Letters of Note
Our postman is knackered. The poor man has had a lot on his plate recently. I think he may request a new, quieter round, perhaps one where he sees my be-spectacled face and tea-stained dressing gown slightly less often. I, on the other hand, am in heaven. Not literally (not yet), but in writing-paper, parcel and ink heaven. From around the world, from inner spiral and outer circles, post has arrived. Letters have been laughed over. Parcels opened. Cards have been wept on. And now, the letters need to be shared, because if there was ever correspondence deserving of a wider audience, this is it.
My letters of note have begun to fall into distinct categories.
First, we have letters of the past. I love to hear from you, my erstwhile class-mates, co-workers, boyfriends, beer-drinkers. I wonder if you are creeping out of the woodwork with the sole purpose of brightening my mornings. I am becoming increasingly like my centenarian Grandmother, in a blissful reverie of youth, facilitated by your letters and (O! horror!) photos. I have been reminded of my fourteen-year old self. Apparently I was kind, and my hair was shiny. I remember putting a lot of effort into my shiny hair, and very little into being kind, so someone from school remembering me as not all bad is a great relief. I have been transported back to the sixth form, which I spent wearing the clothes of a middle-aged woman (why, when I actually had the body for it, did I not wear actual hot-off-the-streets fashion?) I must have been the only teenage raver wearing Jigsaw and Hobbs as I dabbled in class-A drugs and hard house. University seems less distant, though it was nearer twenty years ago than ten, because so many faces are still around me now – though now with far better hair. But still, so many wise, interesting people who are no longer in my daily life, but who have written to tell me about theirs. To tell me of manifold career changes, of children, of things that have happened that they wished hadn’t, and things that have happened that they always wanted. They have reminded me of the outwardly confident, inwardly terrified eighteen year-old who turned up Hopkins’ towery city all those years ago. The girl who wore brightly coloured g-strings (though I suspect false-memory syndrome from this particular correspondent; the g-string wearer was actually the cool girl the room below me rocking a leopard skin coat, with a talent for darts and a perfect memory for song-lyrics); the Kate who was won over by all these fascinating new people who would talk about Shakespeare as well as unrequited love; the Kate who developed a suspicious new interest in Rugby (players) but hadn’t the sense to realise that eating chips with cheese and salad cream every night might lead to some extra pounds here and there.
We have the letters of uncertainty. I asked you, more than a year ago, to share with me how to live when you don’t know what will happen next, when your world has been shaken apart and the pieces haven’t settled, and maybe never will. The stories you have told have taught me so much. There is the story of my Palestinian-Jordanian friend whose family are spread across a Middle East that is fracturing (all over again) as I write. Amman. Jordan. The West Bank. Gaza. Syria. Uncertainty, fear, loss and suffering as geo-politics as well as family politics. The stories I have been told from South Sudan since fighting began there in December. My friends’ dramatic escapes from Juba. The fact that only white and rich people got on the planes out. The million people who have fled their homes, the towns and villages destroyed, in this – the newest country in the world – on the cusp of tearing itself apart. The stories of families who find joy and happiness even though life doesn’t pan out the way they expected; the letter from my beautiful, blind, disabled, master-skiing, Schubert-sonata-playing, loving cousin Patrick which I shall treasure forever. The note from a friend who lost his unborn baby just before Christmas, who shows courage which can only come from being part of the most wonderful family himself.
Then, we have the miracle letters. There are prayers, lots of these, accompanied by angels, holy oil and the Virgin Mary (thank you, my beloved Muintir, for the waves of love from Belfast). And there are secular prayers. Stories of miraculous recoveries. My favourite is about a young, fit guy who fell into a coma after suffering completely unexpected heart and lung failure. He spent 6 weeks in this coma, with his family and friends (flying in from around the world) keeping vigil by his bedside. The doctors repeatedly told his family he wouldn’t make it. But somehow he did, and now he’s completely well. Even his medics were prepared to describe it as a miracle, which is not a term any self-respecting doc I know bandies around lightly. Listen; I’m not expecting to reverse the course of nature here. But who doesn’t love a story about someone who defeats the odds?
There are letters which make me glow. I think I actually might emit some kind of phosphorescent light when I read them. These letters tell me that what I write matters, that this little voice which has started to roar is listened to, that people actually READ what I have to say and find me (yes me) inspirational. I can hardly believe my luck: remember, my earliest career choice was Poet Laureate. Being told my words mean something to people is about the highest praise I could receive. Please continue. But be warned: too much and I will start believing your hype. I shall develop some kind of Messiah complex, meditate silently in the sun, refuse visitors and cake and expect you all to follow my wise teachings via this rather didactic little book I am writing (yes I am. It’s all about MEEEEE, obviously).
Finally, there are the letters which provide solace. My ever-wise mum asked you for stories of children who had lost parents; happy stories, where the children turn out All Right. We have received many of these (how I wish there weren’t so many). These letters are really not mine to share, but I have to. Please forgive me, correspondents, I don’t follow the rules anymore. First, this from a beautiful girl faced with a potential new step-mum who said she would never try to replace her mother: “I had to hide my confusion and laughter, it was like someone telling me that you could replace fire with wind. As far as I was aware, the position of biologically giving birth to me, nursing me and giving me my eyes, sense of humour and apple figure wasn’t up for grabs. I smiled back and thought “you wish”. No-one could ever tell me they loved me like she did, and no-one ever really needed to again, because it was my grounding, my bedrock. Just because I wasn’t told it every hour again, didn’t mean I didn’t feel it encircle me.” And this, from a wise and funny man I wish I knew better. “Many people wonder how their children will handle milestones if they are not around. I hope that I can shed some light on this, as I have gone through nearly every major milestone with just my mum. Graduation, birthdays, weddings, births, monster truck shows – the big events. And here’s the thing. It’s hard, but there’s a bittersweet aspect to every milestone. You can take stock and you have a moment in your own heart where quietly, on your own, you can simply reflect. You learn to try and soak up everything that you can because you, more than most people, know that things don’t last. I have always tried to make time and drink it all in, and to make sure others are drinking it in with me. I like to stop and make sure that it’s in my mind forever”.
The sun is shining on me today in Cambridge. Someone has sent me macaroons, and I have a box of your letters at my feet (also, by the way, the real Letters of Note which is truly wonderful). Billy and the boys will treasure what you have sent us forever. Correspondents, we salute you.