Every hour spent composing and editing a letter to a friend, and every hour spent reading one, is time spent in conversation that has a different quality than face-to-face conversation. Of course, nothing is better than face-to-face, since we see expressions and hear inflections: the raised eyebrow, the wince, the smooth elongation of a diphthong, or in my case, the superfluous syllables attached to a vowel; but we frequently engage in our discussions amid a world of distractions. But, there is something magic about the focus in a letter, in the communications between humans that are undistracted by daily life, or if so, waiting until the distractions have passed with seemingly no lapse in time or focus. No one puts you on hold to check the latest tweet in a letter. You have their undivided attention.
Often, letters to others are really letters to ourselves, especially if we like to write to begin with. We start with all the pleasantries, then dive right in to comedy, tragedy, memories, difficulties, abstractions, and characterizations. I admire that letters that reference earlier letters sends one frantically searching for that letter, scrambling all over the place looking for the nook where the letter is now hiding, having been stowed away in a any number of places meant for safe-keeping.
“Which safe-keeping letter pile did I put that particular letter in?” I wonder aloud to myself as Debbie asks me what I am so urgently looking for. “The last Rita-letter,” I replied.
“You mean the one that came yesterday, or perhaps the one in your back pocket?” She asked.
I reach for the letter in my back pocket. I peer intently at it. “No, this is the one that came yesterday. I am looking for the letter that came before this one,” I said. She shrugged her shoulders. I shrugged back.
“Did you look in the basket beside your chair?” she asked.
“Yes. Not there.”
“Did you look in the stack on the bookshelf beside the TV?” she asked.
“Yep. Not there.”
“Have you looked at the stack on the old sewing machine?” she asked.
“Aha!” I shout. I raced to the old sewing machine in front of the the east window in the kitchen. It is one of those old cabinet-enclosed, foot-powered treadle machines, the kind that ruthlessly mashes innocent young fingers that are continually drawn to poke and prod into those magic mechanical works by the noises they make, the finger seeking the noise and the noise-maker seeking to mash the finger. There was a stack of letters several inches high in all sorts of disarray, leaning askew to the point where gravity would take over just any minute, waiting for the slightest puff of air to send the precariously perched cache spilling onto the floor. As I approach, the disturbance of the air as it parts to admit my body is all that it needs to send the pile already yearning to get lower and lower, trying to get to the earth’s center, as we all do, prohibited only by terra firma. Splat and scatter. The letter has to be in that pile. I remember putting it there. I must have said that out loud to myself.
“You didn’t put those there,” said Debbie. “I’ve moved them three or four times, hoping you’d put them wherever it is that you decide to keep your Rita-letters. They are everywhere.” I just nodded, knowing better than to say anything. I raced through the pile of letters as I picked them up, looking for the envelope with the latest date. The letter was not there. As I looked through the pile, some of the letters were not in envelopes. I read a paragraph in one of them. I read another . . . soon, I was reabsorbed in a letter that was two years old, forgetting about the letter I was searching for. I sat in the Duncan Phyfe chair beside the sewing machine, to continue reading the letter that had distracted me. As I sat in the chair, I spied the corner of an envelope sticking out between the cushion and the arm. I grabbed it and pulled it out. There was the letter I was looking for. It had to wait now, since the letter I started re-reading had all my attention. I’d refer to the found letter later when I was making a reply to the reference that forced me to look for it. In the mean time, I was on a different adventure, just as if a charging bull interrupted my pasture picnic. I was forced by Rita-circumstance to focus on something unintended, but nevertheless urgent. It is the way of Rita-letters.
I now have one main place I store all my Rita-letters, though I still find the occasional misplaced one. They are liable to turn up most anywhere, including my pickup truck. Down in my studio I have a bookshelf filled with CD’s, DVD’s, cassette tapes, DAT tapes, reel-to-reel tapes, Syquest Disks, Zip Disks, and dozens of hard drives (SCSI, IDE, EIDE, SATA, ESATA, USB, FIREWIRE…you name it), and dozens and dozens of composition books and Moleskine journals filled with notes, essays, thoughts, lyrics, seriousness, foolishness, and whimsy of all sorts. It is my media shelf. There is no purchased, prerecorded media there, just stuff I have recorded live or worked on myself over the last 30 years. It is a treasure trove of wonder, or an apothecary of apathy, depending on who you talk to. It is not replaceable, therefore priceless. It is primary source stuff that no one is looking for, except me. I can’t even decipher it in any meaningful way. I always have the greatest of plans to label everything properly before I put it away, but I seldom do so, thinking, in great error, that I’ll be able to remember what is on that unlabeled CD that looks just like every other unlabeled CD among the hundreds and hundreds of unlabeled CD’s. Even worse, I speculate about what may be on an unlabeled hard drive. I keep telling myself that one cold, rainy weekend, I will listen to those CD’s, or load up those hard drives, and label them, but when I listen, they sound like so many other live recordings that I can’t tell what they are or where they were recorded, though, occasionally, I’ll find a real jewel of one that has something obscure that I played somewhere that I don’t even remember knowing that I knew. Those were usually late-night third sets at some venue where anything goes, where the adrenalin of performing was gone, and the band had settled in to simply play music for each other, having long since won the crowd, with the ones who came to the venue for other purposes having gone and those who came to listen to the music still there, listening, waiting as much as we were for whatever magic live music can produce. It’s hard to get through the first two sets that sound much like the first two sets of every performance from that period. It is so easy to get distracted doing this, especially if one considers falling asleep a distraction, since falling asleep is likely in a warm, dry room, on a cold winter’s day, with headphones on, listening to lullabies. The occasional recorded clam will wake me right up with a snort and a laugh, then I drift immediately back into my distraction of sleep.
See how easy it is to get distracted? I was off on another tangent, deeply off, and that distraction is unappreciated at this time. I was telling you about my media shelf. No, wait. I was telling you about piles of Rita-letters. No, wait longer, still. I was telling you about my search for a particular earlier Rita-letter referenced in a later Rita-letter which required me to look at the reference to make a sensible reply. I was telling you I had found it wedged between the cushion and the arm of the Duncan Phyfe chair next to the old-sewing machine at the east window in the kitchen. None of that is important now. I must finish with my distraction before I get distracted a second time.
The second shelf from the bottom on my media case, in the right hand corner, there rests my now mostly-assembled stack of Rita-letters. There’s about a hundred or so. Somewhere, among Rita’s belongings, are as many replies. Each one of those letters is a treasure to me. Each one is filled with the most wonderful, clever graphics augmenting and expanding the words. They are the result of hundreds and hundreds of hours of Rita’s time she invested in communicating with me, or as I mentioned earlier, perhaps communicating to herself through a kindred spirit, for letters are magic like that.
Like Rita, I started out composing each one of my letters to her on the computer, where I have nice electronic copies of them. Too anxious, or perhaps too lazy, I sent several as PDF letters via e-mail…but mostly they went through the USPS. Later on in our letter exchanges, I abandoned the computer. I wrote to Rita on fine vellum or linen paper, using a fountain pen, and purposefully kept no copy. Amid her artifacts are those letters of which there is no copy and no memory of what may be contained in them. Their only existence is wherever they may happen to be located among her belongings as they are no longer accessible to me physically, or through her memory of their contents. I chose to do things the real old-fashioned way.
I wish I had kept copies of all my replies to her, but I chose not to do so for some now unsearchable reason. I simply felt I must do it. I think Rita liked to see the real, hand-placed ink on fine paper, though the paper was not always so fine. But the ink was always from a fountain pen, with the occasional blot that betrayed this old-fashioned way of doing things. She once said she enjoyed deciphering my handwriting, which was her genteel way of telling me I should take more time with my penmanship. I always started out with great intentions and clear writing, but progressed to sloppy carelessness as I became absorbed in the writing and had no means of editing other than scratch-outs. When the words come faster than the hand can produce them, the legibility suffers, just as the keyboard now tells me to slow down. I’ll write faster if I slow down and not have to correct every word because of reckless fingers. Try that with a fountain pen and ink. Try to edit ramblings and distractions placed on paper with a fountain pen. No, think what you will, writing in that manner requires some discipline, and I had none. She expected none. I was as free to be me in a Rita-reply as I have ever been in anything, and that is pretty free, since I am not accustomed to being constrained.
Rita and I spent many hours face to face. We spent precious few on the telephone, but managed perhaps a bi-monthly phone call. If you’ve ever spoken to me on the phone, you may have noticed that I am always in a hurry. The first lapse or pause in the conversation tends to get me off the phone, since it takes me five minutes or less on it to say what I want to say. Many of you may find this a relief.
It may take me days to compose a letter, but it can be composed at leisure, or at the driven whim of passion, whichever mind I have at the time. It can then take a leisurely trip across country after being mailed the next day, for one should never send an impassioned letter the same day it was written, then it can be consumed at leisure by its recipient. It is an ancient form of communication, invented at a time when there was hardly any other durable form of communication, and no other form of communication at a distance unless smoke signals are to be included, but perhaps they were too awkward, and clever graphics by smoke signal were haphazard at best, and completely ineffective or misinterpreted at worst.
There were the drumming of tribes in faraway, exotic places which were used for long-distance communications. The drumming all sounds the same to me, but then I am only familiar with it through Johnny Weismuller movies, which might just render me an anthropological idiot. They must only be saying, “Here we are. Come join us.” Or, “Here we are. You better stay away.” It is unlikely that drumming or smoke signals were ever used to say, “Aunt Martha came to visit last week. She showed us slides from her trip to Amsterdam and we had a nice dinner of turkey, dressing and all the fixings, with fresh cranberry sauce. She carried the remaining sauce home with her in her Buick.” I may be deceiving myself. I may not know what I am talking about. I could be on to something. It is up to the reader to decide.
So much is up to the reader to decide. Where is the veracity in what I am reading? Where is the truth? Is it in here, somewhere? Is it concealed behind a facade uneasily penetrated? No, the truth, in letters between friends, is usually easy to get at. Just read long enough, and it will reveal itself, its true self, just as we do to each other when we get to know each other for who we really are. Eventually, there are no facades. There is just us. That is the Rita I came to know through scores of Rita-letters.
None of them made me love her less, and none of them could have made me love her more.
I regret that I cannot be at Rita’s Memorial in Berkeley tomorrow. It was at a memorial for a mutual friend where I first met her. It was at that memorial that Rita changed my life and made a gift to me of the entire West Coast, and by extension, the whole world. Clever girl, that Rita. She will be missed. But, on cold, rainy, winter days, when I again set out to organize and label my otherwise unlabeled media collection, it will be a bittersweet joy to be distracted by all those letters from her which I have in my possession, me reading them, and wondering what my response might have been. When that happens, I, perhaps, will compose a new letter to Rita all over again, right there in my mind, as I try to recollect what I may have written, and yield to the wonder of cold, gray-day speculation becoming a warm reality.
Please note the photograph of the Rita letters. The only one that brings me any sadness whatsoever is the one in the center…the only one not from Rita…the sealed, addressed one that never made it to the mail.