If we didn’t have a past, we would have no memories and nothing to shape our future on; we would be hollow shells with nothing to talk about, with nothing to share with other people; we would have nothing from which we can learn and no salacious and intimate details with which we, when we finally get to the gray hair and nursing home stage, can regale other people, bringing them to laughter or tears and making their day brighter. Not that all of our memories should be scandalous or spicy, but it is good to have something which other people do not have; if we were not all different, individual, if we had not all gone along different paths through our lives, those end years, when we look back and share, would be very tedious and boring indeed. And I generally find that those few who are incapable to accepting the past of another person have either a lot of dirty laundry to hide themselves, many skeletons in cupboards, or have led such a life as to bore the balls off a brass monkey, if you will excuse the typically British expression. Jack Kornfield, the man known for his teaching of Theravada Buddhism in the United States, said:
Like a sandcastle, all is temporary. Build it, tend it, enjoy it, and when the time comes, let it go.
I wonder, from all the many letters you are bound to have received, how many people writing would be prepared to accept your past and let it go, and how many write purely because of that past. Which is, perhaps, why I waited for a short while before settling down to write, so that all those people could get their words out of the way and take their chance, and my letters would then, perhaps, bring something else. I am inclined to say more worthy, more intellectual, interesting and all those other words with which people tend to praise themselves when there is nothing to praise, when they overplay their abilities, but that is not for me to say. I write for pleasure to those who seem to be interesting – and by interesting I mean for a wide variety of reasons, and not because of some minor specific from their past – and who seem to be the sort of person capable of engaging in intelligent conversation, who have lived and learned from life, and who can put one, maybe even two words together on paper.
It could come as a surprise to you, but despite the hundreds of people seeking another person to write to, very few can actually write a letter, and very few manage to keep a correspondence up for more than a few exchanges. Letter writing is a complicated, unusual art, often forgotten despite its historical importance, despite the fact that it, as a means of communication, has been around longer than any other method of passing information from one person to another aside from by word of mouth. Back in the days when I was still forced to sit on a classroom chair, it was something we were taught. Once a month we had to drag our letter writing books out – a simple exercise book with blank pages, no lines – and compose something for our parents back home or if we weren’t boarders at the school, but had the freedom and pleasure to be able to go home each afternoon, to someone else we knew, but did not see too often. I hardly need tell you that, since we all knew a teacher was going to be reading, assessing and then grading our work, how much honesty and openness about school life was included in those letters home.
I write forced to sit on a school bench because, despite all the promises I made myself when I finally got out of that institution, I have been back to the same situation, voluntarily, many times since. Trade training, promotional training, and then finally, in the last few years, learning for the sheer pleasure of finding things out, of being shown things of interest and then being able to take what has been shown and increase knowledge through personal study and research at leisure, and without the pressure of an intense examination, a critical teacher, at the end. My last small piece was work with Harvard on Shylock, taken from Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice which was most enjoyable, and eye-opening too. It makes me wish I had done more exploring of the area when I was in Venice, many years ago, rather than just quickly seeing what was going on so that I could say I had been, sleeping on the train station concourse until the Carabinieri woke me, and many others underway with their rucksacks, to catch a train to the pleasures of the beach in Rimini. Perhaps, one day soon, I will go back and take a proper look, with adult eyes, and a better understanding of history.
Your interests, you write, are chemistry and physics which, I will admit right up front, are probably beyond me. I can understand the basics, I know all about the different forms of energy and the rough layout and meaning of the elemental tables, but that is it. I can light a Bunsen burner, if such a thing still exists, snap on a pair of latex examination gloves and stroke a mouse. Which, I suspect, is not going to get me too far in anything. I tend more towards the cerebral arts, to literature, history and philosophy and enjoy nothing more than being able to sit down with one of the great writers and let his or her words flow across me, imbibe them into my soul, and see what comes out by way of understanding on the other side. I’m not fussy, though, I am as happy reading the works of Yuval Noah Harari on the history of humankind – as he puts it – as I am the tragedy of the volcanic eruption which wiped out almost the entire population of Pompeii back in 79 CE, described by Pliny the Younger, whose father died trying to rescue people from the catastrophe.
That said, our interests are bound together for all time by their origin, by the fact that physics, chemistry and many other forms of exact science were once all part of the thinking sciences or, better as it is more precise, philosophy. It was only as we, the Homo Sapiens, gradually began to move out of our caves and take a decent look about us, as the first Cognitive Revolution took place, that we came to realise the immensity of what we have here, and that keeping all these fascinating subjects tied together in one bundle was simply not going to work.
Every point in history is a crossroads. A single travelled road leads from the past to the present, but myriad paths fork off into the future. Some of those paths are wider, smoother and better marked, and are thus more likely to be taken, but sometimes history – or the people who make history – takes unexpected turns.
You might think that this comes from some religious script, perhaps even from the Dalai Lama, but it is from Harari’s book Sapiens and begins the section he covers on the Cognitive Revolution, and on the final splitting of the liberal arts into the philosophical and cerebral arts, and the exact sciences. But it could just as well be used in any other aspect of our lives, and not just the history of humankind: we all are faced with a path splitting in two, or three, or perhaps even more, at some stage, and we all have to make our own choices. I chose to read books, travel, and go to the ballet. Both of us, however, started out at the same point. And should we attack one another, or any other person for the choices that we made, back in the mists of time, when we could not tell what the future holds, where our path will take us?
This week I had an amazing experience which I had not expected. I’d not expected it because it was provided by an inmate who was born in Puerto Rico, whose first language is Spanish, and whose educational level is perhaps the GED, providing he did it whilst incarcerated. He wrote to me – which is unusual anyway – having been given my name and address by a friend who, despite the fact that he is still writing, has problems understanding some of the notions and ideas I write about, and so often turns to his cellmates to ask for their help. This new person asked whether I would be willing to write, and off we went. Then his second letter to me arrived this week, and he addressed something that I would never have considered, which I would thought outside of his area of thought and educational level, and which had me slapping myself about the head with a cold, wet fish for being so staid and judgemental. He asked me about a specific passage in the philosophical work Also sprach Zarathustra by Friedrich Nietzsche. To say that I hadn’t expected it is something of an understatement, but it goes to show how our paths can wander off in so many different directions, and we still have something in common, or something comes up on our path which is connected to another, parallel path and we get a chance to share, to discuss, to learn. In effect, the essence of letter writing.
Now, I am not going to claim that I underestimated the man, but it did come as a surprise simply because it was something unexpected, and it showed me, once again, never to take anyone, or anything, for granted. What you see, despite the common saying, is not what you get. Take your own case: anyone knowing of your past is automatically going to put you in a certain pigeonhole and categorise you. Are they right to do so? Are they right in their assessment, in writing you off as a certain kind of person simply because of the work that you did? I think we can probably both agree that they would be wrong. But the sad part is, having put you in a specific frame, within a certain category of person, into a caste or class, that is where they leave you – or anyone else who they, in their small-minded, don’t look left or right manner classify. Sad is that too many people accept this, leave their potential behind them, and fall into the routine and position assigned them.
I have been subjected to this all my life. Since arriving here I have managed, to a certain extent, to overcome it, having a fresh start, being able to build a new character picture of myself amongst people who do not know me, although this is a fairly small town, and no one remains unknown for long. And still there are the questions about whether I have even bothered to learn the language, whether I am just a social welfare tourist and all that sort of thing. We get put in our little box by other people, and they are disinclined to bring us back out again. And I, in my turn, put them into a much bigger box, since there are quite a few, of people who can easily be avoided, without any loss to the pleasures of life, culture and experience.
And, in case you happen to be wondering, all of the above is based on the ideas which stem from a single statement which I read, which caused me to think and consider – as well as do some research, as you can imagine, because I do have a preference for knowing what I am talking about if at all possible – and then settle down to write. That convincing sentence was:
I want to find someone who can accept my past, be with me through the worst of my life so they can enjoy the best yet to come.
And, of course, it is the main part of your profile description, even if other people think some of the other words more important, or just the profile picture or, worst case, just the history as they imagine it. With this one sentence, you cover almost all of your life and tell people what you were, but not who you are, and that is, sadly, what some will concentrate on.
What can someone like me offer a young woman like you when it comes to letter writing? That all depends on what we make of it, always supposing that you take a chance and reply to this letter. Each time you set pen t paper it is a new experience, a new chance, a blank sheet of paper which needs to be filled with ideas, with memories, with anything else that you wish to put down into words. There will be the past, of that there is no doubt, but probably not the past other people might care to dwell on, might care to go into far too much detail on. The past, for me, is those experiences we have had in our lives, and that we have read about or seen in films, or heard about from older generations or people who live in other countries, other social circles, with all their customs and traditions. It is a wild rollercoaster of experiences which go from one extreme to the next, grasping you by the arm and taking you into a different world, perhaps, as a good book should do. Or it can be a sedate meander through the woods and parks where all is quiet and orderly and only the babbling of a nearby brook disturbs the birdsong. Each chooses the path that they wish to follow and, sometimes, paths cross and we discover fascinating things about ourselves as much as about other people.
I’ve no idea what the other people who have written to you can offer, I’m not in competition with them, I can only add my bid and say it will be interesting or, better, as interesting as your imagination allows it to be.