantime, I returned to the computer to write her a thank you email:
Mostly I'm left with: this fleeting life. How to hang on to precious moments? Remain sentient? Thus, the writing for me, among other things…I can well remember the enjoyment I felt scrolling paper into a typewriter and feeling the words unfold on the page. Did I write that long ago letter? I guess so.