We lay aside letters never to read them again, and at last we destroy them out of discretion, and so disappears the most beautiful, the most immediate breath of life, irrecoverable for ourselves and for others.
~ Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
Last week I was doing some spring cleaning and came across a collection of letters I had written to my parents some forty-five years ago. At the time, I was a young man teaching in Ghana. After University I’d joined CUSO, a Canadian voluntary organization similar to the Peace Corps, and had been assigned to the West African country for two years. I’d asked my mother to keep these letters as a partial record of my experience.
Dan and the staff at Sefwi Wiawso Secondary School, Ghana
Last week was the first time I’d looked at them in over four decades. As I read through these tissue thin blue aerograms, covered in tightly composed script, I was deeply affected. My younger self was speaking to me across the years not only about his wonder at this new place and culture but also about his hopes and dreams.
I feel that I want a role in life where I can work to benefit those among us who are not so privileged. I have long given up the idea that I alone can solve world problems. But I do feel that I have something and that I can contribute a little to working out some of our problems.
In a powerful way I came to see that the life I had hoped for has been lived. The values I held then are still close to my heart. It gives me encouragement as I look ahead to the “third chapter” of my life. I suspect it will be a time every bit as challenging and eye-opening as my days in Ghana. And I hope I’ll face the future with the same degree of passion, curiosity, dedication, and openness as that young man did all those years ago.
The letters also confirm how much detail and texture of our past is simply lost unless we have journals or letters to refresh our memory. I was surprised at the events, people, and places that had faded from my mind. In fact, it turns out that the Ghanaian secondary school compound where I lived and taught wasn’t exactly how I remembered it at all!
My letters home illustrate the great value that memorabilia play in unlocking the stories of our life. But not just the stories. Those letters also helped me understand something of the person I am today.
Here are a few random thoughts:
- Start a journal. It’s never too late. Begin recording the details of your life. One day you may want to write your life story and these journal entries will be invaluable.
- Preserve old letters. Make sure that you keep your correspondence safely stored in acid free archival boxes.
- Search for original documents. If you’ve been hired to produce a personal history or you’re doing your own, make sure to uncover any letters, journals, or photographs that will help trigger memories.
- Use archival documents to reveal values and beliefs. While memorabilia can aid in triggering a recall of past events – go further. The stories that emerge from the past can provide powerful clues to the essence of a person and the things that person holds dear.
Photos from Dan Curtis collection
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