Good Letters

One time, I read a comment made by a famous writer about how she indulged in a ritual whenever she straightened up her closet, cleaned out her refrigerator, and the like: “I can’t leave one shoe alone in the corner or one carrot in the drawer by itself; I wouldn’t want to hurt its feelings.”

That little bit of anthropomorphization struck me as funny. But then again, while I don’t worry too much about the psyche of mateless tennis shoes or the self-esteem of wilted roots, I have an attachment to plans that I once had—still have, for that matter—despite the time for their occurrence having passed.

For example, I won’t throw away a set of blueprints I own, ones for a low-country cottage with a raised front porch that I meant to build ten years or more ago.

I knew the site where it was going to stand, and I knew the modifications I was going to make: a larger den and a screened-in gallery on the back. I won’t even throw away the plans for the alternative cottages I’d considered at the time, that rest alongside the ones I liked best, this despite the fact that my purpose was postponed first by a set of unforeseen circumstances and then by the economic cataract we all fell over.

I hold on to the plans, though the realist in me knows that they will not come to be. The property is up for sale, and the climate for building has gone far south.

I also hold on to plans for barns and brick walks and pictures of desks that I once wanted. I have an entire staircase out of an ante-bellum home: newel post, balustrade, and handrails. On the backs of envelopes and yellow legal paper, I’ve got instructions for how to make certain objects that are likely to go unmade. I’ve kept maps to places I’m sure not to see again and addresses of people that I’ve lost touch with and can’t find.

But at least for now, I have a place to keep all this stuff, and they give me a bit of pleasure when I run across them.

These things are not memories, strictly speaking, so much as they are intentions. They’re things that I had the purpose to accomplish, but the project for which never came to resolution, or things I wanted to do again but won’t have the chance to.

Other things were done, made, accomplished instead, so there’s nothing sad about any of this. And of course, it’s still slightly possible that a few of these ambitions may yet come to be in some fashion.

But as I say, it’s not likely. Life is a shorter and shorter thing, we come to find, and when we stumble upon pages of magazines that we tore out because we liked the way the pictured room was set-up, or a roll of old wire or a bucket of peculiar paint that would’ve suited an imagined goal, it gives us pause to think that, with world enough and time, we would’ve done this that or the other.

The same is true for self-improvements we’d meant to make: the German grammar, which remains as foreign as the day it was bought; the blues guitar, still in its case; the calligraphy pens, dry as the day they were purchased; the circular saw, never plugged in; the book on “How to Tie Your own Fishing Lures,” its spine uncracked.

Self-amusement is common at what we thought we could do, knowing full well that we had to work and raise families and pursue our other avocations.

Now I think that the ghosts of such intentions are sometimes the reason why people do the seemingly inexplicable things that they do. You might wonder why somebody put a cupola on his ranch house, or added a spoiler to the back of his sedan, or bought a Husky when he lives in Florida.

Maybe such things are the paltry remnants of the Victorian manse he’d meant to build, and the sports car he’d wanted to buy, and the Iditarod he’d meant to race. To gloss Hamlet: shades of what dreams have come, but have never come to be.

They spill over into the workaday life, providing maps for the size of an imagination bigger and longer-lasting than the great clock would allow. Drawers and closets are full of shaded stratagems—mysteries to all but those who own them.

I once heard that in the great paradise, such things will be infused in us—the guitar playing, the aria-singing, the talent to sculpt and paint and intuit—and above all, to know the good, beautiful, and true.

It would be nice if that were so. Because I’d still like to sit on that screened-in gallery—with some coffee and some lost friends and a dog I meant to buy—then watch the day come slowly over the hill, like a breeze over a pine rise.

I’ll keep the plans.

The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.

Written by: A.G. Harmon


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