Old Letters, Old Selves

For the last couple months, I’ve been working on a writing project with my friend, Lisa, that involves perusing our old journals and reading old letters we wrote to each other.


Lisa and I started writing to each other after we spent a summer working together on Capitol Hill in 1979. And, surprisingly, we both kept most of those letters.

We’re not sure why we stopped writing letters except that the letters seemed to slow after the advent of email.

As we have shared portions of our letters with each other, we have laughed, rolled our eyes, blushed, and marveled at who we were and what we shared with each other.


In some ways, these journals and letters feel too personal and a little incriminating. They run the gamut from the silly and emotional to the cerebral and the eerily prophetic. And, it’s all there — the very real facts about who we were and what was happening in our lives.

They do not capture the glossy, social media versions of our lives, but the real stuff in our hearts and heads — everything from religion and politics to dating, marriage, family problems and everything in between.

Tucked in one of my old journals was an article I saved on letter writing from a 1981 Time magazine by Roger Rosenblatt.

“”Why write letters?” he asked. “To create at least a few moments in life where thought and deed are amaranthine, and will not be fudged or withdrawn like spoken language with ‘I said no such thing’ or ‘I didn’t mean it that way.’ You meant it all right. And that way. “


I had to look up the word amaranthine.

It means immortal, unfading, of undying quality. And yes, those old letters of ours are amaranthine, definitely immortal. They’ve boomeranged back to remind us of exactly who we were in our 20s and 30s.

They are proof that — yeah, we meant what we said and we meant it that way.

I have wondered and asked Lisa and my family about whether I should blot out some parts of my journals or tear out a few sections.

Annie said, “Then we will wonder what secrets you didn’t want us to know.”

There aren’t really any secrets — just my life so crystal clear, and me, so flawed, human, and real.

In a world full of posed selfies, perfectionist bloggers, and carefully crafted optics, these journals and letters make me feel unusually vulnerable. They aren’t the pretty version of my life that capture some smooth, buttery arc, they are my unedited life with all my disappointments, angst, worry, analysis, second-guessing, complaining, and wonderings; and also joy — lots of pure fun, learning, new experiences, and just plain joy.

In the end, for now, I’m keeping all of it. My poor daughters will have to decide what to do with the volumes of journals and the stacks of letters. But, one thing is sure: they will know the real me for good or bad.

If you’ve kept old letters or journals, take some time to dig them out and read them.


It will introduce you to your old self, but it will also remind you of your old life and the many wonderful people who were part of it. You will be reminded of your worries and fears, but if you keep reading, you’ll see things usually got better. Things generally worked out.

I believe the words of one of my favorite writers, Joan Didion, who said, “I think we are well-advised to keep on nodding terms with the people we used to be, whether we find them attractive company or not…We forget all too soon the things we thought we could never forget. We forget the loves and the betrayals alike, forget what we whispered and what we screamed, forget who we were.”

Yes, there is no going back and rewriting or reshaping all those old letters and journals to make me appear to be someone better, smarter, wiser or more mature. But there is great value in being on nodding terms with the person I used to be.

It’s helped me remember things I thought I’d never forget and reminded me of who I was. When we remember who we were,  how we felt, what we thought and believed, we can be reminded of who we are now and who we’ve become.


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