I will admit, it is a very strange feeling being passed from one person to the next, and not knowing what is going to happen, whether there will be a reply, or whether a new name will appear on a letter heading. My first thought was that this is something like a young woman at a party must feel, being passed from one person to another because she is not as good-looking as all the other women, but more open and willing. Admittedly a very unfair comparison, and one which I threw out straight away, but it is strange the way the mind works, which directions thoughts tend to go in, where we end up if we just let our mind wander wherever it will. I am, however, a letter writer, and I seek my potential friends out in a very arbitrary manner, knowing nothing about them whatsoever and merely hoping that something will come of the contact, so I can hardly complain. Sometimes we find the most interesting things at third or fourth hand, and not exactly where we had expected the best prizes.

We are all strangers, in a manner of speaking, and will remain strangers throughout our lives, even from those we think know us better than anyone else. There is always something inside which we do not share, something which will be effected by an unforeseen event and bring us to do something, to react in a certain way, which no one else could have expected. We all have secrets and secret thoughts which differentiate us from all those around us – we are, after all, all individuals, no matter how much we try to fit in with a set form – and sometimes even surprise ourselves with an opinion, an action, a reaction. That is what makes life so interesting, and a dulling down of individuality, the stranger within us, would be a dulling down of life itself.

The stranger in letter writing goes a stage further, though, as we have no chance of knowing anything about those people we write to, or who write to us, aside from what they wish to reveal in their letters. Come are more forthcoming than others, many need only a short space of time to spill out their entire life story, and then have nothing left over, while others take their time and gradually reveal themselves to us and, often to themselves too I will admit that the slow version is preferable as far as I am concerned: always something new to write about, a new revelation to consider, a new avenue to wander down with my own thoughts and insights as much as those of the person writing to me. And, of course, we are all at different levels according to where we live, where we have been educated, our families, how open we are to innovation and thoughts outside of our comfort zone, how widely travelled or widely read we are. In truth there is no limit: none of us have enough time to explore and think about the entire world, so we will always have something new, something exciting, something strange to grab and hold our attention for a while. Always supposing we are open and prepared to receive as much as to give.

You are doing the finest possible thing and acting in your best interests if […] you are persevering in your efforts to acquire a sound understanding.

Lucius Annaeus Seneca writing two thousand years ago in one of his own letters, but just as true today as it was then. A sound understanding of all that is around us, of people, of life as a whole. Educating ourselves, even outside of the classroom, even without books and teachers. Sometimes we learn more through listening to the experiences of someone else, through thinking about what they have to say, even if it is completely alien to our own way of thinking or what we have learned in our lives up to now. Sometimes, and you can pass this thought on to those others who have passed my letter on to you, it is something which appears more difficult on the surface which enlightens us, when we sit down and take the time needed to think about what has been said.

Likewise, taking one of the points that you raised in your letter, when we look back and see those people who have been in our lives, who have influenced us in some way, who we have loved or even hated, it can bring a great deal to our souls. Understanding souls, as I am sure you appreciate, in a spiritual sense of being, rather than a dogmatic sense as some religions do. There are countless influences on and in our lives, whether we appreciate them or not, and having the chance to think back over events, and especially to discuss them with like-minded people, is one of the great advantages of our species: we are capable of communication and understanding at a far higher level than any other creature. Whether we use this advantage or not is a personal choice; it is still open to everyone at many different levels.

And one of the great advantages of writing letters is that you can commit everything you wish to paper, really work through your thoughts and emotions, and then decide whether you wish to send those words across the world to someone else. When we talk, the words are out there, they have been heard, you cannot take them back. When we write, the words are still in our control right up to that final moment when we hand the letter in to the postal clerk and it disappears into a sack for dispatch. With the written word we can work through much more than a simple conversation allows: it is a far better form of therapy, of learning, than any other. New thoughts come to mind, new avenues to explore, we can start from scratch, we can jump and come back to an idea, a memory later without any loss. I suspect this is why diaries and journals have never gone out of fashion, even if some people wish to claim that they have been replaced by internet weblogs. A diary is a form of loss prevention as much as a method of working through our thoughts and feelings. I have been writing a journal, not every day, but regularly, since August 1988. There are bits and pieces of my character in there, things that I have done, felt, experienced which are long since forgotten, but for the record on paper.

Writing letters, when a person is open-minded and open for whatever might happen (within reason) is always going to be on a multitude of levels, as each person writing, especially when they come from different countries, uses their own heritage and experiences as a backdrop to what they have to say. This is not to claim that people are prejudice, but we follow, initially, that which we know and, hopefully, learn considerably more in the process. Since we all have different backgrounds, the chances of learning and advancing your own knowledge and understanding, across these many different levels, is phenomenal. The hope, of course, is that it is a two-way learning process, a real correspondence, but there are some who cannot handle this, who are not suited to letter writing but, perhaps, would be good at writing articles. The advantage, as far as I am concerned, with letter writing is that you get replies. It is a slow – compared to the internet and electronic mail – interactive process, but one which has worked for thousands of years, and will probably work for thousands more, no matter what competition might be placed in its way.

Grammar and writing correctly? I’m not so sure that anyone can learn from my style of writing, it is perhaps a little old-fashioned and, in some instances, wrong. I make mistakes, as does anyone else, and an Oxford Don would probably rip me apart for some of the language, some of the sentence structuring that I use. The ideas behind my writing, though, are something else and I will not claim that people can learn from what I write, but it gives an opportunity to think and consider, and to come to your own conclusion. Learning is, after all, not just facts and figures, but understanding from many different angles, through a myriad of possibilities and alternatives. And, of course, through the use of each individual’s personal experiences and understanding. So I would not suggest you’ll learn how to use words and construct sentences correctly through reading and replying to my letters, but you might come across a few new ideas, and I am sure you will also offer a few ideas I have not yet considered.

And even in the best of people, until you cultivate it there is only the material for virtue, not virtue itself.

And we can take Seneca’s words on so many other different levels too: we are born a blank sheet – something which has also been much discussed, refuted, proven and is still open to discussion – and learn from the moment of our birth according to that which is around us and, later perhaps, what we seek out for ourselves. If we limit ourselves to looking in only one direction, how are we going to find those fascinating things no one else has experienced before? Why follow the same pathway as everyone else, when there are opportunities for furtherance holding out for us with open arms, waiting to be accepted, explored, lived.

As a fine example: all my life I have been an outdoors person: living, working, everything outside of an office, very masculine – as some people tend to call it – very fitness and action oriented. I’m the action film sort of person, as far as those who do not know me can see. Letter writing and reading books comes as a surprise to them, although the reading level has been known for many years in this small town, where even the County Mayor commented on it at one of our council meetings a few years ago (I was an elected County Councillor for six years). Two months ago, sitting in a restaurant I have visited many times, I overheard the owner telling one of her waiters to ensure my meal was put down carefully so as not to disturb me, because I always have a book with me, and I am always reading when there is a spare moment. And now, rather than looking simply straight ahead and not seeing what is to the left or the right, in my peripheral vision but not accepted as being worthy of note, I have found something new. Last month (November) I went to a performance of Shakespeare’s play The Taming of the Shrew, performed by the Bolshoi Ballet. This month the Bolshoi Ballet held me enthralled – but not completely satisfied – with their version of The Nutcracker Suite, which is one of those Christmas perennials everyone in Germany loves to see. Next month I shall be watching the Bolshoi Ballet, live, with Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet.

Tough, masculine, outdoors person and then ballet? Sometimes we surprise even ourselves, finding parts of our own character, interests we didn’t know existed. But sometimes we simply do not know that we can look, that we don’t have to follow the path everyone else has followed through generations, that we can follow that overgrown pathway unused since time began, where perhaps one or two eccentric people might have wandered, and live something wonderful as a result. So, yes, if you want to take a chance and follow this pathway, which is not straight and narrow by any means, then do so and I welcome you on this journey. It will be varied and interesting, sometimes strange, sometimes deep and hard to understand, but it is life, on paper, other people’s experiences, but life.