I am reliably informed, as strange as I find it, that there are some people out there who fall down and give up at the first obstacle, who do not know how to find a way around it, over it, through it because they have never been told that someone can do something for themselves. I guess this is perhaps similar to stories of forty-year old men still bringing their laundry home to Mom, but that is really on a completely different level. I am also told that there are people who do not appreciate a chance given, even when served up on a silver platter; that is, until I watched a short video yesterday and saw the reality. There are times when we are offered the greatest of opportunities, in adversity or in everyday life, and should grasp for the chances being offered. The fine example I watched yesterday was of a family out on their boat being approached by whales. The father, a camera in his hand, lauded what they could see, was full of wonder and joy. His wife panicked, his son wanted to get the boat away as quickly as possible, his daughter was in tears, and one of them called nine-one-one to report the whales to the police.

You write about a silver lining in your profile: clearly that father’s silver lining was not only the fact he got to see and film whales close up, but that he got a viral video on the internet, demonstrating the vapid stupidity of other people when confronted by something new, something wondrous, something to tell by the fireside for generations to come. For me, there are two sides to a silver lining: one is that there is something inside every bad thing which can be used for good, if you only take the trouble to stop, think, and then take advantage. The other is that this silver lining is surrounded by a cloud blocking the sun, and will move on. The sun will come out again, often it even frames the obstructing cloud with its beauty, and creates another wonder of our world for us to enjoy. Martin Luther King Jnr. said:

You don’t have to see the whole staircase. Just take the first step.

Too many of us simply do not see the glittering possibilities at the end of a dark tunnel; we let ourselves be fooled by what is here right now and fail to appreciate all those things to the left and right of a clearly defined path which, being intelligent, we should know we do not have to take. We can turn off this path at any time we wish, follow the path less well trod – another saying I enjoy – and find a silver lining of a different form, one which is there for us if we’re willing to take the chance.

What we too often do see is that this alternative requires a little extra work on our part; that we have to do something to earn something; that we are not getting a free dinner for once, unless we take that extra step. For some this is simply too much, and these people sit in the same muck as they were sitting in before, surrounded by clean, dry land, complaining at their misfortune. Undoubtedly blaming someone else, too. Voltaire wrote:

Life is a shipwreck, but we must not forget to sing in the lifeboats.

Although, to be honest, not everyone is made for singing in lifeboats, for taking an edifying view of a desperate situation and doing the best they can to distract themselves from it until help arrives. As I suggested before, some people simply have not learned how to be self-sufficient, and there are others who have had such a good run through life, had everything laid out before them as if it were a Right, that when the time comes for them to meet up with and face opposition, fall apart and show their true colours. A fairly political statement, admittedly, when looking at some of the occurrences in higher circles of recent weeks, but a perfect example of how it works. And, sadly, a perfect example of how another system works, one which we have always known is there, seldom acknowledged, but now have to clean out and lock away.

And what exactly is that first step King was hinting at? For each person it is something different, something personal something only they can experience and take advantage of. No one else can live your life, you have to do all the living yourself, both the good and the bad. The first step is doing something, perhaps, everyone else has said you’ll never succeed at. Taking a degree course, as you are, is one prime example. How many people would never, a short while ago, have believed that you’d make it as far as you have? That you’d make the best of your situation and advance towards an Associate’s Degree in Sociology, with the possibility of a Bachelor’s immediately afterward? On a much lower level, how many people told me, a few years ago now, that letter writing is a thing of the past and will bring no joy whatsoever, just expense, because no one writes these days. Ignore the fact that I have been writing letters to people since the mid-Eighties: today we have text messaging and electronic mail, Facebook and other social networks. Even books, which I love and cannot live without, are on the way out, I have been told. And yet, here we are, tasking that first step without being able to see the next one, or have any control over it.

The cloud here, all dark and forbidding, is the amount of time involved, and the expense, you will be faced with when writing a letter. It is the searching for the right person to write to. It is trying to find a subject to write about, and describing yourself without appearing self-centred or narcissistic. It is the possibility of failure, in that a letter sent does not receive a reply, or is returned as undeliverable. I can tell a few stories about just such events – many letters not replied to, but that is to be expected – where, for example, someone took my letter out of the envelope, read it, and then sent it back to me, without comment, in their own envelope. Or, how about the woman who received a notebook from me, part of an ongoing art project, where all she had to do was write her own letter or essay and then forward the notebook to someone else. She sent me an electronic mail thanking me for the beautiful book and then, when I patiently explained once more what it was for, shouted that she would be keeping the book, not using it, and that I am a scammer and cheat and I should, well, the first word of two begins with an F and is not exactly as ladylike and shy as the woman claimed to be in her own profile, nor something I am likely to mention in polite company.

The cloud is that a letter to someone, stranger or friend, takes time: it is not an immediate communication as with an electronic mail or a text message: a letter goes through many hands before finally arriving in those for which it has been written, and that takes time. People forget, of course, that an electronic mail will not always get to its destination immediately, and, more poignantly, they also forget that their other part, the person they are writing to, will not necessarily be sitting in front of a computer right at that moment, and will not necessarily reply immediately. Patience is required, and not just when waiting for the delivery and a possible reply; patience is needed when writing too. A letter, contrary to popular belief, cannot simply be dashed off in a few seconds, like those thank-you notes we sent to a distant Aunt we’d never heard of before, thanking her for some ill-received and inappropriate Christmas present. Even those with all the time in the world on their hands, do not have patience for letter writing, since it all takes so long.

Imagine our forefathers, who had to wait months for a simple letter to be delivered by hand, before the postal system as we know it was developed. Imagine those, less than two hundred years ago, who expected a letter each and every day from close relatives – husbands and wives especially. Imagine those, concubines and mistresses as well as lovers and wives, in eleventh century Japan who expected a letter from their just-departed lover the same evening, before they went back to bed, and often replied to it the same night. And, just to make it more exciting, imagine that some of that Japanese letter had to be an appropriate and original piece of verse.

We, modern-day writers of old-fashioned missives, have it easy. There is so much going on in this world that we know about, we can find a subject to pour our hearts out over at the flick of a switch, the turn of a page. Everyone has an opinion, whether they have the facts too or not is another matter, but everyone has an opinion they are just dying to share with someone else. And the great advantage – as well as a disadvantage, which is why it could be the cloud rather than the silver lining – is that no one interrupts your train of thought while you are writing and attempts to insert their reply, or their own opinion. There are interruptions and distractions, of course, but not from those you’re writing to. Every single letter is a monologue, a soliloquy of our own thoughts laid out from start to finish. Letters are character and personality building, as the other person cannot see us and has to rely on what we write for their information – another cloud and silver lining moment.

And then we come to the real silver – although some are disappointed when they do not strike gold – in that each letter is unique. Each letter is just for one person, and that person is you, unless you decide to share it. Someone has dedicated their time and energy with no one else in mind, and crafted a work of art for an exclusive client. Of course, there is also the building up of trust and of friendship, the learning of new things, places, social environments and all that, but these are secondary silver linings. These come with the package. You have a further silver lining which some people also overlook: the plenitude of choice. A young woman, regardless of her circumstances, will receive greater attention than a man – and certainly more than an old white man like me! This is, as we all know, not necessarily an advantage, but in the case of letter writing as opposed to those unwelcome random collisions out in the real world – which are also, thankfully, a matter for massive discussion at present – it works wonders. Choosing the pick of the patch, you might say, the best of the harvest. But then, sometimes those which do not seem to be the best on the outside are far better when explored, when taken apart, when opened up like a grey cloud covering the sun to see if there is, indeed, a silver lining inside.

Thou that stupendous truth believed,
And now the matchless deed’s achieved,
Determined, Dared, and Done

as Christopher Smart, a long forgotten poet, once wrote.

But, as I wrote near the start of this short letter, if you don’t step off the pathway everyone else has already walked alone and explore your own, if you don’t take a chance and see what is over the next hill, if you don’t sing in the lifeboat and thereby draw attention to your presence in the vast ocean of this world, you’ll never make it onto the first step, never mind see what is at the top of the staircase.