74–It feels as if you are a time traveler.
But the writer is also him, a him he did know, later; when you were 17, heading into the world, leaving for college, he had this writer inside of him. It just never occurred to you.
Reading each letter is an act of interpretation.
The handwriting is like a painting, or a fingerprint. It becomes indicative of something; tells its own story. The paper changes by country, the pen, the envelope; but the handwriting changes by mood. Some days it’s broad, others loopy, occasionally tight; in the early letters it's nearly calligraphic—later, after months of travel, it loosens up, stretches, even approaches a messiness which feels tired, short of breath.
Like music, or poetry, you have to interpret it openly, without prescription, without narrative intent. You have to read it and let it go: let the curves and the valleys carry you toward whatever unsaid mood is being implied: hear the melody—how does it make you feel? What does it make you think? What does it say about what is being said? Beneath what is being said? In lieu of what is being said?
What does it say about what isn’t being said?
Does it really say anything at all?
(No need to put that into words…)
Reading a letter is an act of time travel.
These are the letters of a 17 year-old. A boy at the cusp, a young man just starting out.
He isn’t quite your father, but he’ll become your father. But not yet. Not here.
Here, he’s still a boy. You won’t happen for another 17 years. He won’t become a father for another 14. He doesn’t become the man you “know” until you come of age—eight, ten, twelve years after that. He won’t step into his own knowing for who knows how long.
So who is this? Whose words are you reading, exactly? A man you knew, but a version you didn’t. A man you’ve never known—not like this. A man who's future self, a self which even the writer doesn’t know (has yet to meet, may not understand, and can’t speak to) is the man you knew. But the writer is also him, a him he did know, later; when you were 17, heading into the world, leaving for college, he had this writer inside of him. It just never occurred to you.
Realize: the letter writer, a child-teenager-young man on the verge of adulthood, is closer in age to your own child than to you. Now, today, you are 40 and he is 17 (then 18). Yet this person—this writer, this voice, this child-teenager-man—also carries the warmth, the authority, the power of your father. Your patrimony. Your heredity. Your bloodline. Your dad.
Or is that something you’re projecting? Reading into it? Is it really there in the words? In the tone? On the paper? In the handwriting?
He is your father, after all.
If the project is to read, then how to navigate such secondary effects—those switchbacks of identity and reality and time? If the project is to access the past, to process it, to feel and experience it, to be alive with it in the present—then how to handle such vertigo? Is it as simple as feeling his presence carried into the present via an artifact carried from the past? To feel him, here, today, despite time and distance and death? Despite the incompleteness, the incomprehensibility of the artifact in your hands?
Perhaps this is also like music. As in: you have to let it play, let it wash over you, let it be its own expression—with or without a secondary set of descriptors to give it “meaning.”
This is how it feels to read the voice of your father at an age when you could be his father. In an era you’ve lost access to. Living a life you can’t possibly know. Sharing memories you cannot have. Navigating spaces you’ve never seen. Living a timeline you can never fully enter.
It feels as if you are a time traveler.
He—the voice, the letter writer—doesn’t know you’re here. He doesn’t know his letters exist 54 years ahead. He doesn’t even know he’ll have a child (“I must get a little–only a little–bit sorted myself before I start answering their millions of questions”), let alone three, let alone one who is reading his letters now, here: in this place he might not even have remembered had he lived long enough to be asked.
A child sitting on some church steps that he wonders (hopes) are the same church steps that hosted his father’s ass for three hours fifty-four years before (“Now hang on a sec, I’ve got a numb bum and it’s not so nice to put a hand there and feel nothing. The steps outside this little old church at Antibes have no mercy”).
Here I am, later, sitting on a bench at the shore at Juan Les Pins, or, later still, at a tourists’ restaurant in old Antibes, or, on an earlier afternoon, in a neighborhood cafe in Paris. Carrying these letters around like a child carries a teddy bear or a Hot Wheel car. Reading.
I am the one traveling. I have gone back in time, or I’ve pulled a thread of the past into the now. I’ve wrenched a bit of a 54 year-old consciousness into the present, and the consciousness, despite the many years held on this page—trapped as ink and pressure and formed as English words—is still 17 years-old.
Yet it is still somehow, despite the passage of time and the confusions of who and what and when, my father’s consciousness. My father’s spirit. His words.
I want to look backwards; but he can’t see beyond the page.
I want to dig into the details, to ask him for context, for explanation, for color: did you really think this? What became of that plan? What did you end up doing? Why didn’t you do that? What happened that shook those feelings loose?
But I can’t. The letters—artifact, capsule; missive, missile—have traveled. Not the man.
The letters, and me.
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