Friday, November 27, 2009

Missing John

Moving this summer, I discovered a package of letters that I had written to a friend when I was in my twenties. I opened up one letter with the thought of reading through my side of the now one-sided conversation, but winced as I read the over-wrought, self-important lines. Embarassed, I put the pages back in the feathery "air-mail" envelope and quickly put the letter back with its wordy compatriots.

The letters were written to a man. When I was young, unformed - long before I had any sense of the person I would become - I struck up a friendship with an intense young man. At the time he was ten years older than I, so it seems odd to think of him as a "young man". He was a college graduate and political activist and to my small town eyes, he seemed worldly and wise. For some reason saw worth in me that I am quite certain did not exist.

Product of my mother's home, I loved Ronald Reagan and thought anyone who didn't must be foolish, lazy and terribly misinformed. At the time, Ronald Reagan was actually a living, breathing president and I was preparing to vote for him in the first presidential election where I would be permitted to vote. I met this young man when we worked together in an independent bookstore, populated by refugees of the 60s who were holding on to their counter culture with the tight grip of refugees who sees their culture slipping away, unwanted by the next generation. Where they mocked my Alex Keatonesque embrace of conservatism, he among them would listen to my well-reasoned arguments in favor of Republican Supply Side Economics.

He left the bookshop, but the few short months we worked side by side formed the foundation of a great friendship sustained over the years by letter writing. His letters to me were accidentally left behind during a long ago move. My letters to him came into my possession about 15 years ago, when his mother sent them to me after his suicide. I have held them close. Unlike my letters, which I assumed would be only an annotation to our life long friendship, I knew that my letters to him would be all that I could keep from our decade long friendship.

My letters chronicle the journey of my twenties, when I left the safety of ignorance and rejected the narrative of my mother's home. I rushed out into the world, while my friend observed from the sidelines, sometimes feeling responsible for the impetuous way I rejected the conservative ideology of my upbringing and embraced the "world systems theory" of exploitation in the developing world. The side of the conversation contained within my letters exude the raw emotions of rage and sentimental dispair at the injustice of the world, as only a young person can feel. I was only beginning to grow out of that maudlin ridiculousness and embrace a more nuanced reality when I lost him.

I often wonder what he would think of me now. It's my yardstick. The passionate yearning for goodness has been tempered by the reality of being a divorced mother of three. I still long to do good, to work for justice - but I'm just a little too lazy and a little too frightened to do anything about it. One note I have from him, a blank card with a photograph of Victor Hugo on the front, says the following, "I think you have a lot more to offer the world teaching 3rd graders than working in finance, but whatever you decide to do, you will do it with passion and I will love and respect you no matter what."

In the end, I took the job in finance.