As 2005 ends, I'm in a reflective mood. But it's not just about having gotten through the holidays. This year, I've been given the opportunity to consider my collection of friends, family, and acquaintances. Here's what happened. At the dawn of every year, I need a new "week-at-a-glance" planner. But this year, I made the mistake of looking at that chaos stuffed into the top drawer of my desk: my address book. That's where the trouble began.
My address book was at least a decade old and bulged from information about all the people I knew. I examined the scuffed cover: A yellowed strip of packing tape kept the spine from snapping. I removed the rubber band that held together the crooked pages, on which I'd scribbled with six different ink colors. As I flipped through its pages, I ran my index finger down the columns of names, phone numbers, and locations. Dozens of business cards threatened to drift away from between the pages.
Clearly, a new address book was needed: slim, uncluttered, and tough enough to cover up the lousy way I had treated the people in my life. Dutifully, I bought a new one. But for three weeks, the shiny red, spiral-bound tome sat on my desk - pristine, begging to be used.
A natural and innocuous task - this act of purchasing a blank address book and copying the old into the new, right? When I finally sat at my desk, ready to transfer the information quickly, I didn't expect to be affected by my own little museum of interpersonal history, with all its exhibits alphabetized A to Z.
Yet, right there in front of me, I saw an entire forgotten lexicon of human achievement and failure, downed hopes and new attachments, friends and family mapped along an axis of place and time. Each street, ZIP Code, and phone number scratched out and another scrawled in again divulged the enmeshment of lives. Each new address indicated a jump-start of hope: a new town, a fresh beginning.
Here, under "C," was the college friend whose first girlfriend had been crossed out and replaced with a new one. How long will the new romance last?
There, under "G," was revealed how my brother had left his roommate, old carpentry jobs, and a half-dozen bachelor apartments: Nashville and then Albany and then outside Boston. He added a son named Jack to his little family and finally swung full circle to our hometown in New Hampshire, all with the woman who grew up across the street.
I was also struck by the stubbornness of other names. In the address book, my grandmother remained rooted to West Park Boulevard. Around her name and address was a flurry of Gilsdorffamily activity - Jessica in Edmonton and Rochester; Dennis in Portland and then Minneapolis. But Grammie stayed put. The image of her suburban-Ohio house had become a perpetual icon I could count on. Even after she died, I never wanted her name and place to budge.
The more I thought about it, perhaps the task of redoing my address book was a gift. I had been feeling overwhelmed by all the folks I knew and wondering how could I actually keep in touch with them all. I needed to cull and streamline the vast network of people I'd met while residing in six cities on two continents over the past 15 years.
As I studied the names, I was shocked to discover how many of my so-called friends and relatives I no longer stayed in touch with. Which ones did I still write to? Would I ever call this uncle on a whim? Would I ever find myself within 25 miles of my sister's ex-husband's hometown?
Suddenly, I wondered if e-mail would make make the process less painful. Then I wouldn't have to chose to cut anyone, and I could remain connected to everyone I had ever known. But this tactic only depressed me when I remembered that e-mail signaled the end of the hand-written letter.
Ultimately, the chore of choosing who would stay and who would go was too wrenching to complete in one sitting. I found myself afflicted with guilt for more than a week after categorizing friends as "best," "good," "can live without." What did this say about me?
Each day I tackled a few letters: A through C, L through P. It took a whole afternoon just to get through the family minefield of the G's. Yet once I began, I had to finish.
I surprised myself at how heartless I'd become. One by one, old friends and distant relatives failed to make the cut.
While I cringed as faces and whole towns slid into the brush pile of shared history, I suddenly pictured the situation from the opposite point of view:
Somewhere, late at night, old girlfriends, high school pals, and grumpy uncles were also sitting down with their new address books. My name comes up. They think for a moment: Who is that guy? Old flame, worthless friend, or ungrateful nephew? With a flip of the page, they move on to the next name, successfully weeding out the old to make room for the new.