Saturday, May 21, 2011

The Fifth Face/ Letters

Given that I have never held a job down for more than a year; that I've never even done the same kind of job for too long; that I never know what the next week holds for me, let alone what my plans are for the next year, five years is a commitment I never thought I could make.

Maybe the lack of thought or planning is what kept this blog running for so long. Yes: it's been five years and it's not just a face I'm going through. Let's call it several faces. The blog has crossed the enthusiasm of infancy and is probably settling down into a late middle-age of scattered thoughts and conversations that are held more with oneself than with anything recognisably person-like. This, despite the comments I still get that I sometimes forget or just don't respond to.

But I want to talk about is letters. Letters have always been something everyone in my family has looked forward to with pleasure. My grandfather stayed in touch with a friend in Canada until one of them died. My mother used to write letters to people she'd never met, c/o the names of their own or city, or some absurd approximation of an address. And she'd get replies from them. It was astonishing and joy-giving. The letters were always kind and warm; sometime long and delighted. And these letters were from strangers.

I know what it's like to receive these letters because I didn't have to infer the contents from the expression on the face of my mother; I was allowed to read the letters for myself.

Letters were public property.

Family letters - some of them artfully and well-written - were also public property. They spoke about other people, they asked after everyone, they gave news about happenings. They were not private.

I am wondering where and when I got the notion that letters were intensely private things meant only for the mutual knowledge of sender and receiver. Given that I had never in my life experienced a 'private' letter, one that the receiver would rather not share with everyone, I have no idea when it became clear to me that letters were also a kind of very private and confidential conversation, and to share these kinds of letters wouldbe to betray a confidence or inadvertently give even close family members a glimpse into aspects of your own character that you wanted to protect from their gaze or scrutiny.

School? Possibly, but I can't imagine how. School was where I wrote letters home and of course they were both public and private, in that I knew that the only people who would read them would be my parents, and so I could say things to them without worrying about who else might read my confidences (there weren't many of those, I admit).

Of course, the reverse didn't apply. One didn't allow even one's closest friends to read letters from home, though one might occasionally read out particularly funny bits to them. The letters were put away, under the mattress or in a locker and forgotten about until end of term.

Back home, of course, during vacations, letters came that were no longer public. When the postman rang, I would run to get my letters before anyone else got hold of them. My parents never did open my letters but I was convinced they might. (Though I did have to train famiy in general to not read my letters once I'd finished with them, because, really, even thoughI'd read it first it didn't mean they could read it now.)

I have no idea if this seemed strange to my parents. It must have. As far asI know, they didn't correspond with friends, who are probably the only kind of people who commit confidences to paper. Family was business, sociologically speaking, and letters from any member of family was common property - even the most hysterical, harsh, intemperate or savage letters. And there were a few of those over the years.

Passing lightly over the kind of letters I wrote and received from people who I met every day, and with whom I exchanged letter-notes (sometimes in particularly exigent situations, one posted letters locally), I found myself in a place of letter drought. The only letters I got were unpleasant official communications or impersonal requests for something-or-the-other. Once a year or more infrequently, there might be a letter or poastcard from someone I wanted to hear from.

All private conversation had shifted online. These were necessarily truly private, because my parents were useless with the computer and I got online long after I need have worried about shared or discovered passwords.

There was no room for the inadvertently read letter. Until a few days ago, I had no way of knowing what my feeling on the matter would likely be. Recently, though, a friend wrote to me back home and my mother - perhaps inadvertently - opened it. I found out about it and, because there was no immediate sense of outrage, I sat down to examine what it meant.

Perhaps I no longer have my earlier sense of inviolate privacy with regard to my letters. Perhaps I knew that whatever the letter contained, I wouldn't mind my mother reading it. Perhaps, that it would contain nothing private? Or that - of everyone I know who misses the pleasure of receiving and reading letters - my mother's joy in opening a letter, the ritual of it, would be the most acute and I wouldn't/couldn't deny her that, especially since she abhors emails?

Or maybe I've grown used to airing the most private thoughts in public  knowing they're both always available and quickly forgotten. Like everything else, this also is practice.


km said...

Five online years is like 40 real years. So yeah, this is the "late middle-age of scattered thoughts" :) (I can't wait for my swift descent into online dementia and random angry stick-shaking at young 'uns.)

Happy Fifth.

Space Bar said...

thank you! :D And I think I'd just leave before senility hit, don't you?

dipali said...

Congratulations on the 5th anniversary of your blog!

Letters in our family too were shared, but as teenagers my sister and I didn't quite like the idea.
Now the letter writers have all gone, I think, most of them, and the e-mails are as private or public as you choose.