Her Whole Face Lit Up
Two letters arriving on the same day, I feel honoured although, at the same time, concerned that you do not use up all your limited financial means in writing when there are many other things I am sure you wish and, of course, you always have the possibility of writing to me through electronic mail, even if I do take that old-fashioned, tried and trusted means of writing back with a physical letter. And, yes, I know exactly what you mean both about the receipt of a letter, having it in your hands and being able to just retire and read it in peace, and of ideas put forward by other people sinking in slowly, and first coming to full fruition at a later time. The mind often needs a little more time to work through an idea than we imagine it does, and even more time when we have something which says everything against this idea, for whatever reason, and we need a small piece of definite proof to draw us over the line. I saw a photograph if an English child who had entered a penfriend programme with her school recently, and the look of joy on her face when the first letter arrived and was handed over to her in class is a wonder to see. Her whole face lit up, her eyes glowed, and she clasped the letter to herself as if it was the most precious thing in her world.
We, as adults, have lost a great deal of this innocence, of this initial joy when something happens in our lives. We have become I suspect, immune to much of the wonder and beauty of the world having seen it through the same jaded eyes day after day, seeing no change, following much the same routine all the time. That seeing no change is the crux, since there are constant alterations to everything around us all the time, we simply do not notice them having become so used to the same world and having lost that childish need to experience, to learn, to be an active part of life. As a child the world revolves around us: we are the centre of the world for someone and all their attention is directed at us and for our benefit; why then shouldn’t the whole world have been created just for us, and everything that happens be a new wonder for our exclusive pleasure?
We first miss something, I have often heard it said, when it is taken away from us. The underlying meaning being that we have taken this something – be it love, a person, a place or object – for granted all this time, and have barely noticed its existence. This applies to our freedom too but, I suspect, in a completely different manner. Here we can adapt and make whatever form of life we have after loss of freedom as comfortable as possible; it still exists, in that sense. With the loss of an artefact, though, we have only a memory to rely on, and the knowledge that we will never again possess this item. The sense of loss, in this case, is a strange thing as it comes and goes and often does not appear until we suddenly realise that something has changed, something is missing. We had taken it for granted for so long that its disappearance hasn’t even been noticed. A bit, I am inclined to say, like love: we don’t see it disappearing in a relationship, then it has declined so much that it is no longer there – replaced by animosity, contempt, hate or whatever – and we become more attuned to the change feelings rather than noticing the loss, and first miss it much later, usually when it is too late.
Although I am not sure we can say this about letter writing, since so many people in our modern society have not experienced it. Letters tend to be a minor childhood memory, the thank-you notes we’d write after a birthday or some other holiday with presents, grow into bills and account statements from banks, credit cards and the authorities. Everything is far more official, so that the loss, never really having had or experienced it, or something personal in letterform cannot be there in the first place. And then we have it, and it is something special and, hopefully, it never becomes a normal event, taken for granted.
But you also see the advantage of a physical letter, much the same as a book or a manuscript, in that it can be referred back to easily and quickly. The information that you need is right there in your hands, and you need search little to find it. This is, surprisingly enough, something I learned after I had finished school, college and all the rest of the educational institutions who wished to hand out pieces of paper for a standard work: it is not what you know which has great importance at any given moment, but that you know where to find it. No one can hold enough information in their minds as to answer every single question, solve every single problem within their own field, no matter how specialised it may be. But a person who knows what to consult, who to call, where to turn to find the answer has a better chance than anyone else. This is something we have to find out for ourselves, it isn’t taught us at any time. And it is also, I must add, my justification for having so many books around me: I can reach out in this room or one of the others, take a book down from the shelf, and have a good chance of finding the answer I need, the quote I wish to use, a reference to another work which will take me further. A method which is preferable, for me, to the internet, even if I would possibly find exactly the same answer there and with less bother.
Another small view behind the ‘mysterious’ veil? I am surrounded by books and antique photographs which line the walls and are stacked on the floors in my house. Much of the house – which was built in about 1920 and was once a carpenter’s shop – is being renovated, slowly, one room at a time when I have the time and energy. My time is spent – when not renovating or out and about with one or another of the associations I am a member of – reading and writing, mainly letters, but occasionally a short story when an idea hits. This has been my life, basically, since the beginning of the year as I settled down and accepted that I will probably not work for someone else again, unless it is freelance.
The sheer pleasure of reading and writing is, for me, something irreplaceable; it is probably the one thing I would truly miss if taken away. Being able to reach out, quite literally, and take a book down from a shelf, page through it and find fascinating insights into different times, thoughts and traditions is more than just a pleasure. I was counted as being bookish at school, and that has not changed. A few nights ago I went out to eat, couldn’t be bothered with cooking for myself, and heard the owner of the restaurant, where I have been many times in the past, commenting to another guest that I am always to be seen with a book in my hands; she has never seen me without one. For some this is a strange thing, it makes me into an outsider; as you probably know most people do their reading, if they read at all, on electronic devices, believing them to be much better than the real thing. Or they spend their time scrolling down through Facebook and Twitter, checking out the photographs of food on Instagram or playing poker and Tetris, or Solitaire. Having and using a book is strange.
Do you remember how easy it was to write your profile? Some people have great problems describing themselves, not because they are illiterate or cannot find the words, but because they do not know how to put themselves into words without appearing arrogant, narcissistic or just plain dumb. We all want to impress in one way or another, but without going overboard; it is good to leave a little over for later exploration, otherwise there is nothing more to discover about a person. And it’s not as if, with a profile, we are applying for a job where we have to prove our abilities in advance, and beat down unseen competition. I tend to avoid writing any profile on myself, but go out and look at the profiles of others, and then write to them. Gone are the days when I was happy to sit and wait for someone to write to me first, to keep their promise, or to react to something I had put on an obscure web site, or hidden in the small print of a magazine. The best way forward is affirmative action, so I look at the profiles, see where the potential is, and then set my letters together. And you will have seen that what I write is a challenge, an attempt to draw people out as much as make them look inside and think for themselves. Rather like an explorer who, despite all the desires in his or her world, cannot leave their own homeland to wander across foreign fields, but has to find surrogates instead. So the candidates are sought out without them knowing that this is happening, and they are challenged to respond. Sometimes it works, sometimes not: but when a response is there then it tends to be of deeper thought and an outing of experiences which might not otherwise have been there before simply because it has never been called upon.
And then I begin to open up myself by writing about my interests, experiences and opinions as my correspondents, worldwide, do with their own. We exchange: we get to know one another without the need to lay everything bare from the first moment – this isn’t a one-night-stand! – but over time, like a married couple who mean it seriously, and not just for seven years until the itch comes, and then find someone else. Which means there really is no mystery, just someone here who opens up slowly, who coaxes others to open up too, and who enjoys the chance to discuss as much as to learn without overloading the table with everything and the kitchen sink from the get go. The chances of me finding correspondents with wide-ranging interests and experiences should I write that I have six thousand books, thirty thousand antique photographs, three hundred cameras stacked up in an old house in the north of Germany are considerably smaller than when I take a different stance, and just let a few drops of information out first. Talking / writing to people who have exactly the same interests all the time is not only lonesome, but gets very old very quickly.
Let me put it this way: had I written to you and stated that my interests are philosophy, classical literature and ancient history coupled with the origins of photography and classic art; that my favourite classical authors are Marcus Tullius Cicero and Pliny the Younger; that I enjoyed reading T. E Lawrence and Dostoyevsky as a twelve year old child; prefer spending time in museums and art galleries than on the beach with a barbeque, what were the chances of you putting pen to paper?
When you write that you don’t know of any other way people can get to know one another, you’re leaving out the gradually side of life where everything has to be taken easily, where two – or more – people have to take their time because there are so many other factors involved. I cannot imagine a couple getting together and laying out their entire lives on the first date then agreeing that this is enough for them to want to spend the rest of their lives together. For me, one of the biggest problems with marriage – with many relationships today – is the fact that people d not share, so not speak with one another, are far too careful not to let their true feelings and interests come out in case they offend the other party. And then they want to spend fifty or sixty years living together? I heard of a couple who were together for forty years, considered absolutely ideal by the community in their care for one another, and with shared interests which took them out every weekend bird watching. Then something small happened, and there was an argument and forty years worth of frustration and compromise came flooding out from both of them, and they discovered that both had gone bird watching with the other because both believed the other was an avid bird watcher, and neither had any real interest in bird watching at all.
To my way of thinking, and I am sure there are some who will call me old-fashioned here and claim to know better, the best way to get to know someone is to take your time, to talk, to share and to be together when things are good and when things are bad. When I bought my house, about twelve years ago now, came and inspected it several times, by sunny weather and in a torrential rain storm. Friendship, like a house, is a long-term investment, and should be gone into with exactly the same care and attention. And then: you’re going to live in your house for the rest of your life, fifty years if you’re lucky? There will be repairs that need to be done, changes of wall paper, many other little things. A relationship – marriage, letter writing, sports club – needs care and attention over time too; these things don’t happen automatically there need to be compromises, talks, explanations, and a long learning process is involved. Every house, every friendship has its secrets, its small mysteries, and we should take our time to dig them out, when the right time comes, and not force anything whereby the wrong answer, or decision for a house, could be the result.
Put another way – as there are so many different angles every single story can be looked at – would you refuse to buy a house if the first thing you saw was a cracked window pane, or would you check and see if there is more? The very first impression is not always the fight one. The human side: would you, based on prejudice or a perceived first impression, refuse to write to an inmate just because they are incarcerated at the moment? Sometimes the first impression is the best one, sometimes we are misled. If you have access to a library, try and get hold of a copy of Blink: The Power of Thinking without Thinking by Malcolm Gladwell (ISBN 9780316010665, Back Bay Books) which has some very interesting thoughts on first perceptions and how we think, how we make decisions about art, about people, about events.
One of my main points, when talking to others, and which you raise in your second letter, is the fact that I do remember that I am writing to human beings. I’m not writing to an inmate, but writing to a human being who is incarcerated. And, last small mention of computers and stamps: if you prefer to write to me electronically, I have no problem with that at all. I will write letters back, but I’m quite happy to receive and reply to electronic mail.