Thursday, April 8, 2010

383.122 A Life in Letters

It all started innocently enough. I was looking up and down the rows of books on the shelf of my favorite library. I needed inspiration for a creative writing class I was teaching. I often wander the isles letting titles or names call out to me from the shelf. Some of my best ideas come from the 641.5, the Dewey Decimal destination for cookbooks. You wouldn't know it to look at them on the shelf, but cookbooks often have wonderful stories and insights from foreign lands and cultures between their covers. But on this day, there was no conversation on 641.5. However, as I was walking past the endcap where the librarians display the books of the month, 383.122 (correspondence) spoke to me. I could have sworn I heard Meryl Streep's voice from the movie Out of Africa softly saying, "I had a farm in Africa at the foot of the Ngong Hills..." There on the shelf was a book on the collected correspondence of Isak Dinesin, the author of Out of Africa. Since I have passion for all things having to do with letters, the thought of a a lifetime of correspondence sandwiched between the covers of a book really piqued my interest. So I took it from the shelf and found a comfortable chair in periodicals to curl up in.

From the pages of this book came the uncut version of Isak Dinesin's life in Africa. Her hopes and dreams, fears and the courage it took to face them, the pain of failure and the yearning of love lost, all poured out in the raw, unpolished script of letters to lovers and friends. I was so overtaken by the power of these private, handwritten words that I almost felt ashamed to read on, but couldn't help myself. I had to go on, to see her in the stark light of reality, instead of in the smartly dressed and witty, diffused version that I admired from the movie. Reading her letters told her story in a way that even she, as a first hand witness, couldn't do justice. The letters were unguarded and frank.They were not meant for public consumption, and by seeing them on the pages of a book, I came to see the person that she really was, human, vulnerable and flawed, just like me.

By the time I turned the last page of her life in letters, I was forever changed. Not so much by the story the letters told, but by the realization that her story and my story weren't so different. I have a life in letters. Scattered over years and miles, somewhere in the world, people I have written might still have in their attic, moments of my life tied in a bundle with a ribbon. I find comfort in the thought that while digging around looking for something unrelated one day, someone could run across my letters and from the pages hear my voice.