A couple months ago a friend invited me to write a letter to a service person. I knew nothing about the person to whom I wrote. All I was told was that they were stationed in the Congo, and likely they did not receive much mail from other folks.
Crafting something engaging and personal for a complete stranger was challenging in myriad ways. It was surprisingly hard for me to write something that felt complete. I learned a lot about myself.
It is my distinct and unique pleasure to be in communication with you, a person I’ve never met, stationed in a country I’ve never visited, living a life I could scarcely imagine.
I understand you are stationed in the Congo - a place that floods my mind with wild imaginings. I picture dense, wet jungles overgrown with towering, carnivorous plants. I envision harems of hulking mountain gorillas, bewitching in their beauty, grace and calm; menacing in their other-worldly strength; haunting in their similarities to their distant, more dastardly primate cousins, us human beings. I imagine silty rivers teeming with other-worldly creatures - fish with the teeth of tigers and microscopic water worms that swim upstream into your urethra and rupture your sex organs from the inside.
Probably I sound like an asshole with a ridiculous idea of the Congo. Probably I am. What’s it really like?
I know the Congo is a war torn nation, but I don’t know any of the specifics of their wars or their politics. I imagine the tragedy to be unimaginable - the people to have suffered horribly at the hands of horrible people. I imagine there are very many, very poor people, and very few, very wealthy people. I imagine that drinking water is hard to come by, and food is scarce, and resources are few. I imagine cattle so thin you can see their ribs poking through their flesh and can feel the hunger in their eyes when they look at you. I imagine dirt roads and thatched-roof-huts where families live in one shared room and sleep on thin mattresses of piled hay, circled around a fire one of them stays up all night to tend.
I want to believe that despite their suffering, despite the hardship inherent in their lives, the large majority of the people are sweet, unspoiled, kind and beautiful. Happy in a pure way that we’ve lost touch with as a result of the privilege and excess that is so commonplace in the first world of our United States. Am I right? Am I wrong? Tell me what you’ve seen.
Truth be told, I could fill this page with endless inquiries into the specifics of your life and duties… What’s your life like, day-to-day? What's your current mission and what are your responsibilities? Where do you live - on a military base or in a village? How do you fill your free time? What are the best and worst parts of being stationed in the Congo? Where do you come from? Who and what do you miss most about home? Who were you and what did you do before you joined the military? What are you afraid of? What fills your heart with hope?
I’m sure there are things you’d enjoy more than a litany of questions, but I’d like to know more about you, and so if it would bring you any small amount of joy, relief, or pleasant distraction, I encourage you to write me and tell me all there is to tell. I’ve included my physical address down below, beneath my signature. Please feel no pressure to write me if it is an unwelcome burden. I hope it is not. I hope you write.
As for who it that is writing you, I’ll fill you in just a little bit.
My name is Kipp Norman. I’m thirty eight years old. I’m a midwesterner - born and raised and lived nearly my entire life within a 120 mile radius of Milwaukee, Wisconsin. I grew up in a tiny little town of 8,000 people called Cedarburg - a farm town, really, with a quaint downtown that for most of my childhood was the second largest tourist destination in the entire state, behind only Wisconsin Dells - home of the world’s largest water park, Noah’s Ark. Maybe you’ve heard of it?
I went to college at the University of Wisconsin (in Madison) where I studied English with an emphasis in creative writing. I took five years to finish school - partially because I changed majors. I began school as a medical microbiology and immunology major, thinking I wanted to become a doctor. I quickly realized I did not actually want to become a doctor - my mom wanted me to be one - I had simply confused what she wanted with what I wanted. This is a problem I have - confusing what other people want for what I want. I’m working on it. The other reason I took five years to finish college is because I enjoyed it immensely. I was a good student. I like learning. I also liked the care-free lifestyle. Most nights I went out and drank too much beer with my friends. Some nights I sought out more mind bending experiences, usually brought about by the consumption of (mostly) illegal substances.
When I finished school I moved to Chicago - where my girlfriend at the time found a job working as a special education teacher. While the special education teacher remained my girlfriend for less than one year, Chicago remained home for the next thirteen years. I lived in four different apartments in four different neighborhoods. I cycled through a handful of meaningless jobs. I forged the deepest and most meaningful friendships of my adult life. I fell in love with the city. Most nights I went out and drank too much beer with my friends. Some nights, I sought out more mind bending experiences, usually brought about by the consumption of (mostly) illegal substances.
Two years ago I moved to New York City, once again, because a girl I was dating got a job there. The girl and I didn’t make it, but New York and I are doing pretty well. To be honest, I’m not exactly sure what I like about living there. It’s hard. It’s expensive. It’s dirty. My apartment is tiny and I pay way too much money for it. My kitchen is so small it’s hard to cook meals. The city is crowded and inconvenient and so massive and endless it is unknowable. I don’t have a lot of friends. I never go out and drink too much beer or seek out more mind bending experiences brought about by the consumption of any substances, illegal or otherwise, because a couple years ago I decided to leave all that behind. But I find the city itself intoxicating. I am endlessly fascinated by it’s unreachable heights and its shadowy corners, by its endless diversity and infinite curiosities, by the sea of humanity pulsing and throbbing within it’s shores.
For a living, I direct television commercials. I am lucky enough to be a part of a creative partnership with my brother, who is three years my senior and my superior in nearly every respect - intellectually, creatively, rhetorically, in size and strength - both of our physical bodies and of our personalities. All I’ve got on him is determination and grit. There's not a lot of quit in me. I’m a grinder. Luckily for me, every partnership needs one of those.
When I’m not busy directing TV spots, I spend a lot of time writing - short stories, screenplays, poems, emails, text messages. Too many text messages, honestly. I’m working on that. I’d very much like to publish a book someday. Or to write a screenplay that is licensed and/or produced. Mostly I’d like to create something meaningful that other people connect with, and so I spend countless hours trying to harness the emotional power of the many stupid mistakes I’ve made in my life, trying to turn them into something beautiful. All I really have to show for it so far is a handful of rejection letters from the New Yorker. As they say, everybody dreams, and if you shit in one hand and dream in the other, it’s no great mystery which one will fill up faster.
I am currently sitting at a coffee shop in the Culver City neighborhood of Los Angeles. I’ll be in LA for the next week working on a TV commercial. It’s a beautiful day, 65 degrees with clear blue skies. When I put the wraps on this letter to you, I plan on hiking up to the Griffith Observatory to try to catch the sunset over Los Angeles from the iconic vantage point so ubiquitous in American car commercials. Do you know the one I mean? Regardless, I’ll try to take a picture on my phone, and if you choose to write me back and we continue correspondence, I’ll send it your way so you can see what I’ve seen.
I hope this letter finds you well, on a good day that is full of purpose. Thanks for taking the time to read this.
411 Adelphi St. Apt 2
Brooklyn, NY 11238