On Reading Old Letters

It’s funny how sentiments can change. In just a few short months, you can go from loving someone with the burning fire of a thousand suns to seeing them at a party and thinking, “Yeesh, I don’t remember having a long-term relationship with a toothless carnie.” It’s unsettling, and can make us feel as though the time that we did spend lying in bed holding hands or swigging whiskey out of the bottle on a rooftop was, if not wasted, severely misguided. Time passes and can turn even the most beautiful memories sour.

And sure, it works the other way, too. But nostalgia is easy to indulge. We look at photos of ourselves from times that our chest hurts from wanting to go back to, we linger over text messages that we’ve saved for as long as we’ve had our phone. The times that were good, the times that only get warmer in our memory–those we keep around us. In shoe boxes under our beds and in secret folders on our computer, we keep the parts of us that only look better the farther behind us they get.

But those moments that turn bitter, whether from a breakup that leaves us with an aching stomach or a  friendship that petered out pathetically, we tend to scoot under the rug as quickly as we can. There is a desire, perhaps even a need, to get rid of all evidence that we were ever stupid enough to indulge the kind of emotions that would leave us bitter and depressed. We may have played the fool once, but never again. Our precious space will be taken up with photos of summer camp and summer flings that ended too soon.

Reading the old letters, the old texts, the old emails–even looking at the old pictures and video clips–seems an exercise in torture. There is a turning of the stomach and a clenching of the heart, looking at words you once meant so much your whole body seemed to shake.

“I love you so much; I don’t know what I did before I met you–but it couldn’t have been very interesting.”

“I’m so lucky to have such a good best friend. I hope you’re having so much fun out there, CALL ME I MISS YOU”

I meant those things when I wrote them, but I don’t talk to either of those people anymore. And whether our reasons for not speaking were explosive or quietly cancerous, it doesn’t matter anymore. We are no longer a part of each others’ lives, and the exchanges we were savvy enough to hold in writing are all that either of us have left of the things we really felt, word for word.

And to be honest, reading words like these was hard–especially in letters where the jokes and the warm exchanges were as fast and free as they can only come between two people who really love each other. It was something of an archaeological dig into a part of my life I’ve tried to bury for a long time now. Here it is–you cannot deny it, you were happy. I actually found it physically hard to keep reading some of the passages, it was unnerving to have to acknowledge how much my sentiments have truly changed. Wanting to think you’re right extends to every part of your life, even wanting to be right over your former self. But just because we’ve learned better doesn’t mean that we weren’t once foolish.

And that’s okay. In fact, perhaps the most essential of all letters to read are the ones with those whom we no longer feel good about. Aside from being glaring, necessary examples of our own fallibility, they are reminders that no matter how sure we feel about something in the moment–it could all be gone tomorrow. The me that wrote those letters had no clue who would cheat or who would move away and stop calling, but the me now can learn to appreciate what I have all the more for its fleeting nature. And beyond that, I want to be able to look at anyone–regardless of history–at a party and think, “Wasn’t that good while it lasted?” TC mark

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Chelsea Fagan

Chelsea Fagan founded the blog The Financial Diet. She is on Twitter.

Trace the scars life has left you. It will remind you that at one point, you fought for something. You believed.

“You are the only person who gets to decide if you are happy or not—do not put your happiness into the hands of other people. Do not make it contingent on their acceptance of you or their feelings for you. At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter if someone dislikes you or if someone doesn’t want to be with you. All that matters is that you are happy with the person you are becoming. All that matters is that you like yourself, that you are proud of what you are putting out into the world. You are in charge of your joy, of your worth. You get to be your own validation. Please don’t ever forget that.” — Bianca Sparacino

Excerpted from The Strength In Our Scars by Bianca Sparacino.

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  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1363230138 Michael Koh

    I hate reading old text messages… especially from 9th grade. Same goes for letters. God, I made a huge mistake 12th grade. DAMMIT.

  • http://umcheckplease.wordpress.com umcheckplease

    I don’t think there is one person in the world who cannot relate to this. After a failed relationship it always helps to get rid of all those cute little reminders of how great it was together. It just makes it harder on yourself if not. Oh… and also CRUCIAL to emphasize how much of a hideous toothlesss carnie he has become since you guys broke up. Losing you was so traumatic that he just gave up on himself and his dental hygiene :) 

  • Flamingo824

    what a heartfelt article. loved it.

  • http://profiles.google.com/mcblaloc Meghan Blalock

    This is lovely.

  • http://fastfoodies.org Briana

    sup cognitive dissonance

  • ryan


  • Christine

    Thank you so much for this.  I’ve recently found it hard to comprehend how someone can be so much a part of our lives for months or years and then simply vanish.  I feel it’s so hard to deal with the leftover sentiments and written proof staring you in the face on a constant basis.  So many of my best memories have been tainted by the distortion of hindsight.  This article echoed my thoughts exactly.  Wonderfully on point.

  • beck

    accurate. I can’t seem to throw out the old letters though, even though whenever I read them I feel physically sick

  • Anonymous

    Dating a writer sucks because even if the content of those old letters is upsetting you have to be like “…but it *was* very well-written.”

    • Anonymous

      of course you really shouldn’t be dating writers, in general

  • berna fett

    What we do after reading old letters is also very interesting. It shows how much we’ve grown, whether or not we’re ready to move on. We reflect on our past lives in comparison to our current lives, and then we are able to assess what really matters to us.

    I really loved this article. Thanks.

  • Kristin C. Reilly

    your writing is always beautiful. 

  • http://imlikecocaine.wordpress.com/ Ana

    story of my post-breakup moments.
    beautifully written.

  • http://imlikecocaine.wordpress.com/ Ana

    story of my post-breakup moments.
    beautifully written.

  • http://www.nosexcity.com NoSexCity

    I deleted one of three “secret” letter folders on my computer recently; best/worst thing I could’ve done for myself, depending on how self-loathing I’m feeling on any given day.

  • chauncey

    i love this.  a setting on my macbook automatically saves every conversation i’ve had on ichat.  all i need to do is type in my ex’s screen name in the spotlight search, and i get an archive of memories.  it’s too bittersweet.  i literally feel pangs in my heart from being happy that it happened but sad that i know we’ll never be as comfortable with each other again.  great piece 

  • http://www.facebook.com/giygaskeptpraying Dan Feng

    I had a crush on a girl in middle school who at the end of the year moved to the other side of the world. short while for me to forget about her. four years passed before we found each other on Facebook, we started talking and and emailing and chatting just about every day. I’d come home from school and the first thing I’d do is spend an hour replying to the massive emails we sent to each other every day. I’d always tell her how much I missed her and enjoyed talking to her and eventually we started saying I love you to each other. 

    one day she found a boyfriend and I became depressed for a little while (I still feel like an idiot for feeling that way, I mean what was I thinking, right?) and soon after that our communication dwindled and eventually came to a stop. we rarely talk now, but i still have all our old email conversations and i’m just so appalled when I read them. She’s the first girl I fell in love with, but those emails express feelings I can’t even remember having anymore.

  • Guest

    Great article, Chelsea. Thank you.

  • http://www.facebook.com/nattusmith Natt Smith

    I read an old text earlier this week from a dear friend/unrequited love that said:  ‘I’m glad I found you.  Like being round ya.’  Yesterday night he told me ‘Maybe you should get away from me.’

    …and the world turns.  

  • Anonymous


  • Sophia

    This is lovely and thoughtful and hits close to home. Thanks.

  • allysamsantos

    “But just because we’ve learned better doesn’t mean that we weren’t once foolish.” 
    -This is the best part. Thanks for this.

  • notholdencaulfield

    so far in my life i have only found one guy who really could connect with me and understand me but now i dont even know where he is anymore. thanks to this article, i was re-reading the old conversations i had with him. then i deleted the folder (+the trash folder). i hope i won’t regret that.

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