The wonderful thing about letter writing, when it is on a personal level and not business or merely a ‘thank-you’ for something, is that it can follow absolutely any path you would wish. It can meander like a country lane, dive into valleys, climb hills, ford streams, surmount stiles, negotiate obstacles to your heart’s content and there is no one who can object. We all have our own personal writing style, depending on who we are writing to, as well as our own written language; all as unique as hand writing. And this wonderful freedom means there is no need to come to a logical conclusion in a single letter, nor to follow all the possibilities in thought and knowledge which could lead to one. We sit and write, and wander through parallel thoughts, through diverging ideas, through an entire countryside of matters which possibly have nothing to do one with another, but come into our minds. And if we are addressing a complex problem, or answering a specific question from someone else, how we answer is entirely up to us.
Of course there are people who sit down and plan a letter meticulously, right down to where the commas and stops should be, the spacing, the overall typographical impression – although typographical is not really appropriate, but with such precision one might almost suspect the writer were preparing a book layout rather than a simple missive to friends, family, acquaintances. With such a letter you can expect to find a well rehearsed moral at the end of the tale, or a conclusion which wraps the entire concoction up in one small, tight package, but not necessarily the spontaneity, the immediateness of a personal letter. I’m not sure that there is any real joy in these letters; perhaps the initial wonder at having received it, but then perhaps a sense of loss that the letter has been written so formally, so stiffly, with the sole intention of reaching some form of conclusion, logical or otherwise. What is fun, even if very hard to achieve, is when you begin writing a letter with a vague idea of what you’d like to say, in which direction you wish to wander, and the journey takes you through many different avenues and alleyways, memories as much as ideas from present times, and brings you back to the point from where you began. I think I have only really managed this feat once – that I know about and with any feeling of real satisfaction at the result – and it was, oddly enough, in a letter about chaos theory where, you’d imagine, the chances of coming back to the start, of being able to wrap something together, simply because of the randomness of chaos theory, seems impossible.
A letter, though, is part and parcel of a relationship and does, in its own way, raise expectations as much as dash them. The very act of holding an unopened envelope, knowing that there is a letter contained from a friend, from a lover, from a family member, raises expectations. Admittedly not always good expectations, but the feeling of either excitement or dread is there and we, to some extent, know what is going to be written on that still-hidden sheet of paper. There are letters which we bring to the top of the pile to read first, and others we push back, hide in drawers, try to ignore for as long as possible. Is this not just like a real life, person to person relationship? There are people we are glad to see, people we go out of our way to meet up with, drop everything for just to rush to their side and help them if need be. And then there are those who are seen approaching from a distance, and we quickly cross over the street hoping they haven’t spotted us, aren’t going to raise a friendly hand and wave, call us over for a short conversation.
Different forms of expectation to that between how we view a person we have never met and our reactions to someone we know well, of course, but there are so many differing reactions to people we know, have heard of, wish to meet up with for whatever reason, and they are all combined in one way or another by experience, by desire, by a picture we have built up in our minds of that person. It would be quite possible for anyone with a little gumption – which is a delightful word I have wanted to use for such a long time – to create a personality, a complete character, a life on paper which is so convincing it raises expectations to the highest imaginable level. And then a shrivelled old thing turns up at the first meeting, and the world either explodes like a popped balloon, or collapses slowly, a soggy soufflé, as realisation creeps in.
Is it possible to create a character anyone can believe in and keep that character alive There have been many examples of fictional characters who have transferred into the public mind as being real, and, lately, examples of ‘people’ created on the internet who have a history going back to birth, and a story anyone can accept. Admittedly, the internet is another matter entirely and creates possibilities as much as it enhances that which we wish to see when it comes to love and relationships, but it is not the only means of creation. In London there is a small savings bank with an office in Baker Street, house number 221B, and they had a banking section specifically set up to answer letters addressed to a certain Mr Sherlock Holmes. I believe the letters are now passed on to the Sherlock Holmes museum, but there are people around the world who write to this fictional character with their problems, and hope for a reply and a solution.
Of course, the question is: do you, as the letter writer, need to arrive at a conclusion? We often note our opinions on things which have happened, that which we have read or experienced, and allow our story to spin out in such a fashion another person is almost forced to arrive at a certain conclusion. This is the way that political propaganda works: give all the right form of information being careful to suppress that which you do not wish known, and in such a form that it is convincing – mixing truth and lies works best, rather than just the fictional side – and let the reader reach their own conclusions. It is a style of brainwashing well-known in media circles which can be used in all walks of life: a person, for example, who only watches one news channel is going to follow the political judgement and attitudes of that channel and dismiss ideas of an opposing nature because they have not been presented on their favourite channel or, equally likely, because they have been primed to believe only what has been said by their favourite news anchor and distrust any other source. In today’s political arena this is where Fake News and Alternative Facts sprang up: anything which does not agree with my political viewpoint, the politics I have adopted from my parents, my friends, my neighbours and my news channel is false.
Expectations here are not so much formed by someone giving us a conclusion, merely by us receiving an opinion with back up information convincing enough to allow us to reach our own conclusions, based on information received. The conclusion we arrive at may be incorrect, it may be damaging to us, it may contain no hint of the factual truth, but we have been led in this direction, primed, our expectations of correctitude and honesty raised, and this is what we accept until such time as something can convince us otherwise. For people meeting up with those they have become acquainted with through letter writing, on the telephone, by any other means of communication other than personal, face-to-face, this is the first time we stand across from the reality of our created image. In politics it is something other than this, since we are faced with a continuing and continuous series of spin doctors telling us what to think, convincing us of their side of the story, cajoling us not to pay attention to anyone else and then, when things go wrong, distracting our attention in a new direction with a new tale. Real life, though, we see a person standing right next to us, and whatever we thought they might look like has to be altered by the fact of their presence. We build our own picture of another person as we go along, and it often is more akin to our fantasy than to anything nearing reality.
Added to which, of course, we have to rely on what someone tells us. If I told you I sport a beard, you would call up various images of bearded men before your mind’s eye, and pick out that one which you believe suits me best. If I am not specific in my description of this beard, you will happily carry it in your mind, as a part of my complete image, until I tell you I have shaven it off, or something else happens, such as a meeting where the reality of my beard is presented to you.
We raise up expectations in many other ways too, and this is probably what happened, all that time ago, with your best friend Sterling. You believed yourselves to be so close, but there were still great distances between you – which is quite normal, even with people who have lived together for forty or fifty years. Perhaps she thought, at the time, that her call to you would be enough for your understanding to go beyond what she said and for you to react. In reality you cannot have seen inside her mind, judged the depth of her emotions unless she had been standing in front of you. Body language tells us considerably more than words ever can, because it is a real and unavoidable reaction to events, an expression of what is inside, of the true emotions which cannot be suppressed as easily as many believe. Creating the famous poker face, whereby other people cannot read what you are thinking through body language reactions, takes years of practice. Very few achieve perfection, or come even close.
Did Sterling expect you to know what she was thinking when she called? Possibly. Or it may well be that she just wanted to tell someone and let them know what was happening, she had already made up her mind that there was no other way out. Could you have stopped her? Possibly. But would this have merely been putting the day off until later? Would it have stopped her from being sent to the camp at all? Would she have changed her ways so that the camp was not deemed necessary?
There are so many questions that you can pose, and so many possible answers, not just : I should have gone to her. There is also the whole history behind this story, as upsetting as the ending is and must be, which brought that decision to send her to camp. You cannot change the past, and by this I mean the past before she took her own life. Sterling took her own road – we look back and see that it was the wrong road – and then she reached a conclusion we would never have accepted, but which she saw as her only way out when lacking in any other, for her, viable alternative. Is that your fault? You reached your conclusions on that day according to the information that you had available, and you reached the conclusion that you believed correct at that time. Obviously, had you known her mindset you would have gone to her, but you didn’t go because you couldn’t possibly have seen into her emotional soul at that moment. The idea that you failed her is, in my opinion, the wrong one: her mother and her family, who were with her all the time, failed her in the end, and no one else.
Life is full of ‘what-if’ thoughts. What if I had not travelled to France at age 14, not sneaked away from home and lied to my family and school about where I intended going for the vacation? What if I had shown more interest in television, as we got our first colour model back at the end of the Sixties, rather than books, writing and the great outdoors? What if I had not picked up a handful of pen friend letters from that table, all those years ago, and written to a few of those young women? Where would my path have led me, and where would I be today? There are so many twists and turns in our lives, so many incidents we simply do not see coming which change the way we act, feel, react and, unseen, so many things other people do which have a knock-on effect and come into our lives. Something that you do changes the way someone else does something, a chain reaction which we cannot impede, which is part and parcel of what we are, the society we live in. And based on that reaction, the events over which we have no control, we change our own reactions, alter our own expectations, move on in another direction perhaps. Our control over events is not as strong as we would imagine it to be, always being influenced by outside forces and by the information we gain and can process before making our own decisions, coming to our own conclusions. And that is why we are here, where we are, and not where we had planned on being all those years ago.
I think life would be a very boring, and short, series of mundane events if we did not have these constant chances, opportunities, changes in our planned path. We would all go through childhood well protected, gain the best grades in school and go on to college, then sit in an office working for someone or something for the rest of our lives, with a regular vacation and, perhaps, health care and a reasonable contributory pension to look forward to. Or we would go through childhood, gain lesser grades, not make it into college, and work in a factory as one complete skid from birth to death. Nothing exciting, nothing challenging, nothing to really make us Want, other than the chance of a better television – flat screen these days – a faster computer and internet connection, more friends on Facebook. Fortunately it is not so simple. Whether it is good or not, whether we make the right choices, whether we deserve what happens because of the actions of another or because we made the wrong choice, the right choice, left the choice out altogether is something we have to decide for ourselves. Did we live up to our expectations? And, of course, did we live up to other people’s expectations?
But, far more important than all this wondering about the past and what could have been is: what are we going to do next?