Saturday, November 15, 2008

on love, friendship, and letters

While looking for a photo album in our living room bookcase this morning, I spotted an envelope packed 3 inches thick with all the letters I had received while teaching at NELP in 1999 (New England Literature Program in New Hampshire). This was not just any teaching job. It was a 6-week college literature program taught in a boys' camp on Lake Winnepesauke, a job I had fantasized about since I had been there as a student during my senior year at University of Michigan. It meant living in a log cabin, teaching classes on the dock, baking bread every day, and being surrounded by wonderful, outdoorsy, smart people. It was also exactly five days into this teaching job that I fell in love with another staff member, Sam Manhart.

When I found these letters this morning, I started reading them and entered into a moment of my life so ripe and full and tender, and I haven't been able to shake the feelings they brought up all day. I became a bad mommy for a while, glued to these letters, totally distracted, and doling out play doh and crayons to keep Skyler and Reed busy.

First of all, how sad that I don't write or get letters anymore. How incredible that I have these long (sometimes 8-10 pages) thoughtful letters in my dear friends' and family members' handwriting.

I got probably 75 letters during the weeks I was there. Everyone knew how much it means to get mail at a place like NELP, totally (wonderfully) cut off from phones and email, and my friends and family really stepped it up.

The content is quite interesting too. My friends and I were all at such poignant moments in our lives, so much change, so many big decisions. Everyone writes about new love, decisions to move, start grad school, commit to a relationship, quit a job. I guess now that we are all so settled, it's surprising to remember how tumultuous everything was for that decade.

It is also clear that I had written to most of these friends, and to my family, about meeting Sam, falling in love, and deciding to end the relationship I had been in for 2 years in San Francisco because of it. The reactions were mixed. Some friends were thrilled by the news and wanted all the juicy details, others letters were full of advice to slow down and remember what I had left in California.

There are separate letters from my mom and my dad, both cautioning me of the false "perfect" world I was in and how that may be dangerously coloring my experience with Sam. Who was this tall, cigarette-smoking, wood-splitting, canoe enthusiast poet I had thrown everything out the window for? How would this relationship hold up in the real world?

My dad suggested I slow down, take some slow, deep breaths, though he added "I honor your feelings. They are yours alone." He signed his letter "I love you immensely." I feel so lucky that so many people were so engaged in my life and took all of these cumulative hours to write to me and be a part of it.

So all day I thought about those delicious, emotional, wood-smoke filled days at NELP when I could not take my eyes off of Sam. I thought about how much faith I had that everyone's concerns that I had rushed into love with a new man would blow away as soon as everyone met Sam. (I was right. No one ever second-guessed my decision after meeting him.)

I thought about these friends, my parents, my siblings, sending me fat and loving and newsy letters. And I'm proud that I am still in close (if less frequent) contact with everyone.
Thank you Mom, Dad, Liesel, Chris, Kelly, Christie, Adrienne, Ethan, Marjorie, Cassie, Lisa, Gabe, Jae, Michael, and Lidia. Your words are officially safe with me, and unbelievably cherished.


Meredith said...

Oh, I so know that feeling. I feel like I have to mourn afterward, in the wake of vivid reminders of the pieces of my life that I can no longer live.

What a precious thing to have so many pages of detailed and varied reflection on the beginning of your relationship with Sam. Imagine getting to re-read the other sides of those dialogs?

Carver Fam said...

It's so wonderful to know the story in reverse- to know you and Sam as the happy couple who have created an amazing life and beautiful family and then to understand the shakey legs that held your future so long ago.

I know all of that from a deeper place because Sandi and I were originally met with some "concern" and downright criticism since we had to make momentous choices to be together. For us too, no one has ever second guessed us. What a great thing to be right about, no?

I forget the Sam smoked... I think he did when we met him- no because I ever saw a cigarette hang from his mouth but because I remember him going to Mt. Katahdin to quit one fall day...

Baute Family said...

I sometimes also look back at writings and can't believe all the turmoil, waves and mountains we conquered together and seperate. I cherish your friendship and believe there were times that only you keptmy head above water. The love from your family was present everytime I was in their presence. I wish I would've taken advantage of the time we lived close...for you have always been such a good friend. thank you.

Tiercy said...

What a great post! What a romatic beginning! What an amazing happily ever after. love you!

beth said...

Ooooh Yes, How well I remember it all from our prospective in Maryland. This was only the umpteenth time you had been madly in love and yes, we were concerned.
After all you had only been there for five days when we got the letter telling us you had met THE ONE. In a state of high anxiety, both Dad and I composed letters cautioning you to put on the brakes and advising you this was rather like a ship-board romance. ( I love it that you still have those letters.)
But from the moment, five weeks later, when we met the long, lanky poet named Sam, we were on your side. My only regret is that your Dad is not here to see you two now and to know Skyler and Reed. Thank God he was a part of your wedding. He so loved that entire week when we all prepared the wedding feast and celebrated your union.
And don't think for one minute that you won't be writing similar letters to Skyler and Reed one day.

Adrienne said...

how clearly i remember getting that letter from you. it's tucked away here in box with other special correspondence. i can't say i knew right that minute that this was so different from any of the other times we breathlessly confessed a new love to one another; i think that did come when i actually met sam.

it's gratifying/eerie/discomfiting sometimes to read old letters....a bit too vivid. but what a happy interlude connects emilie of those days to emilie of today. i'm going to sit down one of these days and write you a letter....