Writing to Reach You, February 23, 2014

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"I said to her, 'How exciting it is just getting a daily dose of someone else’s life and feeling bonded even though you're miles apart.'"

- My pen pal Nicole, June 4, 2003

It’s not new for me to sleep beside my iPhone, and it’s definitely not new for me to roll over at intervals (2:43 am, 4:40 am, 6:30 am) to check my email. It used to be an empty pursuit; nothing ever worth anything would cross my inbox at that hour. The past month has been an exception.

On January 7 I began exchanging emails with a new pen pal across the pond. Every day without fail (early morning or late afternoon in eastern standard time) an email reaches my inbox. I always smile and let it carry me through the day. Then in the evenings after dinner, I settle down and write back. It’s a small pleasure that feels like the obligation of coffee – I don’t have to do it every day, but I like to do it every day.

Long before the days of catfish, internet and email, my 11-year-old self was sending snail mail across the United States. I had pen pals in Illinois, Florida, Atlanta and in between. I still have the majority of the letters tucked away in a pink, sophomoric envelope I bought as a preteen.

We always wrote about such simple things and I was desperate for every detail of my pen pals lives. “Do you play spin the bottle at parties?” “Do you have pets?” “What do you want to be when you grow up?”

My opinion on letters then, is the same as it is now. I love fiction, don’t get me wrong, but there is some pleasure in the reality of someone’s thoughts, the quotidian, the day-to-day.

In my high school years I migrated to email, and had a few pen pals in Europe. One of my favorites was Boris, a fellow in France who fulfilled every delicious French stereotype I had heard. He sent me black and white photos of he and his fellow classmates protesting (so French!), and a few of his best friend, Manon, her hair short and black with thick bangs like in the movies. She had a doll face and charmed his camera. He sent very little photos of himself.

My other favorite was Nicole, who lived outside of Sydney. We wrote nearly every day, and because of the time difference I found myself waking up thirty minutes early just to write her back before classes. She had an easy, carefree life in comparison to my crazy, uptight one. We used to title our emails with the lyrics of songs. At the time I was inching into depression, and she saw that, and knew that people would tell me that I was having a “phase” and how hard that was.

Thanks to the emergence of Facebook, we were able to reconnect in our adult lives, which allowed the sort of day-to-day visibility into the other half of our lives we left out of emails. Last month, in the middle of my moving trauma I decided to get back into it. I logged onto Craigslist in the UK and put up a post.

“I know how pen pals work,” I told my friend L. over lunch one day. “You get a ton of them in the beginning, tons. They all write back and then eventually, one by one they trail off until you’re only writing a few of them.”

And so that began. The first day the ad was up 50 gentlemen wrote back (I asked specifically for men, as I always have female pen pals save for my Frenchman). Just to shuffle through them all I had to divide them into groups, and it took nearly a week. I frequently heard the riff of my favorite Travis song, “Writing to Reach You” as I sent my responses.

I’ll admit, the introductory emails were the best. Some of the men devoted paragraphs just to describing their appearance, “I’m fit with dark, curly romantic hair” – where do they come up with these things? Others wrote me about their passions. A few chose to tell me about their jobs. They asked me questions, “Why do you love London so much?” As I put in my ad about my love of London. “What do you wear to bed?” Which I ignored.

The weeks went by, and as I had predicted, one by one they all stopped writing eventually. Except for Mr. Pemberton. We’ve had quite the organic pen pal-ship that I feels both odd and refreshing at the same time. He gets multiple emails from me when he has a cold, “Well, are you getting any better? I’m worried the cold has gone on this long,” and when I need sage advice, he devotes all attention into the task and into solving the problem, which makes me feel very valued. I’m not sure where the bond happened, but here we are, writing habitually and worrying over each other like old friends.

Last night I’d written and gone to sleep. In the mid-morning my time, around 1 pm GMT, he’d written back, “Did you have fun with L.?” he asked. “Why don’t you write a blog post about your pen pal?”

I smirked to myself. The draft for this post had already been written a week ago. It just needed to be polished and edited.

“Regarding the blog,” I wrote him back. “be careful what you wish for.”