MWD44 - On White Paper, Black Ink

Or why some letters, it's ok to burn

Welcome to Midweek DinnerThere’s a whole story behind that name, something about the way Wednesday creeps up on you, and you have to cobble together a meal out of whatever you can scrounge from the fridge. And yes, sometimes there is talk of food in this place. But mostly it’s about what I’ve been reading, in print and online; or what I’ve been thinking, in clarity and confusion; or what I am hoping, in fear and in joy. And you are always invited to join in.

—— The best conversations take place around the dinner table. — —


This past weekend I spent hours, sitting on my bed, surrounded by dozens of letters and notes, cards and clippings, sent to me through the mail (or left under a windshield wiper or passed across the table in class), the earliest of which dates to when I was 8 or 9. I am a perpetual purger, clearing the house of anything that hasn’t been used or found to be beautiful in the very recent past. But letters are a different story. I believe I have kept every scrap of correspondence from my whole life. And it was time to revisit it. To decide what should stay and what should go, joining the middle school diaries that have traveled with me over time and space and that I am finally ready to discard. I understand how odd this is, this singular hoarding of past selves. But after a long day of reading, I found more wheat than chaff. More to delight in than to discard.

From the time I was 18, I have lived away. First at camp, then at college, a summer in England, and then married and away working on a graduate degree. And those who loved me back home - mostly my mama, but also my Nanny, my brother, my sister, and my dad - sent me letters. And I will never get rid of those.

But before that, I got letters at home, from those who were away: the older girl who adopted me like a little sister on a church mission trip, the boys I would meet at those workcamps, and the one boy, a faithful letter writer, who moved away from our town just after the summer we started to like each other. I had all but forgotten this long-ago correspondence, and even after I started opening those letters, his voice, his pencil on those folded notebook pages, felt distant, like something that had happened to someone else, even as I could feel the effects lingering in my body.

For it was my body he talked about the most frequently. Not throughout but at least once every letter, he would remark on my body - how sexy it was or how it would look in a two-piece bathing suit (something I was not allowed to wear). He was never overtly sexual, but there it was: my body. In every letter.

Not in every letter was what I found later in the stack. He mentioned school (he hated school) and that they were reading the worst book in English class (Cry, the Beloved Country), which, he explained, was about these Zulu n-words. Except he didn’t say n-words.

I folded the letter and set it aside.

Did that really happen?

I picked it back up and read it again some 20 minutes later, and yes, there it was - in black and white - the n-word.

Several letters later, I found another iteration, this time a story about a fight on the basketball courts where he and his buddies had to “beat the Black” out of some n-words. But they started it. He insisted he would never start a fight.

These letters, I will not keep. I do not need to keep this boy’s words - both the ones I deeply hope he has come to regret and the ones he might still think are fine, the ones I’m fairly certain I thought were fine. I do not know how I responded at the time. I do not know how I felt about being merely a body. I do not know.

But I do know that all these years later, even as I become invisible, I carry his gaze on my body. His gaze and the gaze of so many other boys that told me my primary role in life was to be that body and that told me I should like it. So I did. I was built by those letters just as much as I was built by the ones from my family and friends that knew I was so much more than just a body.

Several years later, I was working at camp, and writing letters with another boy from the south, another boy I liked a lot. In our letters, we talked about music and baseball (which we both loved) and friends we had in common and how we hoped to see each other on my next break from camp. At the close of one of his letters, he wrote, “peace out, my n-” and then, he scratched it out so the n-word was obscured and added this parenthetical note (sorry, I forgot you don’t like that word).

And I breathed a tiny sigh of relief. At least that.

I still write letters, 2-3 a week, and I still keep every letter I receive. I’ve written before about the art of letter-writing and about Penpalooza, which is now over 10,000 members strong, and from which, I have never once received a letter about my body. Thanks to all my letter-writers, now and over the years. You have sustained me, you continue to sustain me.


The Department of Unexpected Joy:

Finding this note from my little sister, where she uses our club nicknames (from The Outsiders) and asks, among other things, if she can borrow my pink sweater if it’s not dirty. I finally wrote her back. Unfortunately, I no longer own a pink sweater.

(a close second was a letter from my mama wherein she hilariously advised me regarding my future in body piercings. Solid gold humor from that woman.)


And this, from the Department of Shameless Self-Promotion:

Today’s Lexicon post comes as a result of re-reading the great Carson McCullers and once again, finding something of myself all over that Sad Cafe.

The Lexicon - Gabbies

If Amanda Gorman can bring poetry to the Super Bowl, we can surely make poetry our regular Sunday practice. This week, it was a collection edited by my personal superhero, Nikki Giovanni.

Sunday Poetry

Last week, I shared my excitement for David Arnold’s new YA (The Electric Kingdom), and now I get to turn back flips over this most-excellent interview, where we talk audience and art and Salinger and story-telling.

David Arnold Interview


Thanks as always for reading and thinking with me. Have comments, suggestions, or questions? Reply to this email, and I promise a response. Or write me a letter. I always write back.