The Ghost of Christmas Past
Before Gmail, you could only save about 200 e-mails in your account because there was a low storage limit. So every few weeks, you had to delete e-mails that were seemingly of no consequence — and print out the ones of consequence. But then Gmail introduced the “Archive” function. You could save every single e-mail; they were preserved forever; that was seven years ago.
Over the years, it’s been quite useful. I once lost a midterm paper; Gmail saved it; that was five years ago. I once lost my girlfriend’s phone number; Gmail remembered it; that was three years ago.
Recently, though, I’ve realized the archive is something more powerful — something that changes the very texture of our lives. It crystalizes moments unlike any other tool we’ve ever had. It allows for unparalleled reflection. And when you find time to re-read those messages, it allows a macro view of life.
I realized this a few days ago — and ever since, I’ve spent my time reading through old e-mails. There are moments of triumph — of fulfilled potential. And moments of sadness — of lost artifacts.
The first revealing e-mails are from the early weeks of college. I reach out to good friends as I struggle in New York. And those people reach out to me. We are thousands of miles away, but we make ourselves vulnerable to each other. One friend writes:
my parents came for lunch today and i just wanted them to take me home with them. sad i know. my grandparents are coming for lunch today. i’m getting so fat and i don’t understand it.
I don’t talk much with this person any more. It makes me incredibly sad.
A few months later, as I get comfortable in New York, I write to a friend:
everything is right here.. everyone is so different.. and i walk faster now, and i know the streets and the subways.. its crazy
That friendship faded, too, along with many others that exist in the depths of the archive. Some of them make me so sad that I want to respond to them, seven years later, as if nothing has changed. Would it be weird? I hope not.
There are also e-mail threads about struggling with my direction in life.
I’m working this job, and sometimes, I find things I really don’t like. The world isn’t always such a pretty place, and sometimes, what I’m being asked to do only furthers that. But I guess I just need to stick to my gut and do what I think is right.
There are a lot of these, especially shortly after graduation. But a few months later, I write a few e-mails telling friends I am applying to grad school.
I’m actually thinking of applying to NYU ITP, or maybe some MFA program in the city… or maybe some other random thing.
And a few months pass, I get this:
I know you’ve been formally notified of your acceptance to ITP, but I wanted to take a moment to welcome you. I was one of the readers of your application–and we get pretty hard-boiled here, reading so many of them–and yours was one of the best essays, certainly the most moving, I have ever read.
I’m proud of myself for not lingering in unhappiness. It’s a bold, decisive move. And it’s brought me much joy — partly because of what I’m doing, but mostly because of the people I’ve met. They bring delight into my life, sometimes in unorthodox ways:
I was trying to take the yellow out of your face and literally couldn’t reduce the yellow enough. you are truly yellow.
(In that e-mail, my face was being Photoshopped.)
It’s quite apparent when something very joyous happens in my life. For example, starting on September 19, 2008, there is a huge gap of e-mails. That’s when Kristen and I start dating. From there, the e-mails slowly return — and, naturally, they are sweet-nothings:
today, you and i made some wonderful crepes
and we put a fruit in that’s better than grapes
And it is further filled with short notes, which are so light that a feather could crush them:
I just got home.
Thank you for dragging me out to see the excitement.
It’s a reminder of what it was like early on — why I fell in love with her in the first place. I feel lucky to have this archive of letters; I imagine our parents don’t get a chance to revisit their early relationships in such detail. It is a visceral reminder of that initial spark.
But like all relationships, a spark isn’t enough to sustain it. The innocent flickers evolve into more in-depth conversations — but only sometimes:
It was so nice to see you today. I realized that spongy thing we got at the Indian place is a lot like Korean rice cakes.
There are also moments where the conversation is more about context than words, and where sadness and longing loom in the background.
6:31 PM Kristen: hiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiii
are you there???
6:32 PM me: Hiiii!
Kristen: i miss you!
i am in ghana
it is hot
But at some point, the words get too familiar. The context is bland. Meaning disappears from the conversations. It becomes lukewarm. It doesn’t happen in a single e-mail. It happens in a lot of normal ones, which makes it incredibly tough to detect. It’s the kind of thing that makes you wonder, “How did we get to this point?”
But when you read through years of e-mails in a matter or hours, the narrative is apparent. You see the red-hot sensations cool down on an uneventful arc; it comes to rest at a claustrophobic equilibrium.
And you get to the end: the present day.
Near the end of “A Christmas Carol,” Ebenezer Scrooge wakes up from his dream and says, “I don’t know how long I’ve been among the Spirits. I don’t know anything. I’m quite a baby. Never mind. I don’t care. I’d rather be a baby. Hallo! Whoop! Hallo here!”
Reading through the archive, I am whisked off into my past and shown a version of myself from a third-person perspective. And at the end, much like Scrooge, I get a chance to be the person I want to be and build the relationships I want to build.
So last night, I wrote a long e-mail to Kristen. It starts:
So I was reading through some of our old emails and chats, and I decided it was time to write you a long email. I think my mind was so preoccupied this semester that I haven’t been able to really talk to you, so I figured I should write it in an email because I express myself a lot better when I can write it out. (Plus, this way I don’t get distracted by your pretty face when I talk to you in person.) …