“Letter writing is the only device for combining solitude with good company.”
I hadn’t thought of her in years. I can’t even remember her name. A distant memory of her was jogged when I read an article yesterday in the newspaper about two schools, a Catholic school for girls, and a Muslim school for girls. The wise adults, teachers, had had the brilliant, good sense to connect some of the girls as ‘pen pals’. Pen pals! By email these young girls had been linked through the power of words and keyboards and the back and forth of language that moves slowly enough to allow thoughtful, gentle questions and answers, and the art of waiting for response. And stories, I am sure, for what would pen pals be without sharing the stories of their lives?
When I was in sixth grade, I acquired a pen pal. I don’t remember which wise adult caused this to happen. Because I can’t remember her name, I will call her Elizabeth(which may be right). Though I can’t fully remember her name, I can however conjure up a grainy, image from black and white photos we sent back and forth several times. Elizabeth was special because she agreed to write to me. And she was special because she lived in the land of John, Paul, George and Ringo…England. She became a real-live connection with the land of the objects of my devotion and the recipients of all my allowance, the Beatles. Elizabeth and I wrote about what was happening in school, our families, our friends, what magazines we read, which Beatles songs we were crazy about at the time. It was the give and take of young girls’ letter writing. Writing to her introduced me to those tissue paper, blue, ‘air-mail’ foldable letter and envelope combinations. Walking to the post office in my small town and purchasing these seemingly exotic items meant for places I had never been but longed to go, fueled my desire to see the world, to know people whose lives were different than my own. It planted something in me that continues to this day.
In the newspaper, there is a picture of some of the girls from these two schools meeting for the first time. Their youthful, beautiful faces are full of excitement and expectation to meet the one whose words had passed between them. While their school uniforms could have marked their differences, the photos shone forth their faces full of welcome and recognition…and joy. What may have seemed difference was overshadowed by delight. I was excited for them and what they might be learning from one another. I thought of the seeds of understanding and hope that may have been passing between them. And I thought of how they were probably sharing the normal things girls that age share, just like my pen pal and I did those years ago.
Letter writing may have become a lost art. Some might say so. But the teachers in these two schools knew something and they acted on it. They knew that when people put words on paper, or a screen, and send them to one another, they become linked in significant ways. Their words become the invisible lines of connection where understanding and compassion can be built. Their words can become the world-expanding stage that catapults people to travel to places they never dreamed, to learn of ways of being in the world they never imagined. Their words can be the seeds of peace the world longs for and desperately needs.
Did you ever have a pen pal? When was the last time you wrote a letter? When was the last time you received one? I am thankful to have thought of ‘Elizabeth’ who was once my pen pal…across an ocean I dreamed of crossing…whose life helped opened me to the beauty of the world I longed to see and experience.
Maybe it is time for another pen pal.