Just between us

Letter writing has always drawn distinctions among my friends. Those closest to me are the ones to whom the composition of a letter is the most challenging. This may seem odd. After all, these are the people with whom I have spent long hours studying the vein patterns in oak leaves and learning the points of sail.

They are the ones who know the most about me -- my likes, dislikes, indifferences -- and I know the most about them. It would make sense that these letters would flow naturally onto paper like water seeking its level.

But things do not always make sense. Puppies rip up magazines amid a barrage of rubber beefsteaks and milkbones. Streets are repaved as a preamble to new sewer systems. And letters are left unwritten to the people who deserve them the most.

The letters I write without telling anything about my ideas could be manufactured, of course, like press releases from the public relations office of a favorite Senator. Travel brochures that detail comings and goings in terse prose. Informative as a Britannica entry, detailed as a Gothic cathedral, dry as a California parking lot.

These letters are not necessarily any less sincere than a letter that communicates my ideas. It is just that casual letters restrict me to a superficial spectrum of subjects. I hold back.

The thing that makes writing to dear friends so difficult is that we are trying to translate original thoughts into words. Written words. Not the glib phrases of a play-by-play report, but the thoughts that are shaping our lives.

A real friend is someone more interested in what we are thinking that in what we are doing.

An experience several years ago first alerted me to this distinction in letters to friends. After leaving the small town in which I had grown up, I kept up a steady correspondence with one of my childhood friends. We followed one another's progress through braces and new math.

Seven years later, when we were both in our teens, the opportunity arose for a reunion. We were both ecstatic. It would be like old times, visiting neighbors who used to offer us cooke bribes in return for careful passage through their flower beds during our mock army maneuvers. And, of course, there would be the secret handshake she and I had vowed never to forget.

We had a terrible time. We skirted the issues until late in my visit. The 4 -H picnic we attended almost ended in disaster when she and I finally began arguing about the meaning of life. We disagreed on just about everything. We even argued about the Bible. She was frightened by my interpretation of Genesis , and I couldn't understand her silence. We had changed, but our letters had not reflected this.

It was then that I understood the tenuous nature of our postage stamp relationship. We had never taken the time to translate our individual growth into the words that would maintain a friendship.

We had been too busy comparing grade points to see the schism growing between us. If our letters had communicated some of that, maybe it wouldn't have come as such a shock. Maybe we could have still met as friends.

So today, when I receive a dispatch from someone which tells me nothing more important than the scores of a recent tennis set, I sigh with relief. This will be a cinch to answer, I say to myself. I need only collect equivalent trivia from the past week and the response is assured. But at the same time, I try to slip in something of consequence, something that will alert this acquaintance to a changing current in my life.

Perhaps it's expecting too much, but I would like to see the day when letter writing is no longer a game with each side simply striving to keep up the volley. Let each letter convey just a little bit of our true selves. This is accepting the challenge of genuine communication.

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