How a downtown dump came to represent the simplest and most nostalgic days of my life
Oh, there had been other dumps, but this dump in 80s Telluride was quintessential, believe me (that’s it in the picture). Center of town, a half block from the bakery, wood-stove heated, mud room for all the crap, plastic on the windows, crawl space for your old tires (where we found a bottle of Worcestershire Sauce, still redolent after 30 or 40 years).
Hilariously (not at the time), there was a picnic table in the yard that, during the high season and for whatever reason, people viewed as available. However obviously in someone’s yard, they would stop with their deluxe bagels (veggies, provolone and mayo) and chocolate milk from Baked in Telluride and settle in, as if that dumpy house, just simply said to the world, All evidence aside, please use this property as you would any public park.
Sometimes they’d leave their trash right there on the table, in protest of lack of a public trash can. Sometimes they’d use the defunct outbuilding as another kind of pit stop. Kidding you not. But, wow, did we feel like lottery winners to have that house for $250 a month.
Everybody should have such a time, when the world seems like a dream and you feel lucky, lucky, lucky. Much transpired in that house. A cat dropped in and stayed for 18 more years. I inherited the computer that lured me into the plasticity of fiction writing. We built fires and baked ourselves in one room while freezing in the next. When we were evicted a couple of years later, we predicted arson would be the house’s fate (to avoid meeting historic district guidelines) and sure enough…. Not a devastating, block-burning, mile-high inferno, but enough damage to change the lay of the land on that block and to give developers an easier go of it. Sigh.
One thing that happens when you drop out and run away to a small town and live in a hovel happier than a clam is that you start seeing the world as Out There. You’re stowed in your snow globe — maybe everybody eventually realizes we’re all in our snow globes, I don’t know. For me, once safely redefined and relocated as an escapee, it seemed inevitable to start thinking about how to reconnect with everything and everyone I’d fled from. And, without Facebook or even email or anything but the house phone, I’d write and receive letters. I wrote to people, and people wrote to me. What a concept.
It’s hard to remember the intimacy of letter writing without feeling both crushing nostalgia and guilt for life having changed so much and our having gotten on board somehow. Yes, their quiet intimacy. When letters arrived, they didn’t interrupt or invade or beg for attention, they just slipped in and lay there on the counter, waiting to be opened. Once opened, they would spill out their intimately graphic and liquid contents — handwriting! — that magically then translated into the sound of someone’s voice. Alchemy!
Now, however, when someone is texting you at their whim in the middle of the afternoon on a Sunday when you least expect it, it’s a whole different thing. I’m here, they’re saying, I‘m right next to you, I’m interrupting you, I’m right in your ear and in your head and there’s no way you can ignore me. This kind of intimacy inserts itself brashly into the present moment, a moment in which you are not so much a willing participant as a half-willing victim.
I’ve written my fair share of letters. Letters fired off or labored upon, letters to family, to friends, to boyfriends and husbands. Letters that were big mistakes. Letters that were even bigger mistakes. Lots of ideas noted, emotions hashed, gauntlets thrown, words minced. Certainly not enough that were just loving tributes, or sent just to say, for example, how good it all was, how beautiful, how sane, how fetching, how real. That would probably have been time better spent, a heart better served.
Over time, in an effort to lighten my load, I got rid of almost all of the letters I had carted with me for years and years. Not just because they were embarrassing and represented an emotional immaturity I wasn’t necessarily happy about or willing to own up to (which they did and I am), but because they started to feel like a betrayal of the present moment. This is what I have now, I would tell myself. This is what counts. All these people? They don’t even remember you. Maybe, maybe not. They mattered. They matter still.
What I’m working on as I try to make sense of being 60 years old and of heading into more fascinating territory is remembering the past without clutching or judging or comparing or even being sad. Remembering with my heart instead of my head, digging up all the good, feeling the laughter burble up, reclaiming the sense of freedom and aliveness that came with simplicity, a simplicity that still resides within. The sense that all of life, even as it becomes more and more layered, is a beautiful mass of interwoven fibers, the patched and crazy fabric of our winter coats.