Friday, December 23, 2011

Letterboxing: Rediscovering Hidden Spaces

There are odd areas of a child’s imagination that don’t translate well to adult understanding. When I was a child, I had a thing about hidden spaces. These were not hiding places, where I might hide myself (from an evil babysitter) or my contraband (from parents). Instead, hidden spaces were nooks or corners or crevices—in an attic, on a staircase, beneath a rock in a field—that I consciously noticed and then thought, “I wonder if anyone in the future of the universe will ever revisit this space again.”

There was a lonely feeling of isolation that came with this awareness, a feeling that this hidden space didn’t matter or exist, except to me at this moment. In fact, it seemed to me that I was conferring significance or being on this space with my attention and care. In this way, the hidden space may have been an outward symbol of my fundamental human loneliness. Is there Anyone who notices me at all in my remote corner of Creation, in the way that, for this single childhood moment, I noticed this space? Or is my existence nothing more than an eye-blink in the infinite, heedless blackness of space and time?

This reflection is helping me get a grip on the appeal I discovered this morning in letterboxing.

With a small group of family and close friends, I followed a set of clues and trooped through a wood and around a pond to a secret location within 10 miles of my home. Our quest was a small hidden watertight container hidden behind a boulder. Inside the container was a plastic bag containing a hand-carved stamp and a small journal. Each of us in the group with a letterboxing journal of his or her own then did two things. We stamped our personal books with the stamp in the letterbox, then stamped the book in the letterbox with our own personal stamp. Then, when our “stamping in” was complete, we returned the letterbox to its secret location and tramped back to our cars, around the pond and through a wood.

Then we drove ten miles and followed another trail of clues to another letterbox, this one in a public park across the water from a lighthouse.

The odds that each of these letterboxes will avoid the likely fate of my childhood hidden spaces are improved by Web sites like Atlas Quest, which posts clues to the locations of letterboxes all over the world. There are 23 letterboxes currently in Italy, 12 in Spain, 7 in Thailand, 3 in India, 2 in Cambodia, 1 in Laos, and none in Nepal—as my daughter and I discovered later when we surveyed on line the countries she will soon be visiting. By contrast there are over 2,400 hidden letterboxes in Massachusetts.

This pastime, spiritual, silly, or something in between, depending on your point of view, originated in Dartmoor, England, in 1854. You can read the history of letterboxing here. American interest in letterboxing took off after an article in Smithsonian magazine in April 1998. Since then, letterboxing has gone legit. The Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection has taken to hiding letterboxes in state forests to promote walking in the woods. The DEEP’s web page reads,

“Letterboxing is fun and exciting.  It is about the adventure of finding your way through the woods, and the thrill of reaching your goal. In letterboxing, you visit interesting locations and collect unique stamps to mark your visit. The letterboxes that DEEP’s Division of Forestry is placing in Connecticut’s State Forests provide the means and inspiration for you to visit the State Forests and learn something about the state’s history, wildlife, trees and, of course, the forests!”

There are easily explainable reasons to go letterboxing: the fun, the excitement, the fresh air, the puzzle solving, the fellowship, the artistic satisfaction of creating your own stamp or mark. For me this morning, there was also the deep, oddly satisfying awareness that I was leaving my stamp on one of the universe’s hidden spaces—while participating in an unseen worldwide community of letterboxers, each equally moved by their own profound sense of loneliness.

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