Ever since last November, when I got decades of journals from my long-deceased friend Fern’s lifetime of recording her history, I’ve been in a paralyzing writing slump. I got those journals in a surprisingly circuitous way. Long ago, I resigned myself to the idea that I’d never see them. When we were in elementary school, we were both prolific writers, reading each other our journal entries on the phone at night. At least most of our entries. For the most part, during the thirty years we were friends, I can’t say that ones we omitted were significant enough to come as a big surprise to either one of us. When she died, I was frantic about whose hands they might fall into, knowing that they harbored dark family secrets. I tried hard to get them from people I didn’t know and ultimately, made my peace with the fact that I couldn’t protect Fern’s privacy. Thirty-four years later, they wound up in the possession of a mutual friend of ours, someone who knew I’d been desperate to find them. He sent them to me and shortly after Thanksgiving, I opened the door to the past.
I really didn’t anticipate the feelings these journals evoked. As expected, I didn’t learn much from them that I didn’t already know. Before I started them, I was having conversations with the friend who acquired them for me, about which university might house them, along with Fern’s other writing, her poetry, short stories, two novels and letters. But instead of thinking about which of the three educational institutions she’d attended for her degrees, I was instead flattened by the sense that her most personal writing should never be exposed to public scrutiny. Initially I suppose I thought that a collection like hers would likely be of value to future readers. Libraries are full of the papers of more authors than I can count. But that isn’t how I felt at all. Instead I felt that I couldn’t imagine anyone gaining insights or benefits from reading the journals. Despite my knowledge of the dark parts in Fern’s life, I still felt like a nosy intruder, a gawker slowing down to witness a bad accident. For her few family members who are alive, I anticipated nothing but pain if the journals were exposed. And all these thoughts made me think long and hard about my own stacks of journals. How would they impact my family, or any of the people who’ve unknowingly made an appearance in them? Should all that information become public?
I’ve been stuck in front of blank pages for awhile now. However my avoidance behavior has begun to wear me out. During the past couple of days, I’ve started digging into some of my oldest journals. I want to see if anything recorded in them is really worth saving, other than their intrinsic historic value as documents of a life. Anyway, I’m always motivated to take a look back at my writing at this time of year. Almost to this exact day, it was 51 years ago that I showed up on my friend Michael’s doorstep with my suitcase in my hand, announcing that I was moving in with him. To his question, “where are you going to sleep?,” I replied, “in your bed.” And that is where I remained until his death in May, 2017. I do relish the memory of our transition from a close friendship into our life partnership. I’m pleased to say that I found a letter I wrote in March, 1972 that I never mailed. I was amazed to discover that the internal dialogue I had with myself back then, as I struggled to make sense of my emotions, was a good indicator of the person I still recognize in my current life. I guess I was more mature for my age than I recalled.
“The brain finishes developing and maturing in the mid-to-late 20s. The part of the brain behind the forehead, called the prefrontal cortex, is one of the last parts to mature. This area is responsible for skills like planning, prioritizing, and making good decisions.” National Institute of Mental Health.
A little background…in January of 1972, I’d tossed caution to the wind and taken off on a European adventure with two of my girlfriends. During the previous year, I’d been my own sad story, chasing relentlessly after my first real love, Al, who was absolutely opposed to being in a committed relationship with me. In the summer of 1971, while we tortured each other with frequent break-ups and short-lived reconciliations, I met Michael at the wedding of mutual friends. I’d heard of him before but somehow our paths had never crossed. That wedding was a drug and alcohol-fueled wild event. I had attended on my own while Michael had come with his current girlfriend who ultimately left the party. I spent most of the evening with him and another friend, feeling relaxed and enjoying myself, a welcome relief from my usual psychodrama with Al. After that night, I went to visit my parents for a few days. When I returned, all I wanted to do was find Michael to continue getting to know him. I’ve never been able to adequately describe the powerful instantaneous connection we both felt after just a few hours together. Over the next five months we spent all kinds of time in each other’s company, squeezed in between school, work and our primary romantic relationships with other people. I’d never experienced such a rapid development of trust and intimacy with anyone before him. We were strictly platonic but within about two months I was feeling mightily confused about pretty much everyone in my life.
That’s when the Europe plans firmed up. All I wanted to do was get away from everything to clear my head. Driving along the Pennsylvania Turnpike in total darkness with my friends, I was thinking rapidly about all that I was leaving behind. In a moment of perfect clarity I realized I was in love with Michael. When we stopped for the night, I impulsively called him to share my revelation. He responded with the comment, “far out.” The next day I boarded an airplane in New York and flew away for a couple of months. Ah, the courage or perhaps the foolhardiness of youth. Of course during my trip, while I experienced the magic of carefree travel, I also experienced all the doubts and fears which can follow an impulsive declaration. Here is my unvarnished and unmailed letter from that time. An interesting view into my 20 year old brain.
Today was beautiful, sunny rainbows in Geneva. Lakes, rivers, parks everywhere, it’s oh so clean and lovely. I really appreciate the warm weather – it’s been cold in lots of the places we’ve been in but somehow summer is trailing us now. The best part of this place is “The Old City,” antique churches w/walls of tiled pictures, and gorgeous stained glass. Also there are swans, ducks, pigeons and gulls everywhere – you can get way into birds here.
I need you really badly right now, I want to talk to you so you can help me sort out my feelings. I’m happy and content here but there’s a lot on my mind and I think that the imminence of going home has something to do with my urgency for communication. I’ve thought a lot about people, all kinds, and relationships, too. I’ve met so many on this trip and each one has added an extra shade to my perception of what it’s all about, and me, in regard to it all. I’m so sure of myself, what I am and I don’t want to have to change again. There’s so much I left behind, I don’t know how it’s going to shape up when I return.
Letters are generally a screwed up way to communicate but I can tell what’s behind the words. One thing’s for sure, Al’s gone, out of the picture, I care about him but I never want to be with him again. God, it was sick, wasn’t it? The Dennis thing too has had its ups and downs, even through the mail, it’s all so strange to me.
As you can probably tell, I’m beating around the bush, or rather around my head. What can I say to you? I’m afraid to come back. It’s all back there, whatever any of these feelings are, and I don’t know how I’m going to walk in and pick things up. I’m so afraid of you – I feel vulnerable and though I know you won’t intentionally hurt me, I’m anticipating trouble. It’s hard to describe.
I wish you could’ve gone through this trip with me. I’d really like traveling with you, I know it – we’d just sort of blend together like we always do. I want to love you very badly, mostly because I already do and the absurdity of it all is pressing on my mind. I keep thinking how I’d love for you, me and the dogs to jump in the car and run away forever. Shit.
I keep feeling that I’ve made everything up, that I’m just fantasizing. I don’t know how I got into this mood, I don’t know why I’m telling you all this insanity. I think I’m lonely. Well, why not just be honest, for Chrissakes? Why should I keep implying things when I can just tell you straight? What all this incoherent nonsense amounts to is actually very simple.
According to all indicators, I’m most probably in love with you and by pretty easy calculations, have been for some time. Unfortunately external circumstances have been a problem and as a result, I never, or my feelings never had a chance to know if it could work between us. So my explosive confession of love to you from Pennsylvania while on my way out of the country and then nothing but dreamland from afar. It’s crazy, I still have unresolved feelings for Al but I’m hanging on the edge of a precipice, you, you’re stuck inside me and I turn there, to that spot, all the time, especially when I’m deep in my emotions or when I’m in a pinch. All the time. I don’t trust myself in this, or you in this, or this itself, I’m dying. We never stepped over that line. Why aren’t you here, why aren’t I there, why did I leave and does it make a difference in reality?
I want to sleep with you, dammit, do you understand? We’ve never even kissed. These are tough things to write, but they’re really true and at least it would resolve something. Michael, I want us to love each other.
I’m almost ill right now. This letter is insensible, unreasonable, hyper-emotional and full of sexual frustration. What do I know, my experience is pretty limited. I hope you don’t get upset reading this; this is actually positive and nice somewhere beneath the turmoil. How do you say you love someone when the subject has been carefully evaded and concealed for so long? That’s why it would be better to talk, look and touch, clear the air, the confusion and figure out the differences between fantasy and what’s really happening. I know you’re a mess too, trying to keep get it all down, being uncertain, unsure. What a drag. Can you possibly write me and tell me what’s going to happen??!!??
Have a good vacation, please write to me in Frankfort before you leave. I’ll see you in the beginning of April. I love you, don’t be uptight about it. It’s still just the same as it’s always been between us. Reny.
Well, things worked out. I’m glad I saved this letter, despite all my misgivings about journals.