April 30, 2009

30 days

Today is the last day of my 30-day letter project. I have not yet written the last letter, but I've had it in mind for awhile. As with most endings, it feels bittersweet. I'll be glad not to have that moment, late in the evening, when I'm drinking a cup of tea on the couch after 12 hours of work only to suddenly realize OH CRAP MY LETTER. But I'll miss it too, the feeling of driving toward something, the feeling of satisfaction at having completed yet another letter, yet another envelope, yet another day.

Did the exercise meet my expectations? I can say it didn't end up being anything like what I was picturing. I imagined writing wildly about anything at all, with little heed to the addressee, and then slapping that sheet of inked paper into an envelope and calling it a letter. Only once or twice did I do that, and even then it was not what I expected. What the project turned into was exactly as it sounds: thirty days of letters, letters which involved "how are you?" and "here is what I've been up to." I wrote to at least 13 different people, many of them more than once. At least three of them are people I have never had that sort of conversation with; two of them are people I haven't seen in ages; two of them are people I've never met in real life. Some of the letters were written with no intention of being sent, and remain collected in an envelope that will never hit a mailbox.

I regret not keeping track of who got what for each day of the project, and I regret not soliciting writing prompts from those who requested letters. Occasionally I got requests anyway, and did not always follow them. That's OK. I wrote to everyone who had requested a letter before April 1. Those who requested them once I was mid-project will have to get a 'normal' letter from me instead. That's OK, too. Letters written outside of April will probably be more interesting and less exhausted by the process.

In thirty days, there were three days in which I did not write letters: one of those days was Easter, when I was driving on dirt roads in Utah; one of them was a day I worked late and then went out with friends; one of them was two days ago, when I worked all day and then came home with the mother of all migraines. Giving myself space to be sick, to be with friends, and to be completely in the place my body inhabited all seemed like very strong reasons to let the project go for a moment. In all three instances I made up the letter on a subsequent day.

Out of all those which were sent, I copied and kept only two of them, both of them letters I knew I would want to refer back to later, if only to reassure myself. Part of the intention of the project was to let that writing go. In my opinion, that's the compelling thing about letters: you write something that may or may not be good, and you send it into the world and never see it again.

Was it worth it? I've sat down to write nearly every day in April. I look at my days now in terms of what I'd like to write about, what will make a good story. This is the way I used to see the world every day, back in college when something would seize me so emphatically that I would pause in the midst of walking from one class to another so that I could jot it down. The mindset itself--that writing is not scary, often mundane, hard, and satisfying--is what I set out for, though I didn't know it. So yes, I got what I wanted: the return of the writer's mind.

Some letters in return, though, dear readers, wouldn't hurt.

I went to my grandmother, your great-great-grandmother, and asked her to write a letter. She was my mother's mother. Your father's mother's mother's mother. I hardly knew her. I didn't have any interest in knowing her. I have no need for the past, I thought, like a child. I did not consider that the past might have a need for me.

What kind of letter? my grandmother asked.

I told her to write whatever she wanted to write.

You want a letter from me? she asked.

I told her yes.

Oh, God bless you, she said.

The letter she gave me was sixty-seven pages long. It was the story of her life. She made my request into her own. Listen to me. I learned so much. She sang in her youth. She had been to America as a girl. I never knew that. She had fallen in love so many times that she began to suspect she was not falling in love at all, but doing something much more ordinary. I learned that she never learned to swim, and for that reason she always loved rivers and lakes. She asked her father, my great-grandfather, your great-great-great-grandfather, to buy her a dove. Instead he bought her a silk scarf. So she thought of the scarf as a dove. She even convinced herself that it contained flight, but did not fly, because it did not want to show anyone what it really was. That was how much she loved her father.

The letter was destroyed, but its final paragraph is inside of me.

She wrote, I wish I could be a girl again, with the chance to live my life again. I have suffered so much more than I needed to. And the joys I have felt have not always been joyous. I could have lived differently. When I was your age, my grandfather bought me a ruby bracelet. It was too big for me and would slide up and down my arm. It was almost a necklace. He later told me that he had asked the jeweler to make it that way. Its size was supposed to be a symbol of his love. More rubies, more love. But I could not wear it comfortably. I could not wear it at all. So here is the point of everything I have been trying to say. If I were to give a bracelet to you, now, I would measure your wrist twice.

With love,

Your grandmother


from Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, Jonathan Safran Foer

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