“We Were So Intense” : reading my former self in decades-old letters

We grew up together at the edge of a small city between the foothills and prairie. We wrestled on the neighborhood’s front lawns; built forts from cinder blocks and plywood; dug caves and tunnels in the field that would become the new school grounds; rode our bikes to the airport, to our lean-to in the willow-bush north of town, to the library on 12th Avenue; played with jackknives, bows and arrows, air guns; shared comic books and girl-friends; wrote sci-fi and horror stories to fill summer afternoons; went to dances at community halls and in church basements. Then he moved to another city five hundred miles away. Though we visited back and forth at long intervals, our friendship became one on paper. Envelopes with five-cent and then six-cent stamps criss-crossed the prairies, some with postage-due stamps affixed, because we had so much to say. I was becoming a writer, and those letters played the role of a journal for me. Memory is unreliable, words are feeble, but here is evidence of the person I once was, and how I began to turn into the person I am now.

We grew up, graduated or flunked out, found jobs and wives. The thing we dreaded, “adult repsonsibility,” overtook us. I moved away and wrote books. He moved from job to job, town to town, always moving with him a shoe box full of my letters. But letter-writing culture was dying. Inevitably, we lost touch with one another.

Decades later came the Internet, and eventually we found each other. There were tentative email greetings, and soon envelopes began arriving in the mail again. “I kept all those old letters of yours,” Rob reported. “I thought you were a genius and I could sell them to the archives. Would you like to have them back?”

They arrive in bundles, five or six at a time, as Rob finishes rereading them. The pages smell of mould, the cramped, tiny hand-writing fills every space. I begin reading warily, unsure I will like the person I put some effort into leaving behind – that callow, poorly educated kid who, at eighteen and against all evidence, believed in his future as a writer. Not that I was blind. I saw (or said I did) how mediocre were the poems and novels I had written. Give it five years, I thought, five years and I’ll be great.

The chronicle begins in the summer before university, introducing two recurrent themes: the transition from childhood, and the sleep-walking society so lacking in curiosity and ambition.

Don’t ever work night shift! … If I get any sleep I have to sleep right through the life going on outside. (Many people I know do that, and they’re working days!!!)

In short order, though, I turn to the subject that will darken many pages in the letters to follow:

exegeses of poems I would later consign to the flames in my first apartment with a fireplace.

Rob must have been a good friend indeed to keep writing me back, as he must have done, or the flood from my ballpoint would have ceased. His letters must have gone up in flames along with my earliest poems, but I do recall one fictional vignette, in which a ragged, foot-sore poet with my name visits his old friend, now the head of a publishing company, with a new manuscript. “Sorry,” publisher Rob called across his enormous desk, “our computer analysis states categorically that your poems are rubbish. Come back when you’ve written a novel, and make it spicy.”

I replied with fanciful, adjective-laden notes for my “Life and Works.”

This virile and vital young man who died tragically at the age of 48 is remembered as one of our nation’s most average men of letters. Although his early idylls indicate a great idealism and almost a cult of youthful irresponsibility, it appears from all available evidence that his boyhood was exceedingly normal … As an adult, he was basically anti-social, clinging most closely to lifelong friendships made as a child in the then-wild terrain of Western Canada. As he degenerated with age, he lost these friendships and became addicted to several dozen drugs in an attempt to escape society and his own failure as a poet, novelist, dramatist, atheist and communist agitator. He died on February 23, 1996, from a severe case of rejectionus maximus.

This I followed with a parallel sketch of Rob as a business tycoon who had “resigned himself to a nice safe little job, with a nice little wife and nice, polite children, and a house with a mortgage.” Yet the friendship, and the letters, continued. We saw each other a few times a year, one of us hitch-hiking or catching a ride to the other’s city on long weekends that seemed too brief. Sometimes, my letters raced Rob back to Regina.

This afternoon you said I am very different in person from in my letters. The thing is I have been contracting this year, withdrawing into myself since many of my last year friends went to school elsewhere and I came to see all the friendly sociable things people do as a pointless waste of time. I have refused to engage in any idle conversations, which is the way new friendships are made, so I have been without close friends and thus am rusty in the banal pleasantries and quick wit of your crowd.

And without transition, I begin summarizing the plot of my new novel, followed by a lengthy series of quotations from Shelley’s Defense of Poetry and reports on my own stumbling attempts.

I don’t expect to survive on publications, especially since I have no plans of publishing – at least in the next five years or so. … I wrote 32 poems in July and 28 in August (all in the first half of the month), and only 14 this month. Yet I feel like I am writing better than ever before (but I’m not, it’s just an illusion, because there are no real standout poems now).

In this period my letters contained no news of our mutual friends or about anything that I was doing other than reading and writing. I was possessed.

I decided to add another page because it’s only 11 o’clock and I’d like to sort of break a record or something for a letter as long as Gone with the Wind.

Far from begging me to stop, Rob drew me out in his own letters, which elaborated his theories about science and, especially, religion. Of course, I responded sensitively.

You described two different facets of your ‘Christian’ beliefs which are really the same. First, you say we should believe in God even though we are fairly certain he (she, it?) does not exist because this faith gives us strength in the times when we need it most. Then you go on to say that when you needed faith, you found you couldn’t pray to an empty earless, belief … But no, no! you say. There’s something greater behind obeying God than fear of being zapped, something that tells you what is right or wrong. Ideally, I could hope you would say, “There are worse things in this world than burning for eternity – things like letting down your friends and family when they need you most and have faith in you.” This is exactly my point. Your assumption that disbelief in God implies a lack of moral standards is ridiculous.

At university, my few friends and I began writing and editing a quarterly magazine, and for the first time I encountered a real writer, W.O. Mitchell, who became for a time a mentor.

I spend a minimum of five or six hours a week with him – and this week I will finally get his thoughts on my notorious novel. With the opportunity to use the Studio theatre at the university here, I started to plan a “play” that I could produce myself for showing in the spring. But when I gave W.O. my preliminary ideas – which soon fell into detailed descriptions of the smell of varnish in a boat house and the northern lights and a man with grey side-burns who constantly touched them gingerly – when he read this he almost threatened me with physical violence if I made a play out of it. He convinced me – and it was not difficult – that my talent is for poetry and the novel.

Emotionally, I was opening up. Poems and stories kept stuffing the envelopes, but as failure and doubt emerge from the shadows and become near neighbours, my adolescent despair and social pessimism of my teenage years become tempered with a smidgen of sensitivity.

I hate to see you in the mood of your last letter, Rob. Disillusioned, even disgusted, that all you have before you is a $1200 debt, no degree, no work, and the responsibilities of manhood that none of us feels prepared for. It’s something we have to do alone. And for me the future is both terror and boundless confidence. What do you see there? … I can see that you have, and have had, tremendous aspirations. You want to do a hell of a lot with your life. And we all should be able to … I don’t even know what it is we’re going to change in the world, what destroy, what build, what abandon, what create. I think it means abandoning the religious justification for life and finding a meaning in the world itself. But people are replacing religion with ideologies and nationalism. They believe in those abstractions in the same way they believed in God. And they have as little to do with flesh and blood. So I don’t know where our generation is going to take the world. The radicals and hippies share the illusion that it is going to be the age of Aquarius once the old order is swept away. Harmony and understanding, peace and euphoria. Social concern to wipe away hunger and suffering. I believe in that illusion too. But the act of creating something involves as much suffering and despair and false starts as destruction does. We both know the despair of trying to create something of value in literature. Imagine trying to create a new world, a new way of life even for yourself – let alone trying to make sense for everyone, as many are … Purgatory poised between a nuclear hell – which for some irrational reason I don’t believe will come – and the limits of our creative potential.

Big thoughts, easy to smile at from a distance of decades. “Weren’t we intense!” Rob writes on a sticky note attached to one of the letters. Yes, it is easy to forget all the striving that went into whatever it is we valued more highly at the time than friendship. How intense we were!

When I saw you at Christmas you were less excited and carefree than usual … I understand the frustration and the sheer weight of life I think you’re feeling, but I hate psychology, and you’d probably be angry if I started telling you about yourself. I know we’ll always be friends, but I also know how fast people can change … Every time I get a letter I long to be there talking to you – but I’m not comfortable to talk to, am I?

When we get together again in 2016, fifty years after those earliest letters, our talk is comfortable enough. Our lives have taken different courses, but we soon feel at home in each other’s company. Rob lives in a big house in a small town; I’m the opposite – small house, big town. His second wife has brought him a large family and grandchildren he loves; I am still in love with the woman I met on the university literary magazine, who became a character in my letters as the sixties turned to the seventies. Rob and I spend an afternoon reminiscing about our childhood adventures, mourning the death of a friend neither of us had heard from in years. But the silence in the middle of our lives is a loss that can’t be repaired. We search each other’s face for the child we remember as if looking into a cloudy mirror. But we have missed too much. We weren’t there to see the other’s face acquire those lines, that cautious smile. The space between us is a lifetime of experience not shared. That letters from our youth together have survived is little short of a miracle, but the missing years cannot be miraculously restored. We’ll keep in touch, of course, the way people do. But the lost years will always be there, perhaps brooding poems.




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