My first (and only) pen pal was a girl named Madeleine. Madeleine lived in England, and was about ten years old; the same as me. She had a tendency to dot her i’s with hearts and closed every letter with lots of x’s and o’s. Girls were still something of a mystery at the time — as they remain, I suppose — so I was never quite sure how to interpret those symbolic hugs and kisses, nor the “Sorry So Sloppy” she appended after her signature. Her handwriting was perfectly legible, after all.
The two of us were introduced by way of a chain letter that I received from one of my aunts. This was back before the days when email forwards were everyday occurrences; in fact, it was before the days when most people even had email addresses. In any case, to my ten-year-old self, getting any kind of mail addressed to me was exciting, and this kind of participatory exchange was downright breathtaking, even if it did mean having to laboriously write out five copies by hand.
Unlike the chain letters I’ve come to know since then, this one had neither get-rich-quick promises nor dire warnings of ill fortune should I be the one to let it lapse. Rather, the idea was to give you a chance to communicate with someone outside your normal sphere of influence. Included at the bottom of the letter was a list of everyone who had received it before you — you were to add your name to the list, then send another letter to the person five steps back in the chain. Your motivation to send it on was the prospect of meeting someone interesting from a distant land, or at least as far away as Cleveland which, to a small-town kid like I was, might as well have been Shanghai or Istanbul for how distant and exotic it seemed.
(Come to think of it, though, I never did get any letters from anyone after me. It’s never occurred to me to wonder about that until now.)
I wish I could remember, now, what it was that I wrote to Madeleine, or she to me. Unfortunately, we only wrote back and forth a few times over the course of a summer before it slipped our minds, as slippery and distracted as ten-year-old minds tend to be. For a long time I kept those letters in a drawer under my bed; I’ve no idea where they are now.
It’s funny how small the world has become since then. I’ve talked to hundreds people from five continents via email, chat rooms, and web forums over the years. And at first the power of the Internet to bring people together over long distances did inspire wonder in me, but somewhere along the way it became commonplace, not much more amazing than an afternoon at the mall.
When I stop and think about the fact that it’s so normal to connect with people all over the globe, it occurs to me that that’s probably something great in itself. But for all the upsides to my horizons having been so broadened, I can’t help feeling that I’ve lost something, too. The Internet has allowed me to have some wonderful experiences, but none of them have been half so exciting and adventurous as those few handwritten pages I exchanged with an English girl when I was ten.
“Write a Letter” pinprick @ flickr.com. Creative Commons. Some Rights Reserved.