birds in a barrel's mission is to release creative nonfiction into the wild.

40 Days & 40 Writes is its first project.

Dear kids, students, draftees, myself and others...

Pining forgotten

When I left California in 2012, I went through years and years' worth of boxes sitting in our garage. Several items I found stick out as bright memories: the how-to-draw-cats book my mother had given me so many years earlier that the artist-author, Walter T. Foster, thought nothing of signing every cat drawing with his initials; the broken clay figures I had made in elementary school; multiple yearbooks; faded and torn news articles I had clipped and saved about books and people that sounded interesting, mental illness and how the brain works, astronomy and physics. Then there were the letters. Tons of letters from friends and family over the years.

One I read and reread before tearing it into tiny bits and putting it in three different garbage bags to make sure the pieces did not resurrect themselves into readable form.

In college, I had a very strange relationship made stranger by the unlikely events that happened between me and this guy. Ian was in two of my English lit classes, back-to-back, but I didn't really notice him at first. Eventually we got to be friends but only much later did he tell me he was obsessed with me, staring at me from behind for weeks on end until we finally met and talked. When he told me, it did not freak me out -- we were friends by then -- but the nature of our friendship got truly weird when one day I discovered he and I were having similar dreams, about three times a week. Not entire dreams, but snippets of events that would crop up in my dream would mirror snippets of a dream he had had. Sometimes he would dream of things that had happened to me earlier in life that he had no way of knowing.

No, I would not believe this if anyone else told me this either.

I only vaguely remember how we first found this out. I find dreams fascinating so I probably brought it up at first. That detail aside, once it seemed as if our having dreams in common was a pattern, I started to ask Ian his dream. I never told him mine first because I figured he would lie and say "me too!"

Often there was nothing in common but just as often there were similarities: he had dreamed of rivers in a suburban town; I had dreamed of sailing down the street on which I lived as a child. He dreamed of a room with a small white chest; there was such a chest at the foot of my bed when I was growing up, and in which unbeknownst to him I kept my college notebooks, including notes of our English lit classes. Small but weird coincidences, over and over.

One night he said he dreamed I had a terrible fight with a man ("I only hope you never get that mad at me," he said in recounting the dream). Nope, I hadn't had such a dream.

But... Later that day, after he had told me this dream, what unfolded in my apartment with my roommate's boyfriend matched eerily what he had described. I had no way to know that my roommate's beau would come in and start to goad me about a very personal matter and, uncharacteristically, I would hurl water from my glass at him, then the glass, then run out of the place shaking angry.

Even as I was shaking, out back in the garage, it hit me: This is what Ian dreamed.

There were many others, enough to cause me to panic at one point in the semester because there seemed no earthly explanation for having dreams in common, let alone about things that had not yet happened.

Back to the garage in California when I was moving, some 30 years after my college days. I had found a letter from Ian, who, as an English lit major, was quite a writer. It was a love letter that was so vivid and sad that I was surprised I had saved it, and equally surprised I had forgotten it. Ian had made clear in college he would like to go out with me, but if there was anything more striking than our cosmic dream similarities, it was the fact that I was utterly not attracted to him physically. We could talk books and ideas and politics for hours. But when it came to the thought of romance with him I was almost repelled.

The letter: This letter. It was forlorn, aching, sad, searing, overly dramatic, filled with well-written shards of 22-year-old desperation. In general, as he put it, "I can't go on, I quit, I give up, I have tried to win your heart but I will stop."

As I read it in 2012, I was embarrassed for him and for me both: by the time I watched my husband heading out of our house to help me pack up in the garage, I had already torn the letter into half, then quarters, then eighths, 16ths, then smaller, then it was gone.

 

—J G

 

The Nature of Love

I was recently cleaning out the documents folder on my computer, and came across the freewrites I've done over the years. Whenever I'm trying to work on something but keep getting lost in other thoughts, if I'm being mindful, I'll open up another document and start writing down what I can't stop thinking about, just to excise it so I can move on. It doesn't happen frequently, but it happens enough.

In my documents folder, I found a letter I had written to my friend Brian. It was a letter I never intended to send, but something that was niggling at my brain that I just had to put down into words. Now, my friend Brian is unlike any other person I've ever met. For one, he is very quiet and very introverted, and yet he cuts a very striking impression the first time you sees him: he is very skinny and very tall, with floppy hair, and a propensity for wearing bow ties and a very large mustache that wouldn't look out of place on a walrus.

But both things he does without a hint of irony. In fact, he is one of the least ironic people I have ever met. He is, however, bitingly sarcastic--but in such a soft and understated way that if you turned your attention to something else at the wrong time, you'd miss it.

He's also probably the smartest person I know, and the most heartbreakingly sincere.

It's that heartbreaking sincerity that really gets me. He's the type of person that always seems like he is haunted by something he's been carrying for a long time. After I knew him for a bit, I found out that, in his early 20s, he was a part of an unfortunate and broken engagement, though I never was able to learn the specifics. After hearing that story and getting to know him more, I could see and sense a deep, deep well of feeling and capacity for love that he carried inside himself, and also a wound that he either couldn't or wouldn't forgive himself for. He had lots of high-minded thoughts about love, as well as about the nature of God, and there was something in him that just couldn't let go of how he would never measure up to his own ideals.

I saw him try and date, once or twice for a stretch, but mostly it seemed like he decided that whatever mistakes he had made in his past had rendered him an imperfect vessel and therefore unworthy. I had an idea of what his past mistakes were and what ideals he had ascribed to in order to recover, and they were definitely in the vein of "once a ____, always a ____, just a recovering one."

With Brian, as well as others I've known who have taken this ideological route, this way of thinking made me helplessly furious. How could this man, with such a spirit and depth of feeling, build his identity around his worst mistake? How could he forgive others and not himself? How could this separation from humanity be what his god required of him? How could he think himself so rotten that he can neither give love well, or be worthy of it? How could he see himself as "redeemed" in every way but the practical way that might actually gain him some comfort in life, and how could he see himself as not worthy of that comfort?

And so, one day, I wrote him my unsendable letter. We had been talking about the Spike Jonze movie "Her," where a sad-eyed Joaquin Phoenix falls in love with an AI, voiced by Scarlett Johansson. This type of movie was shark bait to Brian, who loved talking about love's more ineffable qualities. He sympathized with the love Phoenix's character felt for the AI , while I had a lot of difficulty with him falling in love with an entity he could basically make over in his own image and was (initially) created to serve him. Then Brian pointed out that this is what humans do: we receive someone else as we see them, and when they grow too complex for our idea of them, the relationship ruptures more often than not. You only truly love a person when you recognize they will always escape you, and yet you stay in relationship with them anyway.

In my letter, I wrote about how this infuriated me, not the least of which because of what I knew of Brian's past. Because this is all true, but it leaves the other person's role in the relationship completely unaccounted for. In "Her," (spoiler alert), the AI grows and learns until she is too much for Phoenix's character, and she leaves him. But what Brian would never let himself see, and what I could never tell him, is that this result isn't a foregone conclusion. The Other may be fundamentally a mystery, but they can also choose to turn towards their partner and reveal themselves. They can love their partner enough to close the distance a little, as opposed to treating it as a futile reality.

I wonder if anyone ever told him how his eyes danced when he talked about the things that gave him life. If anyone told him how beautiful he was when lit by the things that made him alive? If he ever let others touch that aliveness, get close to it even though they could never fully know it.

These things, too, I wrote down in the letter--and which were the real reason, you, see, for why I could never send it.

 

— C G

 

A Letter To My Grown Children About My Mother

My Dears:

I am sharing with you the attached letter I wrote to my mother in January, 1970, on her 45th birthday. I was a senior in college and the Vietnam War was still raging, having killed more than 200 Americans per week during 1969. Violence, division and turmoil plagued the country, and especially college campuses. Your beloved Gommy and Papa were pro-Nixon Republicans. Imagine if your mother and I were Trumpers how you’d react. So the letter has two columns; on the left side are the criticisms of my mother and her world, and on the right are the positives, starting with “I love you.” I typed the letter on my aging Royal portable, and as you can see, there are no capital letters.

Eventually, as I got closer to being drafted, they became anti-war Democrats, marching in candle-light vigils in Wellesley and voting for George McGovern against Nixon in 1972 –McGovern carried only D.C. and Massachusetts. I like to think I persuaded them to jump ship, but I know they were driven by the fear that I would die in Vietnam.

I am glad you knew your grandmother, and have a sense of who she was, but I’m not sure I’ve told you how good a mother she was to her four children. She built lasting bonds of affection between the six of us that were strong enough to support us through whatever life threw our way. And she did it without ever becoming the center of attention.

Maggie was a steady presence in our lives, while our father—whom we also loved—was busy taking care of sick patients and frequently absent. She enjoyed our company and we enjoyed hers. She was a homemaker in the truest sense of that word in that the home she created was our refuge. In Kindergarten I once escaped at lunch and ran home just so I could be with her. When I first went to sleep away camp—Trinity Church Camp—as a 10-year old, I was so homesick I couldn’t eat and they put me in the infirmary.

Introducing us to the Episcopal Church, she had to drag us there on Sundays. Your grandfather, like most of his doctor friends, was an atheist and never went with us. She thought she led a blessed life, and she thanked God for the good fortune of having a healthy, happy family. Though she would smile at the idea of a hereafter, wondering aloud about being reunited with her own mother who died in her mid fifties. “Will I be older than mother if I see her in heaven?” she would ask. The thought elicited her characteristic eye roll.

We were a handful, four children constantly up to something, but she was demonstrative with her affection -- hugging, kissing, and loving us. She didn’t spoil us, and there was lot of tough love when we wanted to do something she opposed. On the other hand, we loved that she would let us drive the car as kids on back roads. What a thrill.

Still, there were days . . . Like the time your uncle Greg was late for school, and Margaret said, “Greg, if you miss the bus I’m not taking you to school.” He said, “Ok, I guess I’ll have to stay home.” It sent her into a tizzy, but later she would recount the story, almost proud about how clever Greg had been.

Pragmatism was her special virtue. She could fix anything, and often did. Nothing was so bad that it couldn’t be repaired or overcome. She would say about someone that they had “horse sense,” meaning they intuitively understood the nature of things and people, and what was going on around them. And she had horse sense and we turned to her endlessly for advice, especially as adults.

Of course, our mother’s concern for us could also drive us nuts. She would comment on our dress or grooming, with the quip that “I have to be honest.” As in, “Oh Chris, do you like your hair so long?” Or later, “so short.” And you knew you were definitely a member of the family when she started treating you like one of her children, as in asking your mother: “You think you should be that tanned? Don’t you want to put on a hat in the sun?” Of course, she treated her grandchildren like her own children as in: “Hayley, is that your third slice of pizza?”

She told and retold to her friends the story of 4-year-old Charlie coming in the house via the dining room door, a clear foul. Reprimanding him, she delighted in hearing him say, “If you treat me like that, I’m not coming here anymore to visit you.” She found it remarkable that a little boy could be that “willful.”

A youthful mother in spirit and years –23 years old when I was born, and still under 30 when Jeff, her youngest came along. By the time I was 17, we had twice been mistaken for brother and sister, something she found delightful.

Laughter was always present with her and she would take delight in poking fun at us and joining in as we joked about one another. Our parents had a paddle to spank us. It was one of these kitschy things with pictures of parents walloping screaming children called the “Persuader,” and it was more for threat than use. Once, our father was angry with me for talking back to Margaret and he grabbed the Persuader and gave me a whack. With that single hit, the paddle broke in two. What I remember most was my mother bursting out laughing, and then everyone laughing.

Nothing was sacred; everything was fair game. She would laugh hard with us as we laughed at each other. She loved to joke about herself and she would scrunch her face up showing that her eye was disfigured after she suffered some facial paralysis from a Bell’s Palsy, and she would laugh about it.

As we got older, we loved seeing our father operate at the hospital. But, she insisted she did not want to watch his surgery. I once asked her why and she said she never went to see him in the operating room because she was afraid she might jinx him. Over a 67-year marriage, they enjoyed an enduring love of one another and we have all benefited from the strength of their bond

Maggie was always kind to people and she taught us to appreciate something in everyone we met. Her kindness and love, and the way she cared for us all, was the ingredient that built our whole family. She created those waves of joy that continue to radiate through the generations and that still bind us together into the loving family we are. How fortunate we were to have her for our mother for so many delightful years, and how much we now miss her warmth and love.

Lovingly yours,

—CF

 

Dispatches from and to the Future

 

Dear Derek,

The year is 2017. September 18th to be specific. I’m writing this letter to you from Washington, D.C., where I spent the past few days exploring my old haunts in the city, seeing what’s changed and what’s remained, visiting a few old friends, and some favorite sandwiches I left behind.

Specifically, I went to SoHo Tea & Coffee to pick up the greatest chicken salad sandwich on earth (it really is), and the manager, Sammy, remembered me even though I’ve only been there once or twice in the last five years since I left. He and I caught up, and he gave me the rundown of how the neighborhood had changed, how conservative and expensive D.C. now was. He said I should have seen it 10 years ago, which started me thinking, and I realized that 10 years ago this month was the month I moved to D.C.

I then decided to do a little more digging in my old emails (I’ve never deleted an email—I’m a data hoarder), and I found my Jet Blue ticket from Long Beach to Dulles, confirming that it was in fact 10 years to the day since I had moved to D.C. I knew when I booked this trip to visit D.C. that it was about this time of year that I moved here, but I genuinely hadn’t remembered the date until the flight records confirmed it. SoHo was one of the first places I tried when I landed here. A friend of mine in LA, Mischa, had grown up in D.C. and had recommended that I come here and meet Sammy.

It wasn’t a huge deal, but one of those nice little coincidences in life. I left SoHo a few minutes later to get on with my day, and I realized that given how the neighborhood is changing, it could very well be my last Chicken Salad Sandwich. I had a good 10 year run of them though. To the day.

Of course, I’ve been a little nostalgic this week walking down literal and proverbial memory lanes. I started thinking about the interval of a decade. My friend Jai said to me once: “People overestimate what they can accomplish in a year, and underestimate what they can accomplish in 10.” That has always stuck with me.

The 10 year thing also reminded me of a life project I started when I was eight years old. In third grade, we took a field trip to the newly opened (and now since shuttered) post office near my elementary school, and before we left, my teacher had each of us write a letter to ourselves 10 years in the future, that we were to mail to ourselves at the post office. We’d get the letter postmarked with the date, and our instructions were to hold onto it for a decade and open it on this date, when we were 18. My teacher challenged us to continue writing letters to ourselves 10 years in the future.

I wonder if I’m the only person in my class, who actually did this? Well, I tried, at least. I kept the first letter, secreted away. I lost it once or twice, over the years, but I came across it in time to open it in October 2001, a few months after my 18th birthday. The contents of the letter weren’t particularly profound. As I recall, we had to write them fairly hurriedly, as we prepared to walk over to the post office in standard two-by-two fieldtrip formation.

After reading the brief letter, I took up the challenge of writing another letter to myself. I remember sitting at my kitchen table at the time, and writing it out by hand on small sheets of yellow paper, putting it into an envelope, and mailing it from a mailbox on UCLA’s campus. I received it back a day later, and put it in what I thought was a safe place. Between my 18th and 28th birthdays, however, I moved across the country five times. I lost the letter and found it a couple times, but somehow when it came time to open it, it had just disappeared. There are a million things that could have happened to it, but I held out hope for a long time, that it would suddenly turn up. I thus put my letter-writing project on hold, as I waited to find that second letter.

But I’ve decided that since today’s prompt is about letters (and I’m already thinking in terms of decades), that I am going to reboot the project and write a letter to myself 10 years in the future. (I’ll write it out to myself based on this essay, mail it, and then put it in a place of exceptionally safe keeping this time.)

If all goes to plan, I’ll be reading this on September 18th, 2027. I’ll be 44 years old—a nice palindromic age. My first thought: Donald Trump will no longer be President. Hopefully, I won’t be reading this and thinking: “Remember, how much better we all felt when Donald Trump was President?” I mean, it’s very likely that the lost letter I wrote when I was 18 in 2001 said: “At the very least, when I read this in 10 years George W. Bush won’t be President.”

Assuming that we aren’t living in a dystopian hellscape, I will have crossed firmly into “middle” age. Hopefully, 44-year-old me won’t be insulted by that. I’ll remind the future me that the most interesting people I know are actually in their 40s.

If I’m still working at the LA Phil, I will have been there for more than 15 years, which is the number of years that my first boss at the Phil has been there as of next year. That is a little mindboggling. If I’m still living in Downtown, Los Angeles, I imagine it will be unrecognizable in 2027. Will any of Grand Central Market’s “original” vendors still be there? Is there anywhere to buy a $2.50 taco?

I also want to remind you that you’ve described this time in your life not as a “golden” age, but as a “platinum” age. You have a job that lets you do interesting work and go home at 5pm every day. Going home constitutes a lovely walk and zero time spent in traffic. You have circles of friends from all the eras in your life all assembled in LA, a brilliant and caring girlfriend, and your entire family close by. You can also by a $2.50 taco that will fill you for a meal and a half.

I know that some or all of these things might have changed in 10 years, but I’ll remind myself of another fascinating thing my friend Jai has said: “Every chapter in life brings its own unique challenges and benefits.” His point was that you shouldn’t worry about the challenges of the next one in this one or worry about losing the benefits of this one in the next one. There will always be new benefits in life, along with those new challenges. Anyway, this week has been one of delightful nostalgia, and I’m clearly a big fan of nostalgia. Sometimes I think I start reminiscing about things before they are even over. Especially so when I’m eating a chicken salad sandwich.

Sincerely,

—DT.

 

Hey Mr. Postman

I write a bunch of letters. I always have. I am a big letter writer and really love the medium for communication because I get to talk uninterrupted for as long as I want.

I do not, as a rule, send any of these letters.

When I was younger — much younger — I kept a diary. I found that starting off with the traditional "dear Diary" only got me so far, but that I needed to address SOMEONE or else my writing was just fluff in the universe. I may not have put it quite that way at 8. But I found early on that if I directed my thoughts at someone, I could make more sense of what was going on in my head.

I am not exactly sure who said this - and while I could look it up, it doesn't matter enough for me to take the time to do so - but it sums me up perfectly; "I never know what I think until I see what I said." I need to see my thoughts down in words for them to become clear to me. Anything left to whirl around in my brain gets muddled and confounded and complicated. Putting things down on paper helps clarify, and possibly even resolve, whatever has been rattling around in my head.

Lately, meaning over the last year or two, I have stopped using anything for these letters other than the notebook I carry with me pretty much at all times. Something bothers me, I write. Something strikes me as a point I want to revisit - I write. An interaction does not go as I had hoped it would - I write more. I have suspended the "Dear...." but these are letters nonetheless.

This past spring, the majority of them were to students. The first class of boys I was particularly close to was graduating, and I was having a rough time with that. (as an aside, this upcoming class will be even worse because I have known these boys since their freshman year and have watched them grow up. Saying goodbye is going to suck!) I processed all those thoughts and emotions by writing to each of them, and getting down on paper my thoughts about saying goodbye.

I did turn those into actual notes, however. Or at least some of them. Back when I was teaching middle school in Arizona, I would write letters to my departing 8th graders with wishes for them for high school and beyond. These cards and letters became somewhat legendary, as not everyone got one and receiving a card from me at promotion day meant you were really something special. Kids would ask if they were going to get one. I kept it a secret till the end and tried very hard to find something to give and to say to each person who inquired, as well as the ones I would have written to regardless.

I did not do this the first two years I was at Avon but started it back up for this graduation. I was so close to so many boys and felt as if they were truly extensions of my family that I needed to leave them with something as they graduated. I ended up writing 12 letters. Some were short and sweet; you've impressed me during your time here with your integrity and your constant willingness to be of service to others... Some were too long to fit on a card and I ended up giving them 3 or 4 handwritten pages from a notebook. I wanted each and every boy to know the impact he had on my life, on this school and my hopes and dreams for their future. I believe strongly that we do not do enough to lift each other up, especially in an all-boy atmosphere.

Cole, in particular, got the majority of my thoughts on paper. Not only was he my student, but he was my son's best friend and over the years has become my 4th child. He is family. But I also have a sense with him that I have known him before. We connected on a level that did not exist with the majority of the other boys; I felt then and still feel an overwhelming need to protect this child and help him navigate this world. Not that he is lost, but there are perils and he generally deals with them alone. I have written him again and again, emphasizing the importance of allowing others to enter his world and help him along on this journey.

Much of what I write down, I eventually share with the person I was writing to. I may amend or edit a little but when something is important enough for me to need to work through it in writing, I feel it is important enough to share with them.

 

—SJ

 

Man of Letters (Yawn)

I’m not sure I could have come up with a more obvious title for this piece, but I still have time to change it.

I’ve thought about this topic for several hours now, and the best I can come up with is that I find it distressing to be reminded of how old and out of touch I am. I’m fairly confident that letters are still used and important in the business world, but I’m no longer a part of that. In the personal world, I used to love to write and receive letters, but I wouldn’t know where to start to pick that habit back up again.

I cannot think of a single address other than my own that I know.

Back when I wrote letters, I’d sometimes get people writing back complimenting me on how good, how touching, how beautiful some of the letters I sent were, but I kind of doubt that any I’d write now would have that effect on the recipient. I guess I’ve kind of lost the passion, the intensity, that I once felt about the people and events of my life, and my writing has gotten dry as a result.

I’d still like to do it, but I’m a bit scared at how quickly my hand and arm would start aching if I were to try to do anything longer than a postcard in longhand any more. Even around the turn of the century, when I was instructed in a class I was taking to take a piece of paper and write for fifteen minutes, it had been so long that my actual, physical writing muscles had been used that I must have spent as much time shaking the pain out of my arm and hand as I did putting words on the paper.

And nothing since then has given me any hope that things have gotten better in the ensuing years and that I wouldn’t cramp up even more quickly now.

So, while it may be a romantic notion to once again pick up my favorite fountain pen and fill a page with deathless prose and wisdom, or concern and hopes, I’d also need to do a lot of work to clean off a writing surface where I could do such a thing.

Instead, maybe I should think and write about letters I’ve received.

I think it’s very likely that I’ve gotten two important, life changing letters in my life, although I cannot specifically remember either occasion. Since I’ve heard so much about it over the years, it’s almost a certainty that I received a notice of acceptance from the university I attended, but the whole event is a blank.

Knowing, or remembering, me at the time, I think it’s safe to say that I was so certain I’d be accepted that the notice was probably anticlimactic. I only applied to the one place, and I was too naive and inexperienced in the world back then to even consider that they wouldn’t want me.

I’m going to say, though, that I felt an enormous relief because to do otherwise might suggest that I was a bit of an asshole, and we can’t have that.

The other important letter in my life was probably even more of an expected thing. I remember around the time of my eighteenth birthday watching on TV when they held the first draft lottery. Sort of like our current lotteries, but instead of money, this one determined everyone’s order for being drafted into the Army.

With the Viet Nam war going on, being drafted is the kind of thing that could substantially change one’s life. I wasn’t looking forward to wearing that much green and learning how to march around, shoot, kill people, or live in a jungle, so I was hoping that I wouldn’t have to serve.

On the stage were two large fish bowls, one filled with the dates from January first to December thirty-first (including February twenty-ninth because I was born in a leap year) and the other with the numbers from 1 to 366. The guy, whoever he was, would reach into one bowl and pick out a date, then grab a number from the other one and the result would be that birthday’s ranking for the upcoming year’s draft.

If he picked January 16th and 247, those born on January 16th would be 247 in line to be drafted the next year. The Selective Service would start with whatever birthday got number one, and begin drafting those people, then those whose birthday was number two and so on down the line until they’d reached the necessary number of fresh, young soldiers.

I did nothing to deserve it, but I was rewarded with September first being teamed up with number 306 and I let out an audible sigh of relief.

Better yet, though, again, I don’t remember the actual incident, sometime later I was sent a letter and a new draft card for the next reassigning me from 1-A, which meant “good to go,” to 1-H, which meant I couldn’t be called until they got everyone whose birthday fell on that new year, and everyone left over from my year up through 305.

I do kind of like wearing green now, though.

—RK

 

Almost gone, almost an artist, almost graduated, almost tall

Grudges and acts of grace