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35-Love Letters from Vietnam: The Case for Reading Old Love Letters
27 October, 1969
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27 October, 1969
Hello my love. Remember that little scheme of mine I told you about, that is, joining the bowling team in order to keep off the duty roster. I think it's working. As of today, my name has been taken off the duty list, and I'm an official member of the team. Pretty sneaky, huh? The thought of no more KP for the rest of my seven weeks here overjoys me. As a matter of fact, we're bowling tonight. Wish me luck, Kate. I'm not a superstitious man, but I know luck will be with me tonight. The number of the bus that brought me here (Oh, by the way, I'm at the bowling ally now.) I have a little time before the game starts. See what happens when I think of you? I forget where I am.) Hmmm, now what was I talking about? Oh, yes - the number of the bus - 414. Four one four is your telephone area code.
I can feel your presence tonight, but then I can feel it every night. How could it be otherwise, my life? For I feel, just as you feel, that we have become one. We no longer merely share each other's experiences; we live them. From the union of our hearts, minds, and souls, we have more to give, we have more to love, we have more to live. I pray that with God's help, we can meld into a perfect union. God, please let it be so.
As far as Officer Candidate School goes, Kate, as a man, I want to achieve as much as I can. Above that, however, I have to start thinking about what would be best for us. Our mutual need is so great, Kate, that our lives won't really begin until we're married. Our lives together will be too short to waste any of it. Kate, my love, I want to marry you as soon as I can, as soon as I'm able. The trial of OCS is a small, small, small price to pay for such happiness. How do you feel about it, Kate? I'd like to know. Perhaps what I think is best may not be at all. Tell me what you feel, my love. There's the chance though, that I may not get the appointment at all.
My gentle, delicate love, please don't let the disappointments inherent in the life of a teacher get you down. Yes, Kate, you are only human, and yours is a wonderful humanity, but Kate, that's what you have most to give. God has endowed few people with such sensitivity and concern, and this is what you have most to offer. And you do give it, Kate, you give it freely without reservation. You're probably saying to yourself, "well, he doesn't really know me." Considering our love, do you think that's possible? Sure lesson planning and other mechanics of teaching are important, but you have these skills. You also have the will to give of yourself. I know, you think you're selfish, but I know that's not true. When the rewards of what you do aren't there, please know that I believe in you and what you have to give, and please believe in yourself.
To My Dear Readers
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If I had any doubt as to the wisdom of typing and posting these old love letters, that doubt has been dispelled with the letter I'm publishing today. Of all the letters in the shoe box that I have read so far again after all these years, this letter has tweaked my heart in a way deeper than the others I have posted up to this point. It's the content of today's letter that evokes such sentimentality, the part in which Tim talks about Officer Candidate School. Here, it seems to me, we see a young man in love who no longer is thinking in the first person singular - "I" or "me". The relationship in his mind seems to have shifted to the plural "we," or "us" and has shifted to future plans. I'm sure that if my letters to Tim had made it to the shoe-box, the content of those letters would have reflected been the same shift - a shift where it was difficult to know what feelings were our own and what feelings were a reflection of the other person.)
There is something magical about this letter for me. It seems to have that magnetic-pull-to-your-heart quality. You know, the force that takes your hand as it picks up the baseball glove your father gave you, or that holds, perhaps, the bonnet you knitted for your first baby or the plaster hand cast your child made for you in first grade. At those times, it seems as if some magnetic pull takes your hand that holds the object and flings it toward your heart as if to tuck the object inside. I felt that urge to hold this particular letter to my heart. (That's just what reading old letters can do to a person.) Since reading old letters or looking at old mementos, however, is a task not to be undertaken lightly or by the faint-hearted, I've added some guidelines that might be helpful before you run up to the attic and start reminiscing .
Katy's Rules for Old Love Letters
I feel a bit like Charlie Brown's Lucy with her 5 cent shingle up, eager to dole out advice. My observations, like Lucy's, are not of a professional nature; nor am I certified, licensed, or otherwise credentialed to actually give advice. But sometimes, just plain talk from a fellow traveler on the planet who has already walked down the road we're all taking can be helpful. It is in that spirit and with that caveat that I offer "Katy's Rule's for Old Love Letters and Other Memorabilia."
When in Doubt, DON'T Throw Them It Out
Life takes people away, and we grieve. But unless your therapist, psychologist, or psychiatrist has recommended catharsis from your past, I suggest hanging on to your mementos. Sometimes, when a loss has been extremely painful, we have the urgent need to rid ourselves of any reminder of it. It seems to me that the cliche' to, "put the past behind you," doesn't mean forgetting the past as much as it means not letting negative emotions from the past control your present or influence the good work you have to do in the world. It means not letting the pain of a past love, for example, provide an escape from your present relationships or from difficult tasks you have to do. It can also mean to not let the pleasure of a love who is now gone, color your present relationship in a negative way.
But if you are in a good place with yourself and the world, it is possible to see your deep and passionate experiences of the past as a gift, not necessarily only to be treasured and held close to your heart, but to become one that can act as a tool for enhancing your present relationship.
Time Creates Objectivity
Could I have read these letters twenty years ago, instead of forty years ago, with the same ability to distance myself from them and yet embrace them? Probably not. I think there needs to be distance and a certain objectivity when you decide to read old letters and revisit the past. I don't mean to imply, of course, that one has to wait twenty or forty years! - only long enough to be able to step outside of the situation and see it more objectively than you saw it before.
There's a wonderful sign in American Sign Language for this concept of stepping outside of a situation. Your left hand is opened as if holding a cup (a sideways "c", if you will). The forefinger and middle finger of the right hand is placed inside the cup as if they are legs sitting on the left thumb. Once the fingers of the right hand are inside the left circle, the signer moves them outside (as if removing the person from the situation.) This sign is used to express a sentence such as, "...remove yourself from the situation." Usually it's in the context of gaining perspective or being objective.
So in discussing the case for reading old love letters, the question is this: Are you emotionally ready to step out of your experience and view it objectively? Of course, only you will know when you're psychologically ready to read a letter from the past or perhaps see an old super 8 movie, or look at old pictures of a lost love in a way that's healthy and useful to you. But if you do feel ready, don't be afraid.
How to Use The Past In A Meaningful Way
a. to fix a faltering relationship
This point is the one I'm least sure of. Sometimes hurts can be too egregious for any past positive to fix. It's not hard to come up with examples we have heard in the news, in the past months alone, that illustrate this point. While human behavior is unpredictable, it seems unlikely that even of boat full of passionate love letters from the past could reverse the impossible predicament Senator Edwards has created for Elizabeth Edwards or ease the humiliation that David Letterman's revelations must have inflicted on his wife.
But there are other relationships that might be fixable by re-living positive past emotions. There are those relationships that falter merely because life wears one down and suddenly it seems as if the person switching channels on the remote is the cause of our disenchantment with it all. If you are merely experiencing this kind of malaise in your relationship, there might be a benefit in going through the boxes in the basement or attic and reading through the lovely words your spouse wrote to you when you were both young. I'd suggest doing this, however, on your own, at least initially. This is not something that can be pushed onto another. To a partner who might be wondering how to cope one more day with an impossible boss at work, or who's worrying if the shocks on the Camry need replacing, hearing you read his or her old love letter out loud might feel trite and irrelevant. Therefore, I suggest that if there's any reading of old letters to be done, you read them alone during a quiet time, and let yourself drift back to the feeling you remember. Hold onto that feeling and store it some place inside of you. Then, when your husband or wife comes home, let that feeling play in the background of your mind like a favorite song as you go through whatever daily greetings you normally share, all the while remembering that person you are looking at is the person you fell in love with, the one who wrote the words, and the one whose heart is longing to reconnect in the same way that you are longing to reconnect.
b. to enhance a new relationship
It recently has occurred to me that the feeling of love is transferable. This concept is a bit difficult to explain, but perhaps you've noticed that mother-love, for example, feels like mother- love. Brotherly love feels like brotherly love. Within each category of love is an identifiable feeling that allows us to know what kind of love it is. The same is true, I feel, for romantic love. There s a familiarity in the feeling you felt for your very first love and the feeling you have for a new love.
So you have a new love now. How can reading old letters enhance this relationship? Every time I read and type the letters that Tim wrote, I realize what I had. If the same is true for you in looking back on a love you might have lost, use the feeling, not as one of regret, but as an emotion that instructs you in your new relationship. Let it help you realize that your new love is fragile like that Christmas ribbon candy, the good kind that Fanny Farmer makes - delicate and breakable. Appreciate your new love with an appreciation more intense than your past love, with an understanding more deep, and an attention more present.
c. to reclaim your past
As we get older it's easy to feel we've lost the things of our youth. But we haven't. The moments, the months, the years of the past were ours and ours alone. They exist in a place in our mind. If, for example, our husband or boyfriend has left for someone else, and his life is rich and full, that doesn't matter. The time we've had together was real, and it was ours. The same is true with any moment in life when we were truly happy. If misfortune befalls us or if we come to lose everything we ever had, we know that perhaps, if only for one brief moment of time, we had our place in the sun. And whether that moment was experiencing the love of a partner, or the adoration of a child, or some accomplishment we're proud of, we own that something forever. No one can take it away. It is uniquely ours. And hopefully, at that time when we must say good-bye to all things earthly, we'll have the opportunity to see those moments in our mind's eye, and they will bring us great joy.