When Every Word Has to Count

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THERE are two kinds of letters - love letters, the obvious category, and another more amorphous genre I've never really given a name to. I guess I'd call them ``saving letters,'' or love letters of a different sort. They were meant to save people - from loneliness, from misery, from bad decisions. I wrote plenty of the first kind of love letters, but very few of the second. It's easy to be a nuisance in other people's lives, and no reasonable person wants to be a nuisance.

On the other hand, every now and then I came upon a friend in serious pain. I could tell that nothing I said at that moment, no loving tone or gentle shaping of the conversation, would truly ease the hurt.

Somehow I had to show that my friend's pain had registered deeply. I had to give words - well-thought-out words - that he or she could keep like prized possessions, or like the little gifts we used to give each other in grade school just for the pleasure of giving. I had to write a letter. It had to be a long letter, touching on everything we knew about each other. And every word had to count. Every word had to be right. It was the most personal of all possible poems, a poem of love and solace for someone spinning out of orbit.

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Shortly after I graduated from college I ran into an old friend from high school, someone I had not seen in nearly four years. She was studying to be an architect; that summer she had taken a drafting job with an architectural firm. Everything seemed fine, until one day I dropped by her house and she answered the door, crying. She was lost. She had no idea if she was doing anything worth doing. For years she had been torn between doing the ``right thing,'' like any dutiful child, and following the directives that lay in her heart like an unfulfilled mission. As she had veered almost always toward doing the ``right thing'' - which in this case meant applying her artistic talents to a respectable profession - she felt her heart deserting her.

Though we talked for a long time, it seemed that not enough had been said; the world around both of us felt stormy. I went home and composed a letter. It took me most of the night. As I wrote each word with an old ballpoint pen on a piece of lined white paper, I tried to imagine her face - the face I had seen that day, tear-streaked and confused, and the one I had known earlier, with its vivid confidence and daring and coyness and smiling brilliance. I weighed each word, directing it to both of those people.

I asked her to remember that who she was - the person I knew her to be - was more important than what she did. I asked her not to sacrifice herself and her own desires for a career; I asked her to remember the early daring that I had seen in her, and I begged her not to give herself up for lost. There was too much richness in her, I knew - too much artistry, too much life - to be confined in a dull path toward a plodding future. And I reminded her there were people, like me, who loved her for the way she lived her life, not simply for her title or professional plans.

For a week I did not hear from her. I thought I had been too bold. I waited. A letter came - a small envelope in her handwriting. Brief, as my own letters usually were, it thanked me more eloquently than any longer, later letter has ever done. I felt that I had caught someone in mid-fall, and that our combined weight had made us rise rather than falling farther. Those words in our letters were deeds, protecting us and lifting us up.

Things have changed now, sometimes in odd ways: My friends often seem impenetrably confident, even though I sense their anxieties, and when they - or we - write long letters to each other we speak mostly of children and jobs, snow-shoveling, leaf-raking, and the usual political perplexties.

The more one becomes an adult, it seems, the harder it is to admit a need for all those careful words of love and solace. Who has time to stop and look back, or even catch his breath? It's a busy world.

And yet, beneath all the business, the welter of verbiage, lies the essential fact of language: Words can comfort and heal. I remember this because I once wrote words out longhand as if someone's life depended on them. It may be that memory that makes me pause - right here, for example, - or after each sentence - to make sure that what I have said is what I really, really meant to say.

ABOUT THE ARTIST Born in a small Tuscan village, Marco Sassone has lived in the United States for over 20 years. His style is influenced by the 19th-century Italian painters who comprised the ``Macchiaioli.'' Macchia means smudge or blot, and this became part of his technique. Like the French Impressionists, light and water are the frequent focus of his work. In the Ideas section today on page 13, Merle Rubin writes about how we will never know ourselves through the telephone as we would in letters.

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