The Dead Letter Office

One of the odd facts about my newly single life that I hadn’t counted on has to do with my mail. When my ex-wife and I separated, I moved into an apartment because I neither wanted to commit to owning a property by myself nor could afford to do so. The last time I moved into a new apartment was in 1996, which tells you how long it has been. There are a lot of things I had forgotten about this kind of life, and even more that would be familiar but for the fact that I have become a rather different person in the fifteen years since the last time I did this.

I say all this as a preface to what happened to me just now. I returned this evening from a typically wide-ranging and fascinating philosophical conversation with my friend Mike Neal (about which, more soon) to find my mailbox chock-full of mail. This is uncommon. Most days, I have very little mail, and a lot of the mail I do get isn’t even for me but is destined for what I presume are former residents of my apartment. I have to date counted four previous residents based off of the mail I have received. It would be an interesting bunch of people to have in the same room. One has, or has had, serious financial trouble and is getting collection letters; another has, or has had, some sort of connection to Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary; still another is difficult to pin down, receiving catalogues for both Victoria’s Secret and Bass Pro Shops.

Tonight’s mail, however, contained a letter addressed to someone I hadn’t heard of yet. The address is clearly that of my current apartment. The return address made clear that the letter was sent by an inmate at a prison in South Carolina. The envelope was addressed in careful, neat hand-printed letters with a metered postage stamp. The back bears a stamped notice advising that the Department of Corrections has not reviewed or censored the contents of the envelope and therefore takes no responsibility for its contents. I know nothing about either the sender of the letter or its intended recipient beyond what I have just described.

I have received mail for prior residents at an address before– the house my ex-wife and I shared received it occasionally up until the time I moved out– but it was never anywhere close to this interesting and varied. Certainly I have never before received a letter that had the potential to be so intensely personal, so fraught with possible significance. Why was the sender writing the letter? Is he getting out of prison soon and needs a friend to stay with? (Will I get a knock on my door from this person in the near future in that case?) Does he need a character witness at a parole hearing? Is it full of hate, bitterness, accusations, resentments? Is it full of regrets for wrongs done? Is it a solicitation to a criminal conspiracy?

I do not know, and I shall never know, because I do not plan to open the letter. It is not mine to open. However odd it seems to say this, I feel like I would be betraying a pair of men I have never met were I to interpose myself in the middle of their communication uninvited like that. My ingrained optimism, moreover, can’t help but think that the letter is an attempt to repair or maintain an important relationship this prison inmate has with a friend on “the outside. As such, it is a fragile vessel bearing his genuine humanity in the midst of all that would steal or deny it. It would be perverse for me to act as agent of an empty, cruel universe by casually tossing it aside and frustrating its journey to its intended recipient.

So I don’t know what to do. I possess neither the skills nor the time to track down the person who was supposed to receive the letter, beyond making a routine inquiry at the rental office for my apartment complex if they have a forwarding address for him. If that doesn’t work, and I doubt it will, I feel stuck. The postal service obviously doesn’t know where to forward the letter; otherwise, they would have already forwarded it. I will be happy to listen to any suggestions any of you reading this may care to make in the comments.

I feel an obligation, though, to do whatever I might reasonably do to get this letter to its addressee. I dislike the notion that the universe has dead letters. I like to think that, ere the end, what we need to convey to people gets conveyed; that we tell those we care about just how much we care about them; that we confess when we have wronged one another and have the courage to ask for the forgiveness we need; that we can live in such a way that we don’t feel like we have left cards lying upon the table. I know that this doesn’t always happen. People leave our lives before we have said all that needs to be said. There are any number of dead people, family and friends, I wish I could greet and embrace right now.

What keeps me going is the notion that, in a way I can scarcely explain and won’t even attempt to, we are told what we need to be told. What is needed is the mindfulness to pay attention, for given the rather broken and disjointed nature of life this side of the veil, what we need to be told isn’t always told to us via any agency that makes sense to us. Whether they come to us from friends and lovers, family or perfect strangers, the universe at last delivers its dead letters.

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