It seems almost appropriate that today is World Letter Writing Day, even though this is a fairly new concept and has to vie with every other ‘world something day’ that is imaginable – from wear red right through to nachos – although, as with so many other things in life, such as Mother’s Day, I believe every day should be dedicated to the things and people that you love, that you respect, that you are friends with. Drawing one day out of the whole year tends to add a little something, I must admit, but we’re so busy keeping up with which day is dedicated to which activity, it is hard to remember all those other things which need doing, all those other pleasures we can enjoy throughout the year. How would it be, for example, if National Nachos Day, which is on November 6, was the only day a person was allowed to enjoy nachos? I can understand the idea, it is a sort of civil reaction to Saint’s Days, but find it totally unnecessary. I am quite happy writing my one or two letters each day of the week, and don’t need an extra dedicated moment to remind me of the pleasures I receive from following this hobby.
Then add to the idea of a national something day a national something week, and a month and all the international something days and you fast begin running out of dates to celebrate. So, aside from the proclaimed, but not yet officially accepted, World Letter Writing Day we have National Food Bank Day, National Chicken Boy Day, National No Rhyme (Nor Reason) Day and National Lazy Mom’s Day. Throw in National Child Injury Prevention Week and then thirty-one different National something months – such as Full Hat, Italian Cheese, Blueberry Popsicle, Mushroom and Save Your Photos – were fairly full with a lot of nonsense. Try and do just the monthly ones justice, and you’ll be eating the blueberry popsicles along with rice, whole grain, potatoes, chicken, honey, mushroom, papaya for your Better Breakfast Month, which makes it no wonder that we also have National Child Obesity Month in September. I am sure there is someone in Washington whose only job in life, and that for the full forty-five years until he reaches retirement age, is to find and promote some form of national day, national week or national month, and be enthusiastic about it too.
Luckily the most popular t-shirt the web site offering this listing has is Celebrate Every Day, which makes considerably more sense to me than anything else. I can see the need for National Black Heritage Month, for all the other memorial days and weeks, but tend to draw the line somewhere around blueberry popsicle as being more a joke which denigrates the value of the others than something I would wish to celebrate in any way or form. That said, I will definitely be celebrating one thing in October: National Sarcastic Awareness Month. This memorial month, I believe, has a future. I shouldn’t really make fun of some of these ideas, they have very good reasoning behind them, but others just go a touch overboard for my taste, being clearly promoted by an industry making massive profits as a result of the free advertising, and earn more than a certain degree of vilification. There is even profit to be made from telling people which calendar day it is, so that wraps the whole thing together very snugly.
A clear example of my judgement over something which is, essentially, American, since few other countries have so many such days, weeks and months or, at least, not such a wide and strange range. This form of judgement, though, I find much more acceptable than that which I usually come into contact with, or hear about from friends. I have the usual things against me as a foreigner, but mostly verbal and clearly from those who have not the slightest conception of what I have done over the more than twenty years I’ve lived in this town, and I simply shrug them off and move on. Other forms of judgement I see are, of course, those that you mention: the definitive rejection of anyone who is or has been incarcerated regardless of the reason or circumstances is, of course, a big one with me. I write to one person regularly who is not incarcerated, and gain a good deal more through receiving letters from ‘inside’ than from anyone else. And yet I constantly see people who claim, in their profiles looking for letter writing or pen friends, the claim that they are non-judgemental, open-minded and so on, but will not write – often in Full Capitals – to a certain section of society. I can understand married women not wishing to write to single, or married even worse, men; why take the chance of family problems if they can be avoided? But then there are those who will not accept mail from inmates – understandable at first glance, but not when you think about it – or from a short list of countries around the world. Personally, I write to a person and not to where they are, not to where they were born, their colour, religion or educational level.
One of the easiest things in the world, if a written relationship doesn’t work out, is to simply let it go. It’s not the end of the world, and it is not as hard as with a real face-to-face or even living together relationship. Letter writing friendships die out all the time, for many reasons, and perhaps we feel sad for a while, but it is the easiest thing in the world to step into a new friendship and begin again, to simply turn over a new leaf: and no one asks you how many people you’ve written to before them, or whether they are the best letter writer you’ve ever had. Nor do they sneak out, shoes in hand, at three in the morning or subject you to the Walk Of Shame. If it works out, brilliant, if not, there are plenty more. But when a letter writing relationship works, then it is, in my humble opinion – which is not so humble after all – the best thing in the world, and certainly far better than marriage. Not having to see the same faces all the time, not having to clean up after them, not having to succumb to their every will and desire over your own preferences. An absolute delight.
I can understand caution, that is a completely different matter. Of course a new employer is going to be cautious when they hire someone, whether that person was an inmate or not, that is the right thing to do. Of course a person is going to be cautious when giving out their address – to someone who is incarcerated or not – when they begin writing: it makes sense initially. But to turn an ideal employee down because he or she was inside for a while when there is no other comparable applicant for a position? To refuse to write letters to someone you will probably never meet, simply because their address is a correctional facility? I think the only thing which should really bother anyone is the stamp from some facilities, on the outside of the envelope, stating that the contents are from an inmate for all to see – which is completely unnecessary and very demeaning – which might cause comment amongst the neighbours. The stamp from your own facility, by the way, is almost acceptable: five lines in black saying the contents have not been checked. I receive others where the stamp is in red, very prominent and large, and unmistakable for what it is. A third stamps each page of the letters, in red, right across the text, as a reminder in case I’d forgotten since the last page I read. Caution is fine, but you can overdo it sometimes.
Early last year, as I was walking through town, the mayor came up to me and pointed out a lonesome man sitting in the main square under a tree. She wasn’t too sure, but thought he wasn’t German and asked me if I’d check and see that everything was fine with him. So I wandered over, greeted him and sat down, as locals do: it is absolutely normal in smaller German towns, to say Good Morning or whatever according to the time of day, to people even when you do not know them. His answer, though, was ‘sorry?’.
We talked for about half an hour, me telling him a little about the town and surrounding area, him talking about the differences between Germany and his home State – he came from Texas, and was touring the country for a few weeks. He wasn’t so much lost as trying to get to grips with some of his inner feelings which had suddenly risen up and which he couldn’t quite understand. He had been feeling nervous in every town he’d visited, constantly looking around him and checking people and places out and had suddenly come to realise he was doing it, without knowing why. It came to him suddenly as he was sitting under that tree, able to see in all directions in case anyone approached him. He had been feeling nervous all the time in Germany because he wasn’t wearing his gun.
I wouldn’t have been more surprised at this than if you’d hit me across the back of the head with a shovel in a crowded supermarket whilst screaming Banzai. I think this was also the first time he came to realise how his life was governed by the fear someone was out to get him, that bandits would strike or the United States would be invaded at any moment, his ranch set on fire and his family driven out into the plains by a marauding horde. He told me, in the peace and quiet of our small town, that he’d suddenly realised how his life was almost ruled by fear and by the demand of other people that they should be armed against a threat which was imminent, but never there. He wasn’t enjoying himself because of this inbred fear, this overzealous caution against any and everyone. A form of judgement it is impossible for me to understand, to be quite honest, although I bore arms for more than a decade both in order to attack enemies in war zones and to defend myself against potential assailants in a civil war. I’m not sure whether this young man has re-evaluated his life in light of what he discovered about himself and his chosen society, but he went on for the rest of his European tour with a better peace of mind than he’d had before, and certainly not spying out enemy combatants and possibly murderous assailants around every street corner, behind every bush and tree.
Having lived here I know I wouldn’t be able to live in a town or city where everyone is so fearful of their neighbours they have to carry all sorts of weapons around with them at all times, even if that fear is unspoken and, to a great extent, directed towards an unknown entity which they claim is just waiting in the shadows. Of course, I also appreciate that there are areas where protection of some sort might be wise: when I visited Baltimore a few years ago I was impressed – not in a good sense – by the difference between the area we were staying in, the areas we were shown, and the backstreets, terraced houses and lack of lighting where I wandered off on my own. I knew these sort of differences from my youth, living in the centre of London, but hadn’t really realised their presence because it was so normal, and at that age neither race nor poverty were matters I had turned my mind to. Travelling to other cities, living in a small wooden house in the former slave quarter of Belize city, visiting East Germany before and right after the Wall fell, these are things which open eyes, bring realisation and knowledge. To those who step off the tourist trail, that is.
That’s not to say the world is any worse or better than it was a century or more ago: there have been changes and a certain degree of settlement which has brought improvements to our lives and, hopefully, there will be many more at the right time. We should all be grateful for what we have, what we are capable of achieving, and those friends and family members prepared to stand by us and live up to their names, because without them we would have had no start in life and, possibly, will have no future.
I could have spent hours sifting through that list of National Days, trying to find some justification for each one, some reason why they are on the list at all. So many seem to be ridiculous, but then, a few years ago, it would have been ridiculous to think we needed a National Letter Writing Day in order to remind us of the benefits of the written word in relationships, in friendship, in normal everyday life. So perhaps there is a good reason why we need a National Marshmallow Day, if it promotes all those things which make society great and doesn’t just bring financial benefits to a select few.