I am seriously considering changing the manner in which I write letters to people, not the content or the way that letters are sent, I shall certainly be continuing to write on paper and send my short messages through the post, but perhaps my decision, which I made right at the start of the year, to answer each letter that I receive, and wait patiently for the next to arrive. My patience is certainly not going to be exhausted, but several people have written and told me that they have problems replying to my letters, not so much that they have difficulty finding things to write about, or even that they are overwhelmed – as one wrote – by the content of my missives, but because they cannot afford the postage. This is, as I am sure you appreciate, something I would rarely take into consideration, having easy access to a post office and a fairly regular, if limited, income. My choice to write to people confined through certain circumstances remains solid, but I shall have to rethink my idea of waiting and, as I have done with one or two people at the start of this adventure, look to a different rhythm of contact.
The thing is, and it is something which impresses itself on my mind with great regularity, I enjoy receiving and replying to letters. I could sit at my desk and write letters all day, were it not for the fact that they would become boring in the extreme, and very quickly, if I did not also go out into the world and find new things to write about. I don’t need to wait for someone to answer one of my letters before having something else I consider worth writing about. The trouble is, too many people feel beleaguered by too much mail, strange as it may seem. The same person writing every week, or so, can be more stressful than anything, as they feel constrained to write back or, if they are not interested, begin to feel harassed by the attention. As you can imagine, the last thing I would wish is to have someone receiving unwelcome mail not just because it is a waste of my time and energies writing, but also because I’m not setting out to upset or disturb people, but to communicate, to make friends, to build up a mutually beneficial relationship both sides can enjoy. So I tend not to do it; I wait for a reply to one of my letters, and then set pen to paper once more.
Of course a good deal has happened in the time between one letter and the next, and I do not doubt there are many events which are forgotten or simply left out of letters through a lack of space which, in a different situation, might well have been of great interest. But we are following a different form of conversation, one which is not so immediate as a face-to-face friendship or an exchange over more technologically advanced mediums. And the Victorian days when it was expected that people, especially in a loving or marital arrangement, wrote to their separated partners each and every day have long since slid silently away into the almost forgotten realms of the mists of time. We no longer dedicate ourselves to one single person, not even as a married pair in many cases, but allow ourselves to be torn between many people, many different forms of friendship and communication, a myriad range of interests and pastimes. This does, of course, raise our level of interest and the number of things we have to talk about, to describe and discuss, but reduces the time available to correspond, as well as the reserves of energy necessary to write a long and informative report.
My thoughts, though, are returning to the idea of not waiting too long before writing my next letter because then precisely that happens which has happened here: I see that my last letter to you was back in August, which means that the whole period of late summer, the wonderful autumnal season of colours and beauty have passed by without description, without comment. I feel almost as if there is a major gap in my life, which many would not understand as they are not so attuned to the pleasures of letter writing as I am, which could have been plugged by an extra letter, a note, even a card, sometime during these long weeks.
Whatever you describe to another person is also a revelation of who you are and who you think you are. You cannot describe anything without betraying your point of view, your aspirations, your fears, your hopes. Everything.
Wise words from James Baldwin from an interview he gave many years ago. Thinking about his words, as he looked forward to the future as much as recounted the past, I am constantly aware of how I have changed over the years, and even over the months between my last letter to you and this one today. For many those changes might seem to be inconsequential, if they even notice, as they sneak up and integrate themselves within a personality almost unseen over a long period of time but, when you take a break and compare two different times, then you see what has changed. At least, you see it if your eyes are open, if you are prepared to look. If you are receptive to the world around you as much as to your own small place in that changing world. Sadly this does not cover all that many people, too many are content to believe that their world will never change, that all is safe and they are secure through their place in society, or through a promise uttered by those in higher positions. Some changes come like a sledgehammer in the middle of the day, when you least expect them, when you can least protect yourself.
I suspect one of the main reasons these thoughts have come to me is not so much the reminder your seasonal card brought with it, almost as a sign of life, that you are still there, more the time of year when it is customary for us to look back and forward, Janus-like, and consider our future based upon what has happened in the immediate past. It will soon be the time of New Year’s Resolutions, as much as of gorging ourselves to the point of culinary explosion on that which we can, in many cases, ill afford and which others, sadly, cannot even afford to dream of. I look back over the last twelve months partially with regret but mainly with pleasure at having achieved something despite adversary. I look forward to the coming year with anticipation and hope, and with the clear target set in my mind that my letter writing, my attempt to forge new and interesting friendships through the written word across the globe will continue and grow. This, I suppose, is as close to a New Year’s Resolution as I am ever likely to come, having made so many through the years which, as happens to all of us, have been forgotten almost as quickly as the seasonal plum pudding has been eaten.
If I were to allow myself the rare privilege of a New Year’s Resolution, it would be to try to walk in other people’s shoes for a while. This may seem a strange thing to write, but it makes sense to me when I am writing letters to people I have never met, scarcely know, and probably never will meet no matter how good a friendship may become. I read all their words and try to place my own mind within the sphere they are describing; try to see their fears and anguish as much as their hopes and joys; try to relive their moments as if they were my own, and see the towns, cities, the landscape they have viewed over their lives and now describe to me. Friendships created through letter writing as so different to those created within a specific social sphere, where we come together regularly and can just chat over a coffee and a slice of cake; they have to be cared for in a different manner; we read different tones into the words written than we do to those said and accompanied by body language, by an intimate knowledge of the person across the table from us. The underlying currents to the words are often difficult to understand, especially in our modern world where so much is said through abbreviation, through imagery and cartoons designed to reflect some form of emotion, and so little which we can really interpret and fully understand.
But Baldwin misses something out with his thoughts on description and self-assessment: we never describe ourselves as other people see us, only as we wish to be seen by them. Perhaps that is one of the reasons why I would wish to be able to put myself into someone else’s place and take over their experiences for a while, to see how much of themselves they are letting out, how attuned they are to their own inner feelings and emotions, to the world around them. Another person can read a great deal into what we say, but based exclusively on their own experiences, on their own understanding of life. Thus we see the comparisons of daily income in the Third World with First World values which, as you appreciate, cannot be made to work together. We see the appraisal of a person’s life when they are incarcerated according to our own appreciation or fear of imprisonment, and not through the actual way of life they are forced to follow. Most of us simply do not have the necessary experience. Most of us, if not all, would never truly want it.
The writer Baldwin has to place himself into the shoes of those characters he creates, has to show their lives so unbelievably that we, the reader, consider them to be real, living, breathing people we might meet on the street, drink a coffee with, invite into our lives. He, and many authors like him, have to go that one stage further and not just place themselves within a character, but create the entire personality, their surroundings, their history and future. And we, simple beings that we are, are stuck trying to understand our own lives, never mind that of those all around us, and most certainly never mind those of characters created by the overactive mind of an exceptional writer. We, as letter writers following several different paths through life and accompanied on those several paths by different people with their own experiences and lives, come close to Baldwin and many of the other writers revered throughout the literary world, but have the advantage we are not inventing, merely interpreting the reality someone else is giving us.
And what happens to our vision of another person’s world when there is a gap, a break in the conversation? We can’t just go back to the page we were on and read through events once more as, in real life, events have changed. The world does not stand still and wait until we are ready to pick up where we left off, ready to delve back into its machinations. The world spins on through the emptiness while we, all of us, continue doing things which change all that we knew, all that other people knew. We gain new experiences, form new opinions, are hit by the experiences and opinions, and actions, of others. To put it in its simplest form: a girl we knew a few months ago comes back into our lives as a woman; a boy comes back as a man.
And although I do not celebrate this season as others do, it was a great pleasure to receive a sign of life from you, to discover that you are still around and still active, have not disappeared from the face of the earth or decided that correspondence is too much to handle, there are more interesting things in life than a complicated letter and a faraway friend. Especially the fact that it was clear, to me, you had put something of yourself into the card, had taken the time to create something special, original, unique. There are some who would say the image is an ordinary one, you can see it every single day of the year somewhere, and it has no meaning beyond that of the original creator as a space-filler to amuse or perhaps to bring some message across of less seriousness than everything else in the daily news. But these are people who skim over the surface of life, who do not take time to stop and winder, who do not see that someone somewhere, has dedicated themselves to this one object, this one thought, and sent it on. They do not see that there is as much life in this one small action as there might be in a major event affecting millions of people, and that it is closer to a person’s heart than anything else could ever be.
So, I wish you all the best for this coming year: may it be fruitful and enjoyable for you with all those things you wish as far as is possible and, hopefully, bring many enjoyable contacts and acts of friendship spread across the entire twelve months and into the distant future, joy and fulfilment. And you can count on me to remain in touch, as far as is possible from this side of the great ocean, and offer you the chance to take a step or two in my shoes, to see something of my experiences and share in my offered friendship.