One of the highlights of my day, at least Monday to Saturday, is walking out of my house, the cat mewing at my heels because she knows I am going for a walk without her, turning right on the main street, and heading into town and the small substitute post office tucked into a corner of one of our major supermarkets. There, across from the counter, leaning against an otherwise dull and uninteresting white concrete wall, are the yellow mail boxes reserved for businesses around town who cannot afford – or do not wish – to wait for the normal delivery. This year the pleasure of opening my own mail box has been slightly dampened by the demand from the massive and exceptionally rich former national concern that we pay for the privilege of collecting our own post, after someone else has paid for letters to be delivered to our door.
This highlight has two things going for it: the first being clearly that I get out of the house and move myself rather than sitting at my desk, or in a comfortable chair all day and just idling away my time, gradually losing muscle power and gaining weight, neither one of which appeals to me; both of which are easy enough to achieve without any effort. The second is that I get to pull a small pile of letters out of the gaping maw of this box at regular intervals which promise to brighten up my day, give me something to do with my time. My time, you see, is generally divided between reading and writing letters, planning to write short stories, articles and talks, reading books, drinking tea and, now and then, visiting various places around Germany where I give talks, perform inspections, or generally get feted as a visitor of some imaginary importance. My life, without the added bonus of receiving letters from people around the world, would, therefore, be fairly mundane. Admittedly, I do enjoy the travelling. I do enjoy meeting up with people who have heard of me, who know my position within our fraternity, who follow the same ideals as I do. I do enjoy sitting and reading a good book, be it literature, history, biography or philosophy. But I also enjoy the conversations I hold with those people who, for whatever reason, are far away and who I will probably never get to meet in person, never get to speak to on the telephone.
There is, for me at least, something special about a relationship which takes place purely through the written word, which is almost akin to that imaginary friend we had as a child. No one else can see us being spoken to – in letter form – by the other person, but they can see us when we sit down and write our replies. They can tell that what we have is something special, as we ignore everything else around us and concentrate on the past, on the events and ideas which have filled someone else’s life far away. They cannot see which thoughts go through our minds, cannot read the words we now, inspired, place on paper, cannot tell what inspiration has been received, what enlightenment, what knowledge. All they see, in my case, is someone bent over a small portable computer, glancing towards a hand written letter occasionally, and letting his fingers glide across the keyboard, create images on the small screen which, in time, will be printed and sent away across the ocean.
And of course it would be possible for me to live my life out as a fully satisfied person, happy in every respect, if I just concentrated on my travelling, the minor writings and my reading of books. But, having experienced the pleasures of letter writing, having made contact with people who are prepared to present me with their valuable time, who are willing to sit down and place their thoughts on paper and send them to me, I know I would miss it. I know that my life would no longer be complete. I might have food for the body and some for the mind, but not all the intellectual food I desire as a book, as good as it may be, is a one-way conversation with no one to reply to your thoughts. Only a true letter writer can create their story on paper, and then follow it through with a new instalment when challenged by their fellow writer.
So, bearing in mind not just all of this pleasure I receive, not just the intellectual challenges I am taking up and reply to, but also the additional advantages I receive through fitness and activity with my daily walk – sometimes two in one day, if I have a letter to send which cannot wait – you can easily understand that if you had succeeded in killing yourself, I would have lost a phenomenal and important part of my life too. Although I know this is not something many people take into account at such a juncture in their lives: but it is a fact of life that every single one of us interacts with other people; that no matter what we do, there will be some form of reaction somewhere along the line elsewhere; that no matter how alone we may believe ourselves to be, no matter how deserted by those who should be with us, our actions will and do effect and affect other people.
I can understand why other people might not find your situation, the fact that you are laughing about it and expressing your own brand of dark humour, all that amusing. If someone increased your medication, for whatever reason, and the reaction was not exactly what was expected, or they increased without suitable and correct medical consultation, then they should definitely not be amused. Perhaps they will be a tad more careful in the future, and try to work out why rather than just throwing out medication and hoping it will cure the outward signs.
Moving on to real life, and the real purpose of these letters – which is not to berate you for doing or attempting to do foolish things, but to keep you active, happy (if possible), and attentive – which is communication, something I am constantly involved with, and which dragged me away from my warm and pleasant home over the last weekend for a semi-annual meeting in Bavaria. This is about six hundred kilometres away, and a good six or more hours driving which, I am glad to say I didn’t have to do in either direction. Three of us went down – our driver being the only one who was not obligated to attend, and also the only one with an almost bottomless pocketbook – to stay in a hotel called Sonnenhügel. Now, if you can find that in your German language lessons, you’ll know that the first part is the sun, the second a small hill. And, if you had been there but also from the name, you’d also know that it is practically impossible for this hotel, in November, to live up to its name. In fact, we are there twice a year, in April and November, and it has never lived up to its name. In April this year, which was elections and much ceremony, we had rain and fog. This last weekend we had rain, and fog, and hale, and snow. And, of course, it was cold.
Aside from the usual talks and demonstrations, we enjoyed ourselves eating far too much – three buffet meals a day, and no one minds if you go back for a second helping – and then the bar, with a dance floor and some form of music right through to long gone bedtime, where the enjoyment was confined to tasting local beers and deciding which one we were going to risk a second glass of. And, of course, looking at all the people there, making assessments and not doing anything about it at all. The thing about this hotel is that it is in a rehabilitation or health town (Kurstadt or Bad), where people come either to drink the waters or to sample the clean air. Such excursions are paid for by our medical insurance, and we are allowed, with the help of a suitable doctor, to apply for a fully paid ‘cure course’ once every four years. Most people do actually take part in the medicinal side of the course too, which is the whole point, and allow themselves to be guided through various fitness course, the cold room, the swimming baths and everything else. You have to suffer a little to gain all the pleasures. But the real reason many come here, and in a way it is sad too, is to get away for a while, to find somewhere they are not known, and to find yourself a small, titillating, secret adventure. The bars, then, are filled with overeager, if not desperate, middle-aged and older men and women hoping to scrape a little bit of their youth and adventurousness back. And they are also filled with the older woman spruced up to the nines seeking out a toy-boy as much as the (very much) older man wearing Hawaii shirt open to his belt buckle and gold chains, seeking a beauty queen or, if not that, then someone who might have been a beauty queen once, if only, or, more likely, anyone foolish enough. And, although it is very rare because these are not the right watering holes, now and then there is a man looking for someone handsome and a women seeking adventures with someone of beauty.
And it is all very German, right down to the music on a Friday night, when the majority of those there are slightly older Germans interested as much in dancing on the dance floor as in the bedroom and the music is almost exclusively German. Then, on a Saturday night, when the older guests have departed for home and only the younger (middle-aged) ones remain, those who can afford an extra night on the town, the music changes to something more international, faster, younger even, and the looks exchanged as one or another person sweeps the floor and the bar area with their gaze, become more desperate, more yearning.
And then you have to imagine me, sitting at the bar with a full view of the entire area, allowing intrigued looks to rest upon me for a moment or two, before sweeping on elsewhere without an answer as I, content, drink my beer and keep one hand resting lightly on my book and journal. It is the book which puts people off speaking to me, and the book which I use as my protection. Although: I have had people ask me about why I come to a bar and have a volume of some fine literature with me; aren’t we all here to do something else? Isn’t the idea to find someone willing and still halfway capable and discard all outer accoutrements for a night of what is usually described in some books as unbridled passion?
My passion is, of course, the written word, but I would discard it for anyone who was capable of holding a conversation without slurring their words if at all possible. Added to which, the beds in this hotel are so narrow, it is difficult to turn over in your sleep without losing your balance. A joint effort in one of these things would be condemned to fail, or to suffer the slings and bruises of outrageous tragedy. You’d have more luck, and be safer, in a hammock slung between two thin palm trees on a cliff edge of an island above storm-tossed seas at the dead of night and in the middle of hurricane season.
How many times have we said something which another hasn’t understood, filled with meaning which has simply whooshed over the heads, and then had to spend hours (or so it seemed) explaining the simplest things to correct their misunderstanding? I don’t care to think back to the number of people who have been offended, or felt themselves attacked, by a few harmless words which they didn’t hear properly, or which they misinterpreted according to their own prejudices. The internet, for me, is one of the worst places for such actions: I am constantly being pulled up by people who want to read between the lines on Twitter, and who have to be cleared up patiently and diligently so that, eventually, you come back to the same words as you had before, and they manage to slink towards understanding the obvious. It is almost impossible to portray irony or sarcasm without the use of emoticons – or emojis as they are now called – and humour is a no-go from the get-go. And, of course, the sexism and racism which abounds. I have purposefully not included my gender on Twitter, and never mention my real name, so sometimes I get the man who knows better coming along and telling me all about what I have been talking about or, which is even better, explaining one of my own published articles to me. Shooting them down, metaphorically, is something of a pleasure.
Right now I am amusing myself, and others, over a short story I told concerning wedding cake decorations. Someone came on and complained of these decorations which show the man of a pair trying to flee, or being dragged back to the ceremony which have been popular as a joke for the last few years. I commented that a group of Americans came over to visit us here in Germany and, during their trip through the centre of the oldest part of Bremen – Schnoor – they came across an artist’s shop with wedding cake decorations in the window. Later, shocked and whispering, they asked me how it was possible that a shop was allowed to sell wedding cake decorations for same-sex couples, clearly not realising that same-sex marriage is legal here – and in the United States, even if not all States have ratified it yet. My small comment, as I write this, and a follow-up that I was disappointed at the discovery, but not surprised, have racked up well over twenty-five thousand views in the last hour, which is more than the original post has managed.
So, I am at the end of the allotted three sheets of paper once more, although I could probably trot out a few more tales and observations from my Bavarian trip without too much effort. Truth be told, my book is also calling me: I am reading Amor Towles’ Rules of Civility which is based in New York in the Thirties and which I grabbed hold of after reading, and salivating over, his second work A Gentleman in Moscow which impressed me a great deal. Then, probably tomorrow when I’ve finished this work, I have a biography waiting patiently for my attention: Douglas Smith’s Rasputin. So many wonderful books…
Don’t do anything sillier than to take pen to paper and write back: I look forward to your letters and do not wish to miss out on them for any minor, or major, reason. They make my long walk to the yellow mail boxes in the super market, regardless of the weather, worthwhile.