By conservative estimates, there are currently enough wrongfully convicted people in prison in the United States to fill a football stadium.
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I asked the post office clerk why she was smiling. She said she’d just gotten off the phone with a woman who insisted her mail wasn’t being delivered. I asked what was funny about that. The clerk rolled her eyes. She said the caller was upset because all she received were bills, never personal letters.
I laughed. The clerk laughed, too, as if we were two old friends standing on the corner, shaking our heads at the lost souls who complain to street lamps about the weather or peer at you as if from the wrong end of a telescope.
The next morning, I thought again about the conversation. It was easy to picture an eccentric old woman waiting for the letter carrier as if for an answer to a prayer; easy to imagine her sitting by her window, the heat turned up too high in her small apartment, the television too loud, three cats in the kitchen. It was harder to imagine the setbacks in her life: the marriage gone awry, the son or daughter too busy to write, everything around her changing while nothing really changed.
Suddenly, I felt ashamed. I remembered a line from Anne Tyler’s Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant: “Sometimes, Ezra would quote her to his friends . . . and halfway through a sentence he would think, ‘Why, I’m making her out to be a character,’ and all he’d said would feel like a lie, although of course it had happened.”
I thought about how, for the sake of a story, I make others into characters, make myself into a character, but always leave something out. Over coffee I tell a friend my heartaches, then brush them aside with a joke, as if I were sweeping crumbs off the table. How shy I am, wanting to feel joined but unwilling to share one really embarrassing moment, to risk sounding stupid.
I don’t call the post office when I’m lonely, but I may call my wife’s office even if I know she’s busy. I’ll listen to her voice on her answering machine, comforted by its warmth and familiarity. I’ll whisper that I love her, that I can’t wait to see her. To whom am I talking then — her or myself? Isn’t it crazy to call, knowing I’m only going to talk to a machine?
Then again, I may not call because I don’t want to talk to a machine. I may blame my wife for my loneliness. I may blame my parents, for never teaching me how to comfort myself. I may blame God, for never teaching them.
I may blame my loneliness on the season. The fading light reminds me that this body is just an apartment where I’m living without a lease. Isn’t it crazy to think I’ll be here forever? Just down the road is death’s bright house, all those portraits of me on the wall; my chair, waiting.
My mother didn’t recognize me when I visited her recently. At the restaurant I had to feed her. Back in her room, as I was leaving, she pointed to a photograph of me she keeps by her bed. “That’s your address,” she said.
Is that crazy? Maybe it’s crazy to believe only what we see in the mirror, to pretend these bodies are who we are — as personal as it gets. Maybe it’s crazy to believe I’m alone here now, instead of sitting with all the saints and the buddhas, the dead in their blossoming wisdom, my ancestors leaning over to give me a kiss. And here’s my friend Stephen, six months gone, still reminding me that loneliness isn’t shameful but a beautiful prayer, a deep longing to know and feel God’s presence.
I wonder how many losses it took to break the old woman, to make her look to the letter carrier as some kind of savior.
I, too, eagerly await the mail each day, rush down the stairs when it arrives, greet the mailman warmly. I used to open every subscription order and poetry submission as a way to keep in touch with the readers. Now I have a hard enough time keeping in touch with my staff. I no longer open every envelope, but I still want to be the first to rifle through the stack of stories and books and magazines and catalogs and bills and press releases. Surely there’s a letter in that big stack, a personal letter, something just for me.
I read Sy Safransky’s essay “Nothing Personal” [November 1993] at five this morning, while standing sleepily in the living room, trying to wake up so that I could begin preparing classes for the day. Listening to the coffee drip in the kitchen, my stomach growling, I thought of all the letters I haven’t received, all those I haven’t sent. I thought of how my wife waits for personal mail as if for a revelation, and how friends who write do so too infrequently. I thought of the people with whom I have lost touch; are they waiting, somewhere, for the letter not yet written?
Personal essays like yours, Sy, are not letters, but they seem to grow from the same need to reveal and relate. I don’t write many letters to magazines except for business reasons. I don’t usually write to editors except to complain. But I read your essay today like news from part of the family I had long ago forgotten. Sentiment, like an old snapshot, blurred and uneven, has its own time and place. Thank you for the letter. Keep in touch.