Back in the days when I lived in Oklahoma City, when every Friday on the bus ride home from Wiley Post Elementary School I would pour through the Weekly Reader Mrs. Hensley passed out and meticulously circle each book I longed to order, back in the days when I received Highlights Magazine and National Geographic’s World, back when I would pretend to be sleeping but really staying up to watch M.A.S.H., back in the days when I was slowly torturing my beloved hermit crab by neglecting to fill its tiny bowl of water (a former tub of Carmex) I used to have a pen pal. Her name was Jennifer. If I recall correctly she lived in Wisconsin or Minnesota or somewhere up north. Opening an envelope addressed to me from somewhere I’d never been and reading about someone else’s reality was absolutely thrilling for me. Not that I really had any reason to want to escape my childhood reality but it took me away. I loved it better than slumber parties, Crystal’s pizza, NKOTB, Dr. Pepper or a good game of Sardines.
With the advent of email, like a lot of people, I’ve had and continue to have many pen pals of the electronic sort. The other day I was delighted to receive an email from a recent acquaintance. It read:
Do you want to be pen pals? Let me know if you’re interested…but you have to write back! My old one never did 🙁 Womp womp…. XO
Me: duh. i always write back. be mine?
Her: Love to! And lucky you, I got new stationery this weekend 🙂
Oops. I hadn’t realized she wanted to be pen pal pen pals. I thought she wanted to be email pen pals. I respond again, this time with a disclaimer.
You should know I’m only going to be here for another ten days! Then I’ll be in Europe for a month. First London then Italy, then Madrid, then London again. Then in NoLa right after that and then in Florida and finally back to Dallas again mid-October. Not very conducive to the old pony express, is it?
I need dates and respective forwarding addresses please.
My first thought was No, too complicated, mail is too unreliable in Europe and I really don’t think I have time to commit. Then my slumber party/NKOTB/M.A.S.H. watching self stepped in and said, “Are you crazy?! Someone who is willing to write you wherever you are?! This is your dream pen pal! Say yes!”
I write back: I love how ambitious you are. I’ll round up dates and addresses for you.
To those of you who are my age or older this might sound crazy but young people out in the world these days? I swear to you, many of them don’t even know how to address an envelope. I’m not joking. Millennials are whiz kids on the computer but clueless about old fashioned things like letter writing or map reading. When working with them I have had to mask my horror / hysteria when frequently asked: Where does my grandma’s name go? At the top or the bottom?
While working with students in Italy, I was asked this on such a regular basis I finally decided to make a template which I entitled, “How to address a postcard / letter” and posted it outside the door to my office. It was a small but heartfelt gesture in doing what I could with regard to letter conservation.
Maybe if you were the kind of fourth grader who liked to watch M.A.S.H. you’ll also be a thirty-four year old who has a love so deep for post cards and handwritten letters it’s akin to something spiritual. Sometimes I find them at markets, these paper ghosts. I scour antique markets set up in plazas in Spain or piazzas in Italy on the first Sunday of the month. Almost discarded but not quite, as if saved only in an afterthought, they are for sale, kept in a shoebox wedged between vintage broaches and silver plated mirrors and brushes. They are yellowed or browning at the corners, covered in fading ink in an elegant script that speaks to a distant era none of us were ever a part of. I love sifting through, eavesdropping on the thoughts of someone who is probably dead and gone. I imagine the circumstances as to how such a vast collection arrives in one place. First written at a table with a waterside view of some sort, jotted down in a hurried, stolen moment on vacation then sent off in a leap of faith — no return address, no guarantee. Maybe it arrived safely but then years later, the house it resided in burned down. It was salvaged in the rubble. Taken from a file cabinet at an estate sale. Removed from a cork board. Found in the back of a closet tucked away inside an old purse or briefcases.
Takes me away right there where I am.
Once I even took myself away. Years ago I sent my colleague and dear friend Lindsey this horrendously cheesy postcard I found in Marbella, Spain. It was a picture of five, orange-tanned and ripped guys standing on a rock together, wearing nothing, covering themselves with their hands. Written beneath the photo it says, “Guess what’s in our lunch box?” I immediately bought it, wrote a comment about how raunchy, hilarious and unbelievable this was, stuck a stamp on it then sent it off. Years later I see it at her house by chance and I start laughing hysterically. “Oh my God! Lindsey, who sent you this postcard? It’s hilarious!” I realize why she’s laughing even harder than I am when I flip it over to see my own name signed at the bottom. Classic.
So yes, Pen Pal of my Dreams, start saving shoe boxes. And for anyone else who is interested in receiving something from me during my travels…email me your address. firstname.lastname@example.org