When the package first arrived, I figured it probably contained old letters and photographs. George had a penchant for doing things like that; digging up my past and serving it up on a large plate, drizzled with the angst and confusion of a young man’s problematic existence, and served with a side of questionable regret.
I guess I started writing letters to George when I left my neighborhood to join the army in 1977. We had been friends since I was ten or eleven; at least that’s what I remember. George is old enough to be my father, and he was there for me when I was the childhood victim of a failing marriage and a real father who either didn’t understand me, or flat-out didn’t care. I’ll never know for sure; Mom and Dad are both dead. George isn’t. He sent me that package just the other day.
It was a thick, heavy envelope–full of all the words I had strung together during my stint in the army, my college years, and my first few semesters as a full-time art teacher in Georgia, just outside of Atlanta. Almost a decade of my incomprehensibly questionable life on this wildly spinning orb.
I believe I may have become a man sometime during those years, although if George had pointed that out to me, I will never know; his letters to me are all gone. George has always been better at that than me. While I don’t keep more than one or two emails from the same person because they’re too troublesome to delete later on, George keeps meticulous records of the paths his good friends have travelled, in words and images, so he can opine at their eventual destinations. It’s not that George is judgmental; he’s just that interested.
When I opened up the envelope, a slew of correspondences fell out onto the living room floor where I sat cross-legged beside my cat that rainy afternoon. I was surprised, but not really, at all the things I had revealed to my old friend–doubts and dreams, the glory of superficial accomplishments, the anguish of lost love . . . It was as if I had discussed in great detail every path I had ever taken in my life. But it wasn’t just a matter-of-fact diatribe; I seemed to be reaching out to him for approval. I was lost and looking for directions, and that is the quest of any young person, I believe–to go on a journey and expect a map to show up somewhere along the way.
The map has not yet arrived, but the trek continues. Some time over the years I was married, and George is now good friends with my wife. And in his mind he is recording both our journeys, and also the one we travel together.
I haven’t gone through all the letters yet; the ones I’ve read so far make me fearful of the rest. I don’t know why I feel this way, and even though I fully realize the past can’t be undone, I have an unrelenting urge to imagine that my earlier years were less treacherous than they actually were, and I do not want this spoiled. I shared those things with George years ago because I couldn’t face them all by myself. Why should I try to deal with them now, when I have certainly moved past all that? Or have I? Have any of us?
We are all, in one way or another, products of our pasts–of the paths we chose long, long ago. And I wonder, now more than ever, will the knowledge of the events that have formed us enrich our lives in some way? Or would we merely be digging up old, weathered bones?
Perhaps the ghosts of the past should be allowed, once again, to float freely along the old paths; or, if they are no longer interested in that single-minded pursuit, maybe they could just point the rest of us in the right direction.