Letters from the Oasis, Letters from the Front Line

Oasis Songs: Musings from Rav D
July 1, 2016 / 25 Sivvan, 5776

I dedicate this week’s musings to my Uncle Mike and my cousins, David and Danny.

The other night, I suddenly was struck by the paucity of older male family figures who are left to me. My blood line of elders are slipping from this world, and with it, the familial connection to someone who’s been through it, and can reflect some wisdom on what they did to navigate life’s passages. As I considered how few of those relations are left to me, a wave of poignancy swept over me, real in its emotional truth.

Simultaneously, we all know that some relationships continue to nurture and support us long after the person is gone. One of my most treasured possessions is a boxful of letters that my paternal grandfather mailed almost daily to his girlfriend, my grandmother-to-be, from the advance lines of World War I. When Nana Pauline was being moved to the nursing home, I sat with her in the grey back seat of  our Chevy Impala. There she entrusted me with a worn card board box fastened with twine, from which a few weathered envelopes poked out, hinting at the hundreds of letters within. “These will matter to you,” she said. And they do. What does it take to write daily from the front lines of war as Papa Sam did, or from abandoned French chateaus he was sent to scout? To report the minutia of life that remains even as the shells explode nearby? For me, those letters represent a deep commitment and celebration of the value of the transitory.

It’s a lost art, correspondence, and not one that the social media readily replace, although well-executed blogs come close. I don’t know how you feel about it, but there are a few rather important differences I notice that differentiate most social media from real letter writing.

First, there’s the question of speed. Social media is fast. Texts and tweets come and go, as does communication by app. Sometimes, the sheer quantity requires I go back and check what was said. In what way does something so fast linger with us after its passing? How do they change us, in other words?

Second, there’s that adrenaline rush, a little endorphin spike that comes when your social media post garners a certain number of hits. It’s the same sort of response that video game designers build into the best and most addicting of games–just enough rewards and positive incentives to keep you returning. Those little touches of connection with friends near and far can be quite compelling. This is actually what has always kept me from really embracing these platforms. There’s an addictiveness to it all that makes me both suspicious and a touch frightened of what is happening to us. I have this worry that no one will remember what “it used to be like,” and therefore won’t understand how much we’ve sacrificed in the name of efficiency.

What have we lost? Seven years back, in a Newsweek article, Malcolm Jones noted while praising Abraham Lincoln’s letter writing skills:

that the more relaxed the writer becomes, the more at ease he or she is in the act of writing and the more able to fully express thought and emotion. Writing a lot of letters will not turn you into Lincoln or Shakespeare, but if you do it enough, you begin to put your essential self on paper whether you mean to or not. No other form of communication yet invented seems to encourage or support that revelatory intimacy.

I think that’s right. There is a revelatory nature to letter writing. The slowness of the medium forces a writer to reflect on one’s life. Letter composition makes you take stock of your own life and to share those understandings. Both writer and reader share in that intimacy of self-discovery. Who am I really, what is genuinely happening in my life, and how can I say it so that both you and I will understand it? How do your thoughts change me? There is a reciprocity to this medium that has inestimable value to me.

It’s what I try to achieve in these Oasis Songs I send out to you. Surely one of the aims of existence is to gain sufficient trust that the world is open to the vulnerability of who we really are. In a world of masks, authenticity itself is an oft-overlooked but remarkable expression of religious faith. For many, if not most of us, that trust is something we grow into over time. The beloved poet, Mary Oliver, spoke eloquently about her soul mate, the photographer Molly Stone. Molly had a powerful first love before she and Mary met that clearly did not last. Noting the impact it had on Molly, Mary wrote,

“This love, and the ensuing emptiness of its ending, changed her. Of such events we are always changed – not necessarily badly, but changed. Who doesn’t know this doesn’t know much.”

Writing a letter is a pretty deep human way to make sure we are not people who don’t know much. I’d be hard pressed to think of things more significant than our time and our selves, and we need to give both to either write or read a letter.

My love for this format also is just another reminder of this hopelessly old-world part of me. If you’ve read this far, you probably share it too: an openness and attentiveness that is coupled with empathy. That demands an investment of our time. Fewer people allow themselves the space to read to the end. I think our humanity is impoverished as a result. So while some of us have more patience by temperament, it’s also fair to claim that it is a cultivated trait. I guess I am arguing here that it is an essential component of the religious life.

Let me end by wishing you a Shabbat in which you allow yourself the freedom to experience moments of stillness.

Rav D


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