How on earth do you begin a first letter to someone you don’t know, of roughly the same age as you but living in a completely different world – socially and culturally – who notices the trivial things in life such as tinned natural-grown vegetables? Wisdom and triviality are both wonderful subjects for a complete round of letter writing since, in my opinion, you cannot have one without the other; there can be no wisdom unless you see and appreciate the smaller things in life, because it is precisely these things which make life so worthwhile. Too many people do not have the farsightedness to appreciate; they only see the bigger picture and forget that it is the minor, the insignificant, the easily forgotten which can make all the difference. A smile, a word in the right place, something minor and a bad day, for example, could be changed into the best day of a person’s life, if only someone would give it a chance. And a touch of humour, also so very important, never goes amiss in the right place. Provided, of course, other people are capable of understanding humour, and this most certainly isn’t the case all the time.
Emily Dickinson was of the opinion that:
The incredible never surprises us, because it is the incredible
and perhaps because we have lost the eyes of a child to the understanding of age where, in our technologically advanced world, nothing should surprise, nothing should seem to be impossible or too outlandish to achieve. Perhaps, back in 1870, there still were things which could be called incredible, and we have merely experienced them all. Nothing is new, we live for what others have discovered, what others have seen, and are no longer the unique, individual explorers of life our ancestors claimed to be, which many of us still wish to be. Two years earlier she had written:
A letter always feels to me like Immortality because it is the mind alone without corporeal friend. Indebted in our talk to attitude and accent, there seems a spectral power in thought that walks alone.
and if a letter is not one of those little things in life which bring the greatest pleasure, then I do not know what is. The right letter, that is, not just any old letter which happens to fall on the mat before you’ve had a chance to drink your first mug of coffee, but the letter which makes you pause and smile before even pouring the mug full; that letter which has no need of a soul-strengthening burst of caffeine before it is opened. One of the trivialities of life, and yet such a heart-warmer when it arrives. Does anyone read the trivial writings of Emily Dickinson anymore?
I find her description of a letter enthralling, and accurate. We read the thoughts and feelings of another, without necessarily knowing that individual personally, without them being present to explain, to discuss, to receive our comments and thoughts. Letter writing is a divine, one-way conversation, a monologue of thoughts, a soliloquy cast into the still of the night for whomever may be there to catch its words. There is no body language, no nuances, no raising of the eyebrow or twitching at the corner of a mouth. We do not know whether the writer was dressed, wearing make-up, at home in the bath or out, perhaps with time on their hands, caught between the courses of a long lunch. We cannot see the sparkle in their eye as words spin in their mind, nor the movement of their hand as a pen glides across the paper, as gnarled old fingers caress the keyboard.
Did someone pick out this writing paper for a special reason, or is it part of a job lot which happened to be on offer? And the stamp: a commemorative; a basic; a life-long, carefully chosen or just bought, stuck on the envelope without a second thought, a necessity, nothing more? These are the things that no one gives a second thought to: these are considered the trivialities of letter writing, should anyone take the time to spare them a thought, but make the whole complete. What is more important for all, I suspect, is the contents of a letter. We rip the envelope open, tear the sheet(s) of paper out of its close embrace, and feast our eyes upon the contents. And, often, wonder either whether we have deserved such a good / bad missive, or whether we can do it, and the sender, the correct honours for their efforts when we write back. Michel de Montaigne, writing in about 1588, annotated a copy of his published essays:
This is a poor return for the handsome presents you have made to me of the fruits of your labours, but the fact is that it is the best return I can make. In God’s name, sir, take the trouble to leaf through some part of this in some leisure hour and tell me what you think of it, for I fear I am getting worse as I go on
and I have no problem translating his prose to that of a reader glancing through the words written by another who has taken the time to write, made the effort and penned just a short note, even, to show that there is still life, still the power to form words, still the will to remain in contact. And perhaps this triviality, a short note, has taken far more time, required more felicity and attention than a longer letter would have done since:
Je n’ai fait celle-ci plus longue que parce que je n’ai pas eu le loisir de la faire plus courte
the concentration and dedication required – so Blaise Pascal – to condense the thoughts and ideas into a smaller space would have consumed far more time. Another triviality just in relation to this quotation, which is so simple and refined that many have used it in one form or another, and claimed it for their own, from Mark Twain back through history, and by attribution, to Cicero. There was once, you will undoubtedly recall, a very popular board game called Trivial Pursuits to which, after one or two attempts, I was never invited by friends and colleagues since, they told me, it would be unfair on everyone else if I joined in; they wanted the chance to win too. The only difference between us, I suspect, was that I paid attention through life, and they missed or ignored all the little things.
What is sad, and I think you will agree with me here, is when someone gets to our age and looks back on nothing. Stands still for a few moments, and recollects what has happened through all these years which have gone by so quickly, and sees nothing which has made it worthwhile. There could be money in the bank, two cars in the driveway and a small mountain hideaway in Montana, but where are the memories? Where are the small things which have made life and living so special?
You may well say: yes, but money, cars, mountain retreat, they have got something. Every year a few weeks in the Rockies, undisturbed; perhaps white-water canoeing, mountaineering, grilling on the stoop out back. Good job, nine-to-five, children in expensive education, someone to clean up around the house, tend to the garden. From High School to college, a good degree and marriage, straight into a top company, pension scheme, health insurance.
When I was fourteen I emptied my small savings account, grabbed my sleeping bag and a change of underwear and set off for France. I travelled from my boarding school in North Yorkshire down to the south coast of England on the power of my thumb, then across the English Channel by ferry. From Calais on, hitch-hiking, into the centre of Paris. I slept under bridges and in the car park by the Gare du Nord, ate in cheap restaurants and roamed the streets for two weeks. I saw the good and the bad side of the city: the booksellers along the banks of the river Seine; the fake religious artefacts hawkers by Montmartre; the prostitutes and lesser-paid work forces packed into tiny apartments behind and surrounding the Place Pigalle; the colossal, magnificent buildings around the government area and where the rich passed their time. I was chased out of fine hotels and restaurants, and feted in back street dives for two wonderful weeks. I discovered that the French were humans too, just like me and all the other people I had come to know throughout my short life, and that what we were taught in school came nowhere near the truth. That was just one short break, many decades ago, and I still own my own house now, have money in the bank and a car in the driveway. No mountain retreat in Montana or, out here, in Bavaria, but memories.
And books. People tend not to notice my age – there are men who are vain as to their appearance too, even if I am not one of them – but do notice the fact that I always, almost without exception, have a book with me. It is another trivial fact of life but, for some reason, it is the one which makes the most difference for many. Everyone strains to see what it is that I am reading, amongst those who know me or know me by sight. This is a small town – less than five thousand – and I am not only a foreigner, despite taking on German citizenship many years ago, but also someone who has been in the limelight here – as a politician and chair of several local associations and a charity – and who has a (strange) name. I doubt very much that many could describe my appearance, other than the fact that I always have a book with me. Appearance is, to me, vastly over-rated; but I can claim this thought as my own since I am not only old, but also male, and there are different social standards involved here.
Trivial things? I bought a wrapped portion of Brie recently, from a supermarket which has no cheese counter where I can see if it is ripe and then have far too much cut off to enjoy after a meal, generally on my own, and there was a warning on the wrapping which told me that this cheese product contains milk. I do not know whether this is a relief – with the way things are being falsified today, it is often hard to tell exactly what you’re serving at dinner in the evenings, and a certain degree of care needs to be exercised with some restaurants – or whether I should cry that people have to be told that cheese is made of milk. I can understand the problem with allergies, but some things are so obvious they defy explanation. But naturally grown things, here in Germany, are of great importance to many: the idea that something has been smothered in chemicals so that it grows outside the normal season, or that hormones have been pumped in to animals to increase their muscle mass tends to determine the way people shop. More and more stores are looking at what they offer and how it is produced, and many of the major names in retailing in Germany now have specific sections not just for vegetarians, but also for those of the vegan persuasion.
Despite our four major supermarkets in the centre of town, we still have a farming community mentality here, and the weekly farmer’s market is always popular and, should anyone be unable to manage that for some reason, the nearest farmer’s shop is one mile up the road. Fresh eggs, milk, vegetables in season, not a problem at all. Large, compared to your home town, I guess, and somewhat older. We achieved city status in 1929, when a major land reform went through all the towns and municipal areas of Germany, and not to be a city meant not being able to raise taxes. Achieving city status was a bonus, but the town was, and is, too small to govern the area which bore its name, and this was given up to another, nearby town of considerably greater size. Then, for many years, the town was the name-giver to a county on the official, political landscape which shrank in size with further reforms. It traces its official history back to about 1250, when a rather shady family took control of the area, named themselves Counts and began to make a real – but not necessarily good – name for themselves. Of course, the village, as it was then, existed prior to their arrival, but the first official notice in writing appeared then, and the Germans love to have some form of tangible proof or paperwork before accepting something as a given. This form of trivial information, I should add, is exactly the type of historical learning many of the people in this town do not have.
So, a disembodied letter of thoughts and, perhaps, thoughtful things for you to consider, probably better after drinking your first cup of coffee. And perhaps all of those trivial things that I mentioned above will come together to form a whole: the pen and paper, the envelope, the stamp and, of course, a few words.