I wake up at 6am. It’s still dark but I know what I have to do. I take a 30-year-old letter from a childhood friend, cut up pieces of it, and glue it onto the grey page of a spiral-bound Soviet-era notebook. I keep doing this for hours.
The letters I’m gradually disappearing are the jumping-off point for the book I’m working on. I’m writing back though I have no intention of mailing my answers or reengaging with my correspondents in any way but fictive. This is not a project to reconnect or restore a past I miss or long for. I’m trying to breathe some life into the long dead. To use inert forgotten materials to make something new.
So much of our culture is nostalgia. A longing to return to a golden past that never was. It’s in our horrible politics, in the endless remakes, sequels, requels, and reboots. Retro repackaging of other eras because we’re so unsatisfied with our current state. I’m not immune to it entirely. I’d like to have the metabolism of my 20-year-old self. But I want nothing else of his. He was a miserable asshole. I may be as well but I can laugh about it a lot easier than he could. There’s no comparison. I wouldn’t go back even fifteen years with a gun to my head.
This is no Pollyanna picture. I know the window is closing. My period of engagement and activity is finite and there’s less of it left all the time. That’s what cutting up the old letters is partly about. They are nothing I want anyone else reading when I’m gone.
I suppose I could have just burned them all years ago like one ex did and moved on. But I kept them in a drawer until lockdown came. Then I took them out and started rereading. It felt like opening a new book that felt familiar. It’s about people I once knew. But I can’t share them with others. Not in their original form. Even an immoral plunderer knows that’s crossing a line. Cut-up recontextualized fragments are another story. At least that’s what I’m telling myself.
Will they be offended? Recognize themselves in what I write or see their own handwriting in the collages I’m making? Maybe, probably. Anything you send out into the world is liable to be used in ways you hadn’t wanted or intended.
Especially if you sent it to someone like me.