Letters from the past

 I’m going through my filing cabinets and throwing out what I don’t need any more and keeping what I must, and digitising as much as I can. In the course of that ‘m trawling through many layers of history. Much of it is pretty boring – a tax return in 2003, the receipt for an investment I made in 2006, the copy of a registration notice, and so on.
But then you hit pockets of interesting stuff. I’ve always been conscious of the personal/cultural/historical significance of the small notes, the occasional letters, the bits and pieces of memory true in that moment, but likely to fade in the years to come.
Last week I posted one such frivolity, a fax received from a pretty girl 20 years ago. Today, randomly, I’m copying in a letter I wrote to a third party about 15 years ago. The story is told, more or less, in the letter, and may not be of interest to most readers – I post it here to retain the record and to fill in some of the gaps. End of the day this blog is a record of my existence, and for completeness sake documents like this belong here.

Dear Had…,

Even if you recall who I am, the fact of this letter I am sure will be a surprise. I am going to impose on your good nature, for which I apologise and thank-you. I hope you come to understand why.

We met at the beginning of August, in the Synagogue. I was the Australian who wandered in off the street, soaking wet from one of the sudden deluges I was always getting caught in. I remember standing inside the doorway feeling a little unsure – I am not Jewish, I am not even religious. You smiled at me though and made me welcome, and we came to talk.

I guess this letter attests to the fact that you made an impression on me. I had come to pay homage, but did not know what I felt or what I wanted to feel. You set me at my ease, and exuded an aura of serenity that calmed and impressed me. This is why I write to you now, and no other.

I had come to Singapore to declare my love for a friend who had just moved there from Melbourne. I was full of grand ideals and romantic notions, of poetry and hackneyed dreams of living happily ever after. I found though that the words I had sung so loudly in my imagination I could not speak aloud to her. For days this went on, like a lump of wood I was, without the courage to speak the truth in my heart.

That day in the Synagogue I had come to share some of her life and background. T is Jewish, as we discussed then. I wanted to know something of where she came from, what made her. When you love someone you want to understand them, and want to cradle that intimate knowledge close to you. You and I spoke and then I wandered slowly around the Synagogue.

A strange thing happened – strange for me. I found myself becoming overwhelmed by emotion. There were tears in my eyes as I looked around me. T had written a piece about celebrating the New Year in your Synagogue last year. As I looked around, her words came to life, I could see her there, and see what it meant. For a moment I felt as if I could touch it, and could feel in my stomach the love, respect, affection I had for her. I felt enlightened and transformed.

Since that day I have traveled far and wide. I went from Singapore to Europe, then back to Singapore and ultimately Vietnam. Then finally back to Melbourne, my hometown, have seen many great sights, had memorable experiences. My journey has been more than geographical though. I have felt the distance traveled both in my brain and my heart. At times I have felt a tumult of emotion that has been left to my intellect to understand. This journey continues, and perhaps it never ends. Never before though have I felt the miles pass by so swiftly.

As you may surmise, despite my renewed zeal things did not pan out as I had dreamt of with T. That is what happens, too late do you realize your mistake. Happy endings happen in fairy tales, and only rarely in real life. Still it is hard to swallow sometimes – hope dies an ugly death.

This is what I am learning to do though, swallow hard, without the aid of the jam that my mother used to use to make the bitter pill go down easier. It goes down eventually, and will now also. This is not why I am writing. I am writing I think, to understand, and to be understood. There seem too few people I can turn to for this.

I wrote how I visited the Synagogue so I could hope to understand T better. That was an ambition simply thought, without truly understanding what it meant. This is the crux maybe of this letter.

I think I am a decent man. I try to treat each person equally. I am a proud Australian but believe in human beings more than nationalities. This is cause for much argument, but I am sure I am right (an admitted fault – I always think I am right). I try not to be prejudiced or bigoted in any way. Of course I fail. I am no saint, and it is natural for a man to prefer his neighbour to the stranger who lives in the next street. Still I try not to let this natural prejudice affect my relationship with people.

I am Protestant by christening, though my father is Catholic, my mother only being Church of England. I am naive when it comes to religion. If I am forced to declare my denomination I admit I am Protestant, though it seems to me I must be half Catholic, as if blood meant something. Either way it matters little though.

When T told me she was Jewish I did the equivalent of shrugging my shoulders. My best friend is Jewish, I had no bias against Jews, and besides, I liked this girl very much She could have been from Mars as far as I cared.

It is since I have returned from Asia that I understand it is not as simple as this. Nor should it be.

I was in a bookshop the other day idly browsing. I picked up a book of photos and flicked through the pages. The photos showed the Warsaw ghetto in 1941. I understood what I was looking at. Something clicked in me, finally. I am a student of history, but till then it had been removed from me. Here it was though, in my hands. Finally, because of my feelings for T, because the emotional turmoil I was feeling, I understood.

I went outside. I called my Jewish friend. I explained what I had seen. I told him I realized that I could never truly understand T, or him even, though we grew up together. I told him I could never understand what it felt like to walk around as a Jew because I could never begin to appreciate the burden of history that brings, of hate, of being ‘the chosen’, and those facts compacted by days and years living with that knowledge. He answered matter of factly, but as if I had finally discovered some secret truth.

I wrote earlier that you seek to understand the person that you love, but I ask, how can I possibly understand if I have never experienced that? I did T a disservice by simply accepting her religion when I thought I was being generous. I denied her, surely, by simply shrugging my shoulders? I denied her life, her history, a large part probably of why I had come to love her. Is this not true? How sorry now I am for that.

It was my ignorance. My religion means nothing to me, but the weight of it is nothing to what T, and R, and you too Had.., must feel.

I am sorry for having troubled you with my agitated thoughts. I could think of no-one else to whom I could turn. Wrong religion I know, for both of us, but I feel a little as I have confessed, and you are my confessor. Regardless, saying it doesn’t absolve me of it. That much I know.

Thank-you for listening. I hope one day to be in Singapore again.

For the record, I never sent this letter. I wish I had.

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