For the past 20 years, I’ve been living with dozens of women.
To be fair, there were quite a few guys in the mix too. But yeah, tons of women. Tonight I moved all of them out.
Odds are, if you have ever given me something handwritten with more than your signature on it, I’ve kept it. In some cases for 20 years. In other cases, much much longer.
I have letters from women asking that we just be friends, letters explaining why we can’t be more than friends, letters wondering whether we are still friends.
From work camps and mission trips there are letters thanking me for my hugs, my generosity, my energy, my voice, my work ethic. Some of those letters were deeply flattering, intensely supportive and genuinely funny. Given that each of those trips were less than a week, it’s truly heartwarming.
I have letters from high school friends asking to meet up next time we’re in town. Letters from college friends asking to meet up next time we’re in town. Letters from campers asking to meet up next time we’re in town. We almost never met up next time we’re in town.
I have letters from women who were excited about our blossoming relationship. Letters about how our relationship seemed stagnant. Letters about how our relationship seemed hostile. Letters about how I hurt them, how they hurt me, how we both hurt each other.
I have letters from the heart, letters written out of a sense of duty, and a large number of letters that seem to be written primary out of boredom.
But a tremendous amount of these notes and letters resonate with a clear message to me. “You are special. You are special to me. I’m glad you’re in my life. Let’s keep in touch. Please, let’s keep in touch.”
I haven’t kept in touch. I have written painfully few letters in my life, and I still have most of them. I might call once or twice, but honestly I tend to wait just long enough to call to forget to ever call again. It’s not that I don’t care, it just really seems that way.
A great number of the authors of those letters are still in my life. I don’t want to keep letters from 20 years ago; I want to keep you. But so many people are no longer in my life… what am I to do with your letters?
For the crushes, girl friends, campers and acquaintances - those letters are from a lifetime ago. Perhaps even several lifetimes ago. The “you” you were back then has been gone for years. The few women I’ve been able to keep in touch with from those days bear only a passing resemblance to the girls they were. Even if that were not so, do I need to keep a reminder of the things that were-but-no-longer-are?
Do I need the letter Kristal wrote me when she gave me back my sweatshirt? I don’t even have the sweatshirt any more. Should I be interested in Keeley’s reasons why nothing could ever happen between us? Quite frankly, it’s a delightful letter - very thoughtful, tactful, and insightful. It’s everything you could hope for in a letter from a good friend who must unfortunately let you down softly. But is that really the baggage you need to carry around for a lifetime?
Honestly, yes. Yes it is. I am the person I am because Kristal gave me my sweatshirt back, because Keeley let me down graciously. I am who I am because Ngoc, Ritu, Manali, Christy, Kristi, Amy, Lisa, Liz, Sonya and the rest of my high school compatriots were such wonderful friends. I am who I am because Jen, Chi, Jennie, Soña, Bubba, Kim and so many other folks from Lechner and Bonfire showed me how to treat women with respect. I am who I am because I randomly met Erica and Katarina and Kalee on the internet. I am who I am because I have more moms and little sisters than any one man should legally be allowed to have. I am who I am because the Boergers and the Webbers and the Engebretsons and the Blakes welcomed me into their families. I am who I am because mentors like Greg and the Havises and Shirley and Wade took the time to help a kid who had way too much time to think. I am who I am because the St. Paul kids and the Trinity kids and the St. Andrews UMC kids and the Concordia high kids and the Canadians, Wisconsinites, and Ohioans from the work camps thought I was someone special just because I happen to be someone special. I am who I am because the Neeley girls made me their mascot. I am who I am because my mom is the woman she was and my grandfather was the man he is.
I am who I am because of you. And I really love being me. So thank you for that.
Part of me knows that I should be sad that for so many of you, we haven’t kept in touch. But I can’t be sad. You are each beautiful, wonderful, special people. I’m throwing part of the proof of that away tonight. I’m keeping less than a dozen letters. But I’m still here. I’m the proof that you are each beautiful, wonderful, special people. I will tell your stories whether I have your letters or not. I will tell your stories because, for a time, sometimes less than a week, we were in love. I don’t need the letters to love you. I can see you in me any time I want.
I cried a lot tonight as I read all of those letters again. The letters from ex-girlfriends I hurt. The letters from ex-friends I hurt. The letters from women excited about me but who never heard from me again. The letters from people disappointed in me. The massive wave of letters encouraging me to be who I am, because I matter to them. I’ve read them several times in the time they’ve lived here with me, but I’ve never cried. I was overwhelmed by the thought this would be the last time I would ever see any of them.
It took a while to go through them. There were so many people to pray for. So many people to be thankful for. So many people I’ve hurt who I want to hold and beg forgiveness and cry with, but who have almost certainly forgotten all about me. That’s what happens when you write the letter, you let it all go. And that’s what happens when you keep the letter for 20 years, it eats at you. It owns you. It reminds you that, at least for a snapshot in time, you were an awful person. That becomes your identity.
But all of those women moved out tonight. All that disappointment and anger and guilt and regret has left the building. It is the strangest sense of loss to read a letter written by a hand decades ago and pray for the person that hand has become, and then throw away the letter. It’s like I’ve just erased hundreds of people who only still existed because I refused to let go of them.
So thank you to all of you, my friends, my guides, my lovers, my acquaintances. Thank you for all of you that took the time to say something that was worth keeping. Thank you for giving me so many years to meditate on your encouragement and support. And most of all thank you for your ernest desire to stay connected to me. It has truly meant more to me than I know to express.
I love you