Lettering a Life
April 2, 2022 – David R. Weiss
Occasionally I choose to process my shit out loud. This is one of those times. If it feels like TMI (too much information), just skip this post and wait for the next one. (Don’t worry, I promise I’ll return to my anticipatory-collapse preoccupation soon!) But I trust that sometimes mulling in my own messiness and melancholy before (usually) climbing out at the other end … is helpful to some folks besides myself, so I offer it up as an act of generous humility. I’m NOT looking for pity. I’m on a journey of self-insight right alongside my work for social justice. Both get messy at times. And both are driven by a fierce commitment to put compassion—as transparently as possible—at the heart of my life.
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I’m not sure what I expected, but it wasn’t this.
Four years ago I made a rather audacious pledge to my two biological children, both young adults by then. I told them that for the rest of my life—well, “for as long as both I and the postal service endure”—I would write them a letter every month. I explained that I hoped to use these letters “to tell the story of who I am and what I know … and, in some small way to help shape the story of who you are.”
At 58 I was motivated by at least three things.
First, my own sense of mortality—a sense heightened by my mom’s slide into Alzheimer’s. Her memories are now inaccessible to all but God. Who knows whether that’s my destiny. But it is my choice to preserve for my kids an echo of me for the day when my voice falls silent (which it surely will one way or another). And—just in case—perhaps by regularly steeping myself in these memories, I can strengthen my mind’s tie to them.
Second, motivated also by my desire to recover a closeness to my children that has felt fraught in recent years—a desire sharpened by the geographical distance opening between us; both kids moved to California within a few months of each other in 2018. Who knows whether that distance will come to define our remaining years, or if we’ll find (or fashion) a nearness not measured in miles.
Much of that fraught relationship flows from forces larger than our own lives; circumstances for which none of us is directly to blame. Still, what blame there is, is altogether mine. And still again, if nearness be tomorrow’s name, it will be named together. The intricate design of our mended lives—like Kintsugi, the Japanese art of mending broken pottery with glistening lines of gold—will reflect the care-filled and thoughtful choices we each make moving forward. These letters are one set of mending lines of gold laid down by me.
And third, motivated by an intuition that my own path forward must wind backward through my past. These letters are written at least partly for me. Nothing is lost in a life; and things buried rarely stay put. Having found myself on the precipice of inward collapse around five years ago, I was wholly unsure that there was any path forward. But I sensed that if there was one, it involved gathering up my past into my present so that whatever future might yet be, might somehow be a life made whole. If it’s possible to recount a life of (seemingly) eclipsed promise with grace, then perhaps that telling tends a fresh future might unfold. But here again, who knows.
Thus, that audacious pledge made four years past, was made with fear and trembling. Because I cared so much about making good on it, and because after wrestling in recent years with some pretty deep depression, I knew better than to assume I could make good on it.
Yet here we are, four years later, and I am 49 monthly letters in. I “titled” the series to Susanna “Reading with Dad,” after a favorite children’s book that bound our hearts together in her childhood. And I “titled” the series to Ben “Apple: Tree,” after the recognition, noted by many, that he and I share a bundle of similarities while being very much our own distinctive selves.
These letters are no mere notes. In them I am excavating my own past (and a bit of theirs). Most run 1500-2000 words. A few have come in just under that, but more have been longer. Some 75,000 words mark the tally of the tales I’ve told by now. A small book, and growing each month. After jumping around a bit during my first year of lettering, I settled into a habit of slowly writing through my life from childhood to present. After 49 letters, I’ve reached age 26.
As I remarked up top, I’m not sure what I expected, but it wasn’t this. Although this is writing I dearly want to do—many months while I peer into my past, that same past peers back at me. And by the time I sign my name and seal the letter in, I’m ready for a respite from that peering past.
Among the things I’ve learned thus far while lettering my life …
The memories of my childhood and youth seem all too few. General impressions—sure. And brief vignettes here and there—yes. But when my sisters reminisce, I quickly sense their store of stories—especially those of my youngest sister—surpasses mine by an order of magnitude or more. Perhaps because I’ve always been a thinker, I spent so much time up in my head (even in my childhood) that I never placed much stock in the things happening right around me. But how humbling to realize my siblings could likely tell more stories of my childhood than I can.
Nonetheless, what memories I can lay hold of, I’ve tried to set down. Now maybe it’s true for all of us, especially those who brood by natural temperament, but the most vivid memories I have are the eruptions of shame, confusion, hurt, and the like. I did not have a harrowing childhood by any means! But what harrows have been there, have been most faithful in following me across my years. I know there was laughter, fun, play, joy in my youth. I can say that in general. But the episodes I can recall in particular, are most often episodes painfully recalled. This, too, is humbling, as though my melancholy disposition colors what I remember as effectively as it colors my present mood.
I am not sure I would have sensed how stark a truth this is, had I not set out to pull these scattered pieces of my past into one present moment. In any case, I strive to write with compassion for the many selves I’ve been. I did not undertake these letters to lament, but to glean what insights I can for myself and to share what might be of worth to my children.
The couple other things I’ve noticed are “thanks” to the journals I kept off and on for about twenty years, beginning at the end of my senior year in college. Prior to that, my recollections are limited to what my mind, by will or by scar, has held onto. But beginning in June 1982 I have a cross reference of sorts for the next decade or so.
Barbara Kingsolver observes in Animal Dreams, “A memory is a complicated thing, a relative to truth, but not its twin.” So true. And a journal adds harmony to a memory, but while it captures more, it crafts what more it captures—and who is to say how truthful the crafting is.
As I set out to tell each “chapter” of my life (currently done in alternating cycles of academic years and summers as I recount the years 1982-1986), I first collect the memories that come to mind. I jot them down and then review my journal to see what other details it might add in. I am reliably aghast.
There are significant—significant!—episodes in my own young adult life that I had utterly forgotten. I understand our minds only have so much memory and some things just don’t make the cut. But I’m regularly surprised at how MUCH gets scrubbed from even these early adult years. It mattered enough for me to journal about it—but never found a place in the conscious narrative of my life. It almost seems like I’ve been trying to forget my former life.
Alongside this, I’m also consistently chagrined at the unrelenting intensity of my introspection. As mentioned above, I am consumed with thinking. My mind whirs. All. Day. Long. I’ve known that, of course. But until these letters I’m not sure I realized the steep “price” of that. I wouldn’t trade my inward inclination away—it is at the heart of my beloved identity. But I can see now that it has often held a near tyrannical and sometimes cacophonous claim on my attention.
I suspect this is why activities like running, biking, and hiking have been noticeable balms for me: they draw-lure-pull me back into the fullness of my senses. My thinking is a fountain of insight and creativity—it is the locus of my deepest gifts—but unhinged from my whole self it has been as much peril as promise. That recognition alone—if learned even late in life—will mark a watershed.
In my journals—at least across these four years—I am reminded with embarrassing frequency of how much I hungered for intimacy-companionship-friendship. And how often that hunger opened into hurt, sometimes for me, sometimes for others. It is testament to the existential loneliness that has been my lot since my youth. That loneliness, too, is gift. But it took me decades to own it, and the learning curve was not pretty.
Finally, in the midst of all this “noise,” already in 1982, I began playing with the theological and spiritual thoughts that have become the overarching themes of my life. It’s true, some of these were first articulated with rough edges, but there are other passages that still catch my breath with their eloquent insight from forty years ago. Nonviolence, deep justice, contemplative quiet, daring discipleship, poetic theology, full hearted community, anguish for a fractured world—these notions have been my muses all along.
I say I’ve been “playing” with these ideas for a lifetime. And yet, if I’m honest, I have barely opened myself to them. My vocational journey—even as recorded in this short four-year window of journaling—has been shaped more by a lack of mentors who could accurately guide me, hesitancy that muffled my convictions, missteps of my own making and missed opportunities. Fast forward through the next four decades and it is mostly more of the same. This is not to discount any of the writing and teaching I’ve done. It is to put that in context. I have spent years playing with fire and, apart from some bright sparks, I have never burst into full flame.
And that isn’t harsh self-assessment; it’s quiet resolve. I am determined (even at this late date) to make sense of my life with fierce gentleness and unrelenting aspiration. Seeking after the wholeness that has eluded me thus far is part and parcel of my hunger to be a healing force for the world. Vocation ripples both inward and outward. And (as Robert Frost mused) I still have promises to keep. And miles to go before I sleep.
The world needs all of me to show up. At long last. As do my kids and grandkids, my wife and parents, my community. And, not least, me. Lettering my life has been a humbling exercise thus far. But if I find the insight of these backward glances a bit searing at times, perhaps they hint as well at what might still lie up ahead. Fresh sparks. And finally, fire.
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David Weiss is a theologian, writer, poet and hymnist, doing “public theology” around climate crisis, sexuality, justice, diversity, and peace. Reach him at email@example.com. Read more at www.davidrweiss.com where he blogs under the theme, “Full Frontal Faith: Erring on the Edge of Honest.” Support him in writing Community SupportedTheology at www.patreon.com/fullfrontalfaith.
You are giving the greatest gift of all to your children. An honest recounting of your life with and without them in it. How lucky all of us would be to have what you give so freely. I am in awe. Kate
It is a real legacy you are weaving and leaving, David. Not just for Susanna and Ben, but for all who have had the benefit of your friendship and your writing.