Letters to the Future

Summer used to be the season of letter writing. In June, circa 1980, I would collect my classmates’ addresses and stock up on rainbow stationery; at the beach I bought postcards with sailboats and sunsets. Infrequent envelopes arrived sealed with stickers, addressed thrillingly to me in wobbly cursive: How are you? I am fine. Camp is fun. See you in the fall. Proof that a friendship could survive without the daily reinforcement of school. I find them sometimes, stuffed in the back of a drawer, and remember how it felt to be ten.

In college the letters were lifelines, connecting me to a boyfriend with a summer job far from mine. Opening the mailbox made my heart pound. Then there was the summer I left for Tokyo, newlywed. The boyfriend was now my husband, and the letters became a journal — a letter to myself.

That summer I suddenly became part of a Japanese family; everything was alien, and I wrote it all down. A cool breeze after a month of stupefying heat, sweeping up cicada wings with the leaves outside my in-laws’ front door. A kitchen in which every sleek appliance beeped in a different way, followed by the toot of the tofu-seller’s horn as he coasted by on his bicycle. Feeling, for the first time in my life, oversized, inarticulate, undefined. My own thoughts reach me clearly across a gap of twenty years: trepidation, pride, bafflement, frustration, wonder, doubt, satisfaction. At the time, writing my thoughts helped me understand them. Rereading now, I can remember who I was, and hold that up to who I am.

I love to read old letters: really old ones, buried in archives, written in spidery script, the ink darkest at the start of each sentence when the pen was freshly dipped. I love to hold them in my hands and listen to the voices they contain.

This year I published a book about a largely forgotten assortment of late-nineteenth-century Japanese and American lives; without their letters, they would have remained forgotten.

These were people who wrote letters every day, full of quotidian detail. The children played charades last night; I ate too many oysters at dinner; in my haste to make the train I left my teeth behind, could you send them? Reading them, I can feel the solicitousness of a wife for an absent husband, or see how the jolting of a Pullman car made it hard to write. The pages are like the carefully restored rooms in a historic house, but real, and without the velvet rope across the door.

Some of the letters go beyond mundane routine. In an era before over-sharing, a letter was a space where intimate feelings — anguish, doubt, triumph — could be safely bared. “What a tangle this life is!” writes a young woman faced with an agonizing choice. “I never used to think much of the dark side of life and used to feel so confident of the future and of my own strength but now I am not certain of either.” Another, after filling pages with gleeful details of her prestigious new teaching job, ends with a caveat: “Now I have told you all this very fully, but you must not say that I wrote so much, for it seems like boasting of it; especially do not show this letter to anyone…”

These letters are therapy, with the subject at a desk instead of on a couch, the therapist sometimes half a world away. The emotions that drive the impulse to write — I need to tell you this — tumble out onto the page, incoherent at first, then reiterated and revised. A response might take weeks or months to arrive, but the act of writing was useful in itself.

It was certainly useful to me. A hundred and twenty-five years later, these writers were far beyond caring that a stranger might be listening in — I felt no compunction at reading their words, reconstructing their world, comparing it to my own, noticing more similarities than differences. History is made of stories, trickles of personal experience flowing together, becoming larger and less personal as they go. Letters are sips from this river.

In the age of tweets and texts we older fogeys wring our hands over whether the rising generations will be able to communicate with each other. Never fear — their digital argot may be new and strange, its rhythms staccato, but it works for them.

The danger is larger: when Facebook posts stream away into oblivion and Snapchat stories evaporate on contact, what will be left for the historians? In a hundred and twenty-five years, will it be possible for them to dip into people’s lives and make the past personal? How will we communicate with them?

I’m grateful to have fallen in love before email, to have kept a journal during the uncertainty of early adulthood, to have formed the habit of writing at length and rereading my words years later. I hope my great-grandchildren stumble across the shoebox of letters from my boyfriend, the binder-clipped pile of pages from that first year in Tokyo. They might even find one of those sailboat postcards, and marvel at the 13-cent stamp. They will see strange differences and striking similarities, and feel connected to the current of time.

Have a wonderful summer. Don’t forget to write.

Janice Nimura is the author of Daughters of the Samurai: A Journey from East to West and Back (May 2015) from W.W. Norton & Co.

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