On Pen Pals

Written by Mike Parish, Illustrated by Dan Tarnowski
On Pen Pals

I’ve had maybe 6 or 7 pen pals. Pen pals were big back in fourth grade; it seemed mandatory that every child have another child that they wrote to. My pen pal was from Ireland and I always looked forward to his letters. Ours was a one way sort of correspondence; for some reason, his family moved a lot. While it seemed strange to write phantom letters to Martin, letters that are probably still sitting on a dusty shelf under the counter of some Belfast post office, the situation made me realize that Martin lived in a much different world than mine, in a life in which moving around played some key role.

I have not spoken or even thought about Martin in a long time. One day or over the course of many days really, the letters stopped. The truth is that nearly everyone who I have at one point or another exchanged letters with I no longer talk to in that fashion. Pen pals tend not to last; the speed of modern life makes writing by hand inconvenient. Since time and distance are virtually nonexistent thanks to globalization and the Internet, taking time to compose a message, to write it, to put it in an envelope, find a stamp and mail it through the physical world, takes a special kind of person, one who doesn’t mind picking up a conversation after a week or a month has gone by, even when the person they are writing to may be as close as the nearest phone or computer. Letter writing, much like penny candy and Model T Fords, has gone out of style. It is dying or already dead, a part of another era. And to think, it was once the fastest way of communication, that people once delivered letters on horseback!

Still, there’s something about finding a handwritten or typewriter written letter in your mailbox. Having a pen pal is one of the small things that makes the world meaningful. Someone takes the time to sit down and physically write a letter; they think about you and they think about themselves and it is a powerful way that two people can communicate privately. When I lived in Binghamton, I remember trudging through the snow to reach the nearest post office box and looking back on it I guess I didn’t need to do that but it gave me a sense of purpose in an otherwise senseless and confusing time of my life. I had the walk and my thoughts and the excitement of the letter and the cold, and though small, it was nice to know I had something.

The new way to have a pen pal is to have a keyboard pal, you know, send messages via email. While this certainly can be fun, it will never beat the experience of receiving an actual letter, of taking care and pride in creating one. It is strange that people do not write as much anymore, that writing has been replaced with other forms of technology. One would think that people would have become more eloquent in their speech but the opposite is really true. But what is eloquence, anyway?

People tend to write in abbreviated versions of themselves online. It almost seems disrespectful to language or to oneself. For something that was once a privilege, the ability to read and write is now something that people take for granted. I seem to have a preoccupation with the speed at which the world moves these days. Especially in terms of writing, I find that speed devalues writing as an art form and writing as a pen pal. But I guess we all choose what it is we find meaning in in this world, and if for some reason, I fell out of touch with all of my pen pals over the years, then surely that must mean something.

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