Letters from an Old Person (To a Stranger)

In the hiatus of the plague, I have been trying to convince my eleven-year-old granddaughter to spend some of her spare time writing about what she is going through – from piano lessons on Zoom to way too much time with Mom and Dad. I tell her that her own grandchildren, her own older self, might be interested someday in the 2070’s. But the greatest value would be, of course, that she would have to process her thoughts about this major disruption in her young life. That is the same reason we should all do it – especially now that time is often not an issue. If you haven’t gotten around to keeping a journal or writing your life review yet, let me give you another way to think about it, another way to do it. And a book endorsement.

At the recommendation of one of my readers (thank you!), I recently read Meet Me at the Museum. Besides being a good read, it was interesting to me for a few reasons. The two main characters are reasonably old. And it was the debut novel for Ann Youngson, who was seventy when the novel was published – there is hope for us all! She apparently wrote it after a career in the automotive industry, and I surely hope she writes another.

A woman on a farm in England writes to a professor at a museum in Denmark, whom she remembers corresponding with as a class project over fifty years prior. Since that man is long since gone, another administrator at the museum answers her letter and thus starts the correspondence which makes up this epistolary novel. Without having ever met (and never meeting within the timeframe of the novel), these two older adults start telling each other bits and pieces of their own histories. Either one can stop writing at any point, but they do not. And soon we know a great deal about two very private people.

There is something about talking to strangers. While it is hard to get started, we all might admit to some very delightful conversations on airplanes or in waiting rooms. I think there are two reasons for this. First, because the person knows nothing about us, we are forced to try to relay our history – who we are and how we landed in this place and time. Second, because we don’t know them and have no reason to think we will ever see them again, we are more open. We are less likely to edit and abridge, which is something we do constantly even with people who are close to us. And if you want to see the epitome of this, look at the rosy view of their lives most people portray on Facebook.

There is a long literary history of telling tales to relative strangers. One might remember Coleridge’s “Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” where the old man stops a young wedding guest and spills out his story. Or preludes to the tales the travelers tell in Canterbury Tales, where – for example – the Wife of Bath spills out what appears to be an honest account of her life before she goes on to tell her tale. Or one might think of the letters that Celie writes to God in The Color Purple.

In any case, it might be worth a try to address your journal, memories, life review to a stranger. You surely don’t have to mail it and the person can be alive or dead – but who would you like to talk to? Most of us need someone to talk to these days, and a one-sided conversation has its limitations, but also might give you a new and more honest perspective. By addressing an imaginary audience, their reaction is not really an issue. We have all spent more than enough of our lives thinking about the reactions of others (she says with much experience). Old age is a good time to stop such lunacy.

Try it. Pick someone you would like to talk to but not a member of your family, not someone you know at all well – preferably someone you don’t know at all. Alive or dead. And write to them. Tell them about yourself – past and present. Soon you will know a great deal about yourself. And it does not have to be prose – it could be poetry, song. Leonard Cohen did something like this in his “Famous Blue Raincoat.”

Of course, there is the question of the ultimate disposition such writing. First, assume that no one will see it, otherwise it won’t work. The value is in the process and not the product. But what to do with such manuscripts in the long run? I have saved years of journals, and still ponder the proper time to dispose of them. Covid has made me consider this problem again – you never know when you will leave your belongings behind permanently. But my guess is that no one would want to wade through that material anyway, and in the meantime, it has value for me.

So, I will try to continue to encourage my granddaughter to write it all down. Who knows – I never thought I could teach her to knit, but since our Zoom lessons, mile-long scarves have been proliferating.

And, by the way, if in writing these letters you should realize how fortunate you have been in your life, particularly in getting help from others when you needed, consider writing a check to your local food pantry. Their clients need assistance, nourishment, now more than ever.

The story for this week, “Luck,” is about two strangers on a bus and what they learn about each other and themselves.

Feast on Your Life – Writing a Life Review

Feast on your life. This imperative is from a poem (“Love After Love”) by Derek Walcott and it should, perhaps, be a slogan for old age. Intentionally or not, our lives led us to where we are today. Like it or not, the past haunts us – both because it was wonderful (and we miss it) or because it was awful (and we regret it). The value of writing it down in some form or another is that we look at it consciously, instead of letting it influence us in ways we might not be aware of.

I am not necessarily talking about writing an autobiography in the classic sense. And I am certainly not talking about getting published – if you write with an eye to the public, you will certainly be wasting your time. You will not tell the truth. (I once wrote a piece about my family’s summer home on the occasion of my folks’ 50th. It was lovely, fit for the occasion, but full of omissions, half-truths, and lies.) You might want to share your document in the end, but you cannot write with that intention.

There are many ways to write a “life review” – here are just a few suggestions:

1. The traditional chronological method. Start with your birth (or go even further back and talk about your ancestors) and work forward. Even if you do it this way, it may help to set up your thinking in accord with the next suggestion.

2. By life “blocks.” The traditional divisions of life are seven (so say Shakespeare and Augustine) – but yours might be different. “Childhood,” “adolescence,” “college,” “first marriage,” “parenthood” – these might all be divisions that would work for you.

3. By topic. No chronology here, but rather reflections on how different parts of life affected you over time. “Money” might be a topic. Or “love.” Or “addiction.” Or “pets.” You could divide your work by the houses you lived in (55 Bricker Road) or what you wore (The Mini-Skirt years). Use your imagination.

4. By people (or animals) who have affected your life. There might be chapters on your mother, your favorite teacher, your best friend, your children, the boss you hated, your therapist, your hero. Or your pets over the years. Out of all of this, the story of your life will emerge.

5. By focusing on turning points. What were the moments when you made big decisions that – in retrospect – changed your life? Decisions could range from whether you went into the military to what stocks you bought. Penelope Lively wrote a whole book (Making It Up) speculating on what her life might have been like if she had made a different decision at each fork in the road.

6. By turning your life into fiction. I often do this when I can’t bear to get too close to a topic or when I want to share it without fully admitting how much of the character is me and how much I made up. Turn yourself into the protagonist and watch what she does. Again, this could be a novel or a series of short stories. And don’t be afraid to fool with the truth – this is fiction (another kind of truth). You will still learn a lot about your life.

7. By writing letters. Write letters to all the people (living or deceased) who were part of your life. Tell them things. Ask them questions. You can think in terms of an epistolary novel, or not. You can decide to mail some of the letters, or not – but better to assume “not” when you are writing them.

Here are some tips on the “how.” Don’t just sit down starting at the beginning and proceeding to the end – even if you are doing a chronological autobiography. Set up folders for each chapter or category and write just five sentences in each on what the chapter is going to be about. (These folders can be real or virtual. For a good discussion of how writing longhand might make a difference, read this.) Give each folder a title that will be easy to decipher (“My first three years” or “My relationship with money” or “Parents vs. Grandparents). Then pick the thing that you think will be the easiest to write about and start there. If, after a few hours, days, or weeks, you run thin on that chapter, move to another topic that interests you.

There will be subjects that you will avoid. There are memories that we all avoid. I don’t need to tell you that these will probably be the most rewarding to “write out,” but if you start with them, you will never get anywhere. Circle around and you will eventually find out what you need to say about that huge error in judgment or devastating event.

Again, there is no need to share, but if you do, you may be doing someone a great favor. American Indians considered sitting in the presence of elders and being “gifted” with a story one of the highest honors there is. Even your flaws could be a gift. It would let readers know that they are not alone.

This week’s story, “No Change Orders,” has some autobiographical elements, even though I was never an architect and never renovated a nineteenth-century hotel, and yet…. It may be a situation you can relate to in one way or another.