An incomplete collection

As a child, I was a stamp collector. I’d frequent Parque Rivadavia on Sunday mornings, where postage stamp junkies, voyeurs, ingenues, con artists, and treasure hunters came to worship a deity that by then, late ’70’s, early ’80’s, had fed upon two or three centuries of worship and was strong. Today, he’s a shadow of what he once was, for who studies the squares of postage that people long dead once put on an envelope?

I’m sure it’s a “he”, the god of stamps: the Sunday pilgrims of this philatelic Mecca were almost all male, walking in circles around an ombú tree, checking out the booths around the gnarly trunk, making eye contact with the other faithful if the albums under their arm looked promising. A nod, an exchange of albums sitting on a park bench, tweezers in hand (you never handle stamps with your fingers), maybe a deal.

Philatelists focus on just a few collections, maybe only one, if they hope to complete it some day. Most don’t. Mine was Poland, for some unfathomable reason. I wanted to have a complete collection of every postage stamp ever issued by Poland, from the earliest times through turmoils, partitions, occupations and revolutions. I came pretty close. I’d skim bins of unsorted stamps at the booths, go over visitors’ “for trade” albums, looking for the magic words: Poczta Polska.

I developed a photographic memory of the thousands of stamps in my collection. I knew at first sight whether I had, or not, the stamp I was looking at. I seldom had to look at my Yvert & Tellier catalog. I even sought a Polish pen pal, and corresponded with her throughout our childhoods. Her name was Bogumita. She didn’t speak Spanish, and I don’t know Polish, so we corresponded in clumsy schoolchildren’s English. We never met.

This blog is a hopelessly incomplete collection of stamps postmarked at different times of my life. A lot has been left out. The collection has been neglected. I aim to change that.

Ever since I learnt my letters, I’ve enjoyed writing. At times I did it a lot, others very little. Sometimes it was a job: newspapers, advertising, but I never made a “career” of it. I was more interested in travel and experience, so a writing gig was the same as any other sort: harvest-picker, hotel clerk, driver. I have a box of yellowing clippings somewhere, mostly in Spanish. I won’t re-type any of that. Who likes to revisit what one wrote 30 years ago? I wouldn’t agree with that version of myself. So that stuff is gone. Good riddance.

In the mid-90’s I spent some months in Israel, as a volunteer working the avocado groves of a kibbutz on the Mediterranean coast. There, I met a young woman and fell in love with her. The affair was a complete failure, and very brief. However, I thought, or should I say, obsessed, about her for a long time after. About a decade after our meeting we got in touch again over the internet. We were then in our 30’s and had started families. We had kinda-sorta stayed in touch at first, through old fashioned letters posted from Australia and Patagonia, Mexico and Edinburgh, wherever we were at the time. But there had been no letters for a while, and when we made contact on social media through a common friend, the immediacy and availability the internet afforded brought back to me the sublime unhappiness of that failed love.

That second, virtual, encounter with Lily inspired me to create a literary space where we could interact. I could write about our alter egos visiting the places, having the conversations and experiences together that we had never had. Through a deluge of emails, I got to know her better than I had when we were together in Israel and Egypt. She was now very successful and wealthy, not the penniless, carefree backpacker I had known. The sense of humor was still there, but with a new edge: a cold and predatory attitude. Which I’m sure one needs when moving in the rarefied, celebrity-oriented world of globalized pop music that was her milieu.

She enjoyed reading the stories I started posting for just one set of eyes: hers. She told me a bit about her life, hanging with rock stars and actors, we talked about raising young children and other mundane matters, but I did most of the talking, in the form of stories.

I was drinking too much every night, writing into the small hours, sleeping little, then driving the children to school, clocking into my advertising job, which I hated, and then waiting all day to get feedback from her and write some more. My marriage wasn’t going well, and of course this situation didn’t help. I suppose this is a fairly common story, the old flame that reappears, the fights, recriminations and finally the divorce. Maybe the writing is the only detail that makes it a bit different, but in the end the writing wasn’t enough.

I remember the night I wrote the last story of that series. The blog post on one tab of my browser, and a travel company in another, with a flight to London selected and a click away. I had finally lost my mind and needed to be there with her, not on a page, and damn the consequences. I called her, she said “please don’t come”, and that was that.

Then the 2008 real estate crisis hit Florida. The agency fired me, as clients were evaporating. I went full time into organic farming and gardening, got some land. I only had my kids part of the time now, but the quality of that time was much better. They’d come to my place and feed the chickens, dunk in rainbarrels, we’d sit around a fire and tell stories and jokes. Lily faded away and I never heard of her again. I made new friends, in time met the woman who is now my wife, another farmer, really got into that world with the sense of finally being home.

I kept writing, mostly about organic growing and sustainable living, and I think I helped some people get started on that path. I did my part to create a community centered around respect for the land, through articles in the press, countless community gardens, permaculture, workshops, a farmers market, environmental activism. But all that doesn’t belong in this blog.

This is an incomplete collection of stamps about life, the good, the bad and the ugly. The Lily stories were a beginning, but I kept adding others: what’s wonderful and what’s dark, books, thoughts, people memorable and dull, places I’ve known, madness, love, violence, gods, jokes and anything else that tells me “sit down and write this”. It’s not a very wholesome place, as opposed to the venues where I am only the farmer and the environmentalist, that’s why I keep them separate.

One gardens by day, but dreams and nightmares come at night. Those are my two sides, and I’m determined to be the best gardener and the best writer I can before my time here comes to an end.