I wonder, just in passing, how many people realise that there is an empty space in their life, that something special or completing is absent before that missing piece appears, before the emptiness that they have always felt but never accepted as being there, never understood, is filled. We all know that things are not right, that things could be better – and I do not mean in our daily work lives or leisure activities where everyone seeks advancement as much as fulfilment – but seldom look within ourselves to see if the fault lies not so much with ourselves, but within our being. There are some feelings which can only be stilled by a second person, by someone who is there for us, as we would be there for them, and who completes us like the final piece in a massive and complicated jigsaw. Life is, after all, a series of pieces which slot together in one or another position, but rarely exactly where we wish them, and seldom at that moment we most desire, and often with several different strands of life stretching out next to another, but not quite connecting, not having that one piece we need to bring everything to perfection or, perhaps, having countless pieces available in a massive pile, but leaving us with no clue as to which piece we should choose, which part of the puzzle is the one we so desperately wish to find and slot into place.
Now, you may say that it is not quite so complicated, that we know a friend when we see one, a lover when we really get to know them, and that life brings all these pieces to us as and when we need them, without any of this philosophical meandering about Fate and Chance. Perhaps, in some cases, that is true, but most certainly not in all. For some of us, and it is an increasing number, believe it or not, society does not have an entry point; for whatever reason we have been cast out, or simply not found the way to become one of the mass, the lucky ones, the chosen, and look in from the outside. We find our friends by other means, and not always by the simplest, certainly not always where we first expected to find them. The world is closing in, as new technology advances and we have access to areas unknown to our forefathers, we find that there are considerably more pieces to the puzzle, that life is a very complicated game indeed, and that those we thought would stand by us, support us, be more than just friends have moved on, abandoned us to the life we have been allotted, outside of their society, their close-knit circle.
And sometimes this emptiness within us is just an aching, not so much a need for a physical presence, but a desire for companionship of another sort; the desire for a fellow traveller who works more with the mind than the body and brings us, through the power of words, friendship, learning, experience. In a way, Walter Scott could have been writing about just this sort of friendship as he penned, in Rokeby, the words:
Thoughts, from the tongue that slowly part,
Glance quick as lightning through the heart.
He wasn’t, of course, because Scott wrote about a different form of friendship, about heroism and death on the battlefield, and the long gone days of chivalry. And we, having never been placed in a position to have friendships which go to the death, which are lauded in poetry and commemorated in stone, must still find and recognise that one piece of the puzzle when it presents itself, hidden, perhaps, among thousands of other, similar pieces, and take it for our own.
Our modern world, in my opinion, and I daresay there are thousands – if not tens of thousands – of people who disagree with me, has become shallow and lacking in any real meaning, certainly as far as friendship is concerned. We seem to be keen to match ourselves up with someone who has a good appearance, who earns well, who has a position in society, and then quickly abandon them when the next best, or better, option presents itself. Our friends can be counted by the number of people following our various accounts on social media, who click a thumbs-up sign or add a brief comment through one or another of the hundreds of expressive emojis available, negating the need for words, for thought, for personal expression. Some have so many people they call friends, who they do not know the names of nor even what each looks like, there is not enough time to read what they have to say, let alone reply to the thoughts and cares of their lives. We no longer address individuals with our thoughts, but the masses, and assume that the massed forces of a virtual humanity, gathered around a small, hand-held screen, hear our words.
And then there is the filling of emptiness, the satiation of desire, through old and long forgotten means; ones which, I hasten to add, may well be old, but are far from neglected. It has often been said that writing words down on a sheet of paper, wrapping them inside another sheet of paper, sticking a small piece of paper above directive words and then trusting to the good offices of someone else to ensure these papers, these words, are delivered is long gone, dead and forgotten. I beg to differ, and offer a prime example of how words, written on paper, can work their way into another person’s thoughts, challenge them, if you will, to think, and offer them something to fill that empty space they did not know they needed. Or, perhaps, a gap in their inner soul which they knew was there, but did not know who would fill it for them, even if the means were presented them on a silver platter.
These thoughts like torrents rush’d along,
To sweep away my purpose strong.
And so it is, for me, with letter writing. I have a few thoughts I wish to put down onto paper, and suddenly a torrent of other ideas rush in, catch me unawares, and take over completely as my fingers dance on, and the paths caused by an initial inspiration open up to even more areas of potential interest, discussion, exploration. Which, as I am sure you appreciate, is not to everyone’s taste: there are some who cannot fight their way into the depths of thought, the hidden meanings, the wealth of ideas being placed before them – not necessarily by me, but by life in general. Every single day brings something new, something no one else has seen, no one else has experienced, which is absolutely unique to one person while, for those who recognise it, being ideally suited for sharing with people on the other side of the world who have not had, will never have, the same opportunities. Exactly the same with individuals around you: some have had the same opportunities, but have they taken them? Have they furthered their knowledge, their qualifications, their interests in anything other than what is immediately around them every day? I sometimes compare such people to those who use social media, who have a perfect chance to further themselves by conversing with people across the world – really talking, not just giving them a Like now and then – but do not bother themselves, because there is another status update from someone else, because there is a new cat video to be watched and Liked, because they desperately need to publish another selfie of themselves to enhance the thousands they’ve already posted.
Some of us, perhaps I can number you in our ranks, prefer the written word on a more individual level. So many people have declared letter writing to be dead, long since forgotten, an art which is practiced no more and yet, as you know, that which is called dead has a propensity to rise again and snap at the heels of those naysayers who cannot see beyond their own shadow at the height of a sunny day. This ancient art of writing to just one person and knowing that they will read your words – for good or bad – has not yet me replaced by the modern ideal of writing to thousands on an open platform, and not knowing whether even one of those has received the message. We know that time is of the essence, and take our time in putting words down on paper, in letting those words travel across the globe, sometimes for a week or more before they reach their final destination, in the knowledge that those who open the envelopes, read those words, are willing to give of their time in return, and allow their own thoughts to delve into the mind of the correspondent, wherever they may be, and expand their horizons.
Woe to the youth whom Fancy gains,
Winning from Reason’s hand the reins!
But we know something else too: letter writing is a real challenge, especially for the mind. It can take us, like a good book, out of the world we are living in and to lands far removed from our own experiences, into lives we have not even dreamed about, into a world of memories from those who have lived, for us, who are yet to live. We can dash off a few words on paper, and think we’ve filled an obligation, or take the time to think about what has been written, to enter into the depths of a discussion, to explore fields we have never troubled ourselves with before. Just two people, usually. There are few things, at a distance, which are so intimate.
I write ‘usually’ because there were times, in the not so distant past, where letters were written with the express desire that they be shared, where travellers wrote back to their family at home, and knew their words would be read out to all present, even copied and passed on to friends and acquaintances far and wide. The earliest form of social media? Perhaps: but far more intimate, to my way of thinking, personal. And, further, there were times when a father would write to his son, a mother to her daughter, with advice, warnings, share experiences with them which, long after they had shuffled off this mortal coil and their memories begun to fade from the inner eye, would help and guide through life.
We, though, live still, to all intents and purposes. Perhaps not in the style and fashion we might have wished for ourselves, planned all those years ago when a careers officer made recommendations, or when we were seeking out the right school to attend to ease the way into our bright future, but it is there nonetheless, this life we have pieced together. The puzzle is slowly forming into a coherent image, and we are seeking out further pieces, small and fiddly as they may be, which fit and enhance, and bring us further on this journey: alone, but never really alone as, even when we believe ourselves to be deserted and at the end of the path, someone is there who holds us in their thoughts, wishes us well, and would be there to stand with us against all adversity, were we but to ask.
It could be that you have decided not to read this far and anything else that I write would be a waste of paper and effort, but I don’t believe that to be the case. I enjoyed reading through your profile because it came across as having been written by someone who has thought through what she wishes to say, is well versed in who she is, and who is keen to move on with her life regardless of what other people think, how they assess her, how they believe her life will continue. Not everyone turns themselves around and takes advantage of a time which would knock many people out for the count. Not everyone sees the advantages of a period of time when they are disadvantaged, when there are more restrictions than most have to suffer, when ways and means are severely limited. It takes a good degree of intelligence to see and to understand, and inner resources of strength and determination to turn the bad to advantage. Some people rise to a challenge when confronted by one, others turn and walk away, incapable of jumping over their own shadow, of risking defeat, let alone taking a chance at success.
Which bodes well, I believe, because a letter writing friendship requires stamina, patience and the ability not just o read between the lines, but to think between the words and follow paths whose course has not been set down on paper. It requires individuality, open-mindedness, resourcefulness, and not just a belief in self, but also a determination to be honest both with yourself and with your writing partner. Not, I hasten to add, as a form of confessional, but through the expounding of inner thoughts which, for some, could be thought of as being borderline, or even cross some imaginary red line of decency, acceptance, social values or whatever buzzword happens to be on everyone’s lips at any particular moment in time. As I am fond of saying before I give a talk on some subject which has riled some into white heat: what is said and what is written is between us and is no business of anyone else: how else can you have an honest discussion, learn the experiences of anyone else, if you do not listen – not accept, merely listen – to the other side of the story as much as to your own side? The world, I believe, would be a far better place if a few people closed their mouths for a while, and opened their ears.