Letters without obligation

WHY is it so hard to convince friends that they really aren't obligated to answer your letters? Maybe it's because the human race has established of late a letter-writing convention (so cast in iron that it is nearly unbreakable): a letter for a letter, a note for a note. It is almost unheard of to write someone a second letter before a response has come to the first. We write letters, and then we wait. And wait. And wait. If there is no reply, we may never write again -- sometimes because we become so critical of the friends who haven't answered us that we forget whatever lovely thing it was that made us write to them in the first place. Conversely, when we receive a letter, we are overcome with guilt as the days, weeks, months (perhaps even years) pass and we haven't responded.

Sometimes people cannot respond, and I've come to think that one of the demands of long-distance friendship is a fertile imagination and a more-than-usually undemanding, accepting nature. And though I may really be overextend-ing myself on this one, I even think that laziness and lethargy are forgivable. I've been there, and I know what kinds of desperation can be behind lethargy.

Obviously, many letters demand and require fairly speedy response; they are written for the sole purpose of asking a question and obtaining an answer. And letters expressing deep gratitude for some benefit received nearly always touch the heart in a way that cries out for response.

But there are other kinds of letters -- letters that require only the contemplative, caring, willing reader, the friend whose thoughts and feelings we know to be in harmony with our own. Historically, many such letters have turned out to be wonderful literature; but because they are neither essays, nor novels, nor anything one customarily sends to a publisher, they have the almost bizarre habit of finding their way into print after the passing of their author. Some of mankind's most beautiful literature has traditionally been bound only by an envelope and an occasional paper clip.

I never think of such letters without thinking first of Vincent van Gogh and his passionate, profoundly insightful, beautifully moving letters to his brother, Theo. It's not surprising that Vincent should himself have had no end of quarrel with the conventional -- he was hardly a man comfortable with conditioned human thought patterns. ``Is it a loss,'' he wrote to Theo, ``to drop a notion impressed on us in childhood, that keeping up a certain rank, or certain conventions, is the most important thing? I myself do not even think about it. I know by experience alone that those conventions, all those studied little manners and ideas, do not hold good, and often are fatally, decidedly wrong. I conclude that I do not know anything, but at the same time I feel sure that this life is such a mystery that the system of `conventionality' is certainly too narrow.''

It is, I think, part of this ``conventionality'' to think of response in terms of something we can read or hear. When we are communicating our deepest thoughts, sharing our most private musings with a compatible heart and mind, is it not possible we already know the response before the letter even goes out the door? Do not intuition and the knowledge of our friend's particular nature tell us that the response we need is already flowing across the page as fast as the ink is forming our ideas and feelings into words?

I remember the letters my friend Michel and I used to write each other. We'd been friends painting at the 'Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris, true compatible hearts of the late teen-age variety. We were both shamelessly childlike and filled with romantic idealism and the poetry of life and art. When I returned to the United States, the letters started to flow. His were sheer poetry, enlivened with a drawing here and there. Sometimes he wrote three or four to my one; other times it was just the reverse. Never at any time did I fail to feel his response at the very time I was writing the letter, because I already knew his heart. In fact, I had to know his response intuitively, because his letters to me were rarely ``answers.''

Our letters were simply a special sharing, more of a response, in fact, to what seems to be an inextinguishable demand within us to give, to be incapable of withholding the beauty we feel and the ideas we discern.

Of course, our friends have to take us at our word when we say we need no literal response, if what we share in our letters isn't to become a burden for them. A few months ago I was visiting out of state and ran into a friend who didn't know I was in town. After a hug that said everything that needed saying, I looked at his face and saw it was (forgive me) ``guilt-edged.'' ``I haven't answered your last three letters,'' he said with some embarrassment. He looked so sad, I almost wished I hadn't run into him. ``But you don't have to answer them,'' I said. ``I'm just writing because I have things to say to you.'' He looked so relieved, I felt as though I'd given him a present.

And maybe this really is a gift we can give each other. A gift of freedom from ritual and convention, a departure from the law of a letter for a letter, a note for a note. Intuitive timing, pliability, and inspiration have got to play a part in genuine relationships, in relationships that are to be original works of art -- both beautiful and invincible. And the thing is that mindless ritual and convention, the sorts of things that make us say, ``You owe me a letter,'' produce an opacity to intuition that keeps relationships superficial, never penetrating the treasures of real individuality.

I suppose what we need, in part, is the depth of unconditional caring that makes us keep on writing, or keep on reading. Because to enjoy the full potential and unbounded rhythm of friendship, we first have to unbind it from the chains of conventionality.

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