A (Not So) Tiny Letter

Hi,

I've been reading a lot of letters. It seems all I do these days is read letters.

But here's a letter for you. I wish I could send it to you on the onion-skin I so often find myself reading, the translucent sheets etched with the black ink of a an old Hermes's or Corona Portable's hammer-strikes, the sheet carefully folded into an envelope covered with bright stamps and decorated with a picture of a DC-3 and bold capitals reading "VIA AIR MAIL." 

Of course, I can't, but I still want to say hello, because it's been a while (probably) and I miss you (certainly) and connecting beyond the superficial digital zones where we encounter one another. You may know where I've been, but perhaps something will settle on this screen. Letters, whatever their substrate, allow thoughts to steep better than ever-flowing streams of information we feel we must address and process now. Right now. Always now.

So feel free to read this and whatever letters follow at your leisure.

This Spring, while traveling between archives and libraries, first in Washington, D.C. and College Park, Maryland, then in Palo Alto and San Diego, I've had a sort of secondary education on the art of letter-writing. But what I want to discuss isn't what I've read in search of details about Melville Jacoby's life. I want to address what happens after processing so many diplomats' desk calendars, journalists' diaries, essayists' scrawled notes, and of course, the letters, those countless letters. I want to address what happens when I leave the reading rooms and need to unpack myself into whatever crevices of the day remain. Hard as I may work, these trips acquire meaning through what happens in their margins. Even seemingly inconsequential after-hours moments counterbalance days crammed with research and mountains of paper.

After I finished my first day at the Library of Congress, a college friend I hadn't seen since graduation showed off the senate office where she now works. I later met her husband (and adorable dog) while staying as the first overnight guest at the house they just bought. But what I remember from my visit wasn't catching up over what we've done the past dozen years, it was the three of us talking late into the night over meals and music, the kind of meandering conversation one remembers from college dining halls, dorm lounges and walks across the quad. In other words, the moments outside the classroom.

But for the bulk of my nights in D.C., I stayed on the couch of my best friend from grad school. We hadn't seen one another for half a decade. Because of a major event in the D.C. area while I was there, my friend, a TV news producer, was as busy as I. While we could only squeeze in a few hours of socializing, our familiarity with one another ran so deep that we didn't need to do anything to resume our patter after five years apart, and being busy together was our normal. Back at her apartment on the last night of my trip, we collapsed on the couch with wine, take-out and mindless TV. Both depleted by our work, the moment felt like the endless hours we'd spent agonizing over our Master's projects, commiserating over breakups and wondering what the hell we would do next with our lives. It was the comfort of familiarity balanced against a week working ourselves sick (Literally; I went home with a cold).

Pain and Gain

Two weeks later, I was at it again in California. There, I met friends' boyfriends at ballgames and high school classmates' babies at coffee shops. One night in L.A., after mingling with Tyrannosaurs and dancing among the imagined landscapes of a prehistoric Golden State, one of my oldest friends and I stretched the night deep into the morning, remembering youthful exploits on late nights long past.

On my second day in San Diego, after exhausting the collection I'd come to scrutinize, I visited the studio of an aunt literally working herself raw finishing a glass art installation. With my uncle explaining the painstaking preparations they were making to hang the work, my aunt stepped away from shaping a sea-green sheet of glass. She explained how, despite torn-up hands and her exhaustion, she was fulfilled by the work and grateful for the chance to involve the man she loved with its preparation. Toil doesn't only happen from nine-to-five, and it doesn't only happen in offices or construction sites.

Just the previous night, I met a high school friend I hadn't seen since 2001. Over cocktails and a late-night tea, we dissected the writing life, its sharp edges, and the truth of just how brutal our passions can be.

"Because I love making art, and I love being alive, I am trying to be brave, to be honest, and to listen carefully,"  she confided the next day in a North American Review essay. She felt like I sometimes do, like she was failing. "And so far this year, interestingly, it’s been the perfect fail. All pain, no gain."

Candid admissions were the order of the week. After my visit to my aunt's studio I met one more person, an old colleague who became a close friend years after we worked together. At a coffee shop near her childhood home we discussed "light" topics: books, TV shows, our families, etc.; but we also talked about her pancreatic endocrine cancer — and its often debilitating treatment. That afternoon, Huffington Post ran a piece she wrote originally for Reimagine.me about fighting to stay afloat financially. Years into her diagnosis, she hasn't even reached her 29th birthday. As she details in the piece, she didn't choose the expense of having cancer the way we make other informed choices about our major financial commitments, but she must bear it. I know her to be an artist as well, and I know that she is brave, and I know that she is honest about when she cannot be brave, and I know she listens carefully, and I even know much of what she loves about being alive. And I also know about her pain — though it's a real pain whose dimensions I can't fathom — pain that, by contrast with what art has brought my high school friend and I, didn't result from any of her choices.

Seventy-Two Years

Fortunately, pain isn't the only experience that catches us off guard. The previous night, I stayed late at UCSD's Theodore Geisel Library. On the bus to meet my high school friend, a woman who works at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies sat down next to me. We started talking about her research into genomics, as well as mine into history and wartime news coverage, and our mutual bliss throwing ourselves into work we love. It was one of those serene moments of connection, where as draining as our day had been, we regretted when the bus reached my stop, because it meant we couldn't continue this unexpected conversation.

But I learned one thing: Her name was Shelley. Shelley's name was easy to remember. My aunt with the glass-torn fingers is named Shelley. One of Mel's best friends was named Shelley. That day, I'd spent much of my time reading letters written between that Shelley (along with her husband, Carl) and the couple whose papers I was studying. 

It's a coincidence, to be sure, but it was enough of one to get my attention. And it's on my mind again tonight. 

When Japan invaded the Philippines, Mel and his wife, Annalee, escaped. But Japanese troops captured Shelley and Carl and imprisoned them with other American civilians. A few months after Mel's escape, he radioed Washington D.C. and urged U.S. officials to arrange a prisoner exchange, hoping his friends could be released. The government couldn't make the exchange happen, at least not then, but in a letter acknowledging Mel's request, his contact expressed relief at his and Annalee's safety.

"One of these days we shall hope to see you again," read one line of the letter, dated April 28, 1942.

I realize not only that this letter was sent exactly 72 years ago, but also that its hope would never be realized. Just a few hours later — indeed, nearly at the exact hour I finished the last edits on this letter — halfway around the world, an airfield accident would change everything, and kill Mel.

I hadn't intended to write this note to mark the anniversary of Mel's death, but I can't ignore that timing.

There's something else I can't ignore. Mel didn't choose his pain, either. He didn't have a chance to reconnect over the decades with old friends for drinks or dinners or candid admissions. Mel didn't have hours or days, let alone years, to recover from exhausting work. He only had his short life.

While I was working at the Hoover Institution, I went to an evening forum at Stanford's School of Journalism sponsored by Rowland and Pat Rebele. There was a reception after the talk, and I spent a long time there chatting with Rowland, whose curiosity about Mel's story deepened with each question I answered. That was exciting enough, but my biggest memory of the night was when I stood up from the panel discussion and noticed glass-encased shelves lined with cardinal-red, bound volumes. The spine of a book on the shelf closest to me read "An Analysis of Far Eastern News in Representative California Newspapers, 1934-38." It was a masters thesis authored by Charles L. Leong and Melville J. Jacoby. Of course I knew about its existence already, but seeing it there, moments before meeting Rebele, reminded me that I am doing the work I need to be doing, when I need to be doing it.

It's not news that writing is a solitary existence. Since I am single, and I work from home, and I don't have roommates, I sometimes feel even more isolated. All these moments of connection these past months, however, make this work feel far less lonesome. Indeed, they reminded me that there are people who understand the work I'm doing, even if miles, years and conditions separate us.

That's part of the reason I'm writing you; in the past, you've shown an interest, and I want to carry on whatever conversations we've already started, or begin ones that might last into the future. I'll write occasionally to this list; sometimes once a week, sometimes a little more or a little less frequently; sometimes longer, sometimes shorter. Yes, I want to keep you interested in my book, but I also want to experiment with a simple but elusive concept: getting and remaining in touch. If this isn't the place for you to do that, or you don't want to remain in touch, please don't feel obligated to do so and please don't feel like you'll offend me if you unsubscribe.

But that's why I'm writing you today, and if you can, and if you want, write back when you can, about this, about your passions, about anything. And share this note widely with people who'd want to read it, and who'd want to be part of the conversation.

-Bill

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