Tuesday, November 30, 2010

pen pal

I have, for lack of a better way to put it, a pen pal. An Orthodox rabbi from Texas, whose email address is identical to mine, save for one letter. We first connected seven years ago when I began receiving queries from his congregants (who believed they were emailing their spiritual leader) about where to find kosher marshmallows, which mohel to hire for their grandson's approaching bris and the time and location of tomorrow's minyan. I ignored the first few emails, dismissing them as spam, but when an emotional plea for spiritual counseling appeared in my inbox, I knew I had to figure out who these people thought they were emailing. To my surprise, one quick Google search led me to my almost-namesake. Based on his name, I guessed at what his correct email address might be and sent him a note explaining the situation. We agreed that I would forward him emails intended for him as I received them and he would follow up with congregants about the spelling of his name. Despite his efforts, I have continued to receive emails from confused members of his synagogue (the spelling difference is an easy mistake to make), yet I don't mind, because with every email I send him, he sends a kind response with snippets about his shul, his family and well-wishes. Our relationship is a unique one in this day and age in that we've gotten to know one another purely through writing back and forth. His life could not be more different from mine and I suspect I'll never meet him in person, yet, I can honestly say I care about his well-being and look forward to his updates. It's also been a good lesson on the power of the written word.

Writing to someone to whom I have no connection other than a similar email address (and, probably, mutual ancestors back in the shtetl) could have proven an annoyance, but his genuine, articulate notes inspired me to write back in kind. It became clear to me that, when words are all that exist between two people, it is imperative that they be written well. Not for purposes of showing off writing ability or intelligence, but to ensure clarity of intention. In emailing, texting or (in the rare instance that this still happens) handwriting of letters, we don't have the option of hearing tone of voice, reading facial expressions or seeing hand gestures and so the potential for misinterpretation is heightened. Annoying-but-sometimes-useful "emoticons" can help, but nothing beats proper punctuation and thoughtful, well-constructed sentences. When I read something eloquent, whether it's an email or a three-hundred-page manuscript, the words themselves seem to fall away and all I am left feeling is the intention, which is, after all, the whole point of writing in the first place, right?

It is an essentially human desire to want to be seen, heard and felt. This, above all else, is what drives me to write, edit, rewrite...and then rewrite again.


Cerulean Bill said...

This past summer, we had a French teen live with us for three weeks. We bonded really well with her, despite her limited English and our even more-limited French. She told her that her parents invited us to visit with them, should we ever come to France -- something we'd never contemplated, but now seemed like a delightful idea. I exchanged a few notes with her mother, whose grasp of English seemed, like my French, to be entirely powered by Google Translate. Then the kid left. Over the next three months, I sent four or five more notes to the mother, short emails, just to keep in touch. And, nothing. No response. I was devastated. I'd had this vision of getting to know someone completely different than anyone I knew, gradually strengthening international friendship over the years. Future exchange trips, them here, us there, was not out of the question.

And the part that really gets me? Despite the lack of feedback, which would lead any normally motivated person to say that Well, guess the visit is off -- I still think about it as a possibility. Because the idea of that contact-with-the-different is so damned seductive.

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