Back when I was a teenager in the late 1980s and early 1990s the most exciting thing to have as a budding writer was a pen pal. This was before the advent of the Internet so if a girl wanted to learn anything new about the places that intrigued her she had to get it straight from the horse’s mouth.
And the place that fascinated me the most? Without a doubt it was America, good old USA, a sparkling, iconic country which felt a million miles away from where I lived, stuck on the underside of the globe in distant place called Australia.
It’s hard to accurately describe the joy I felt whenever I came home to find a letter in my mailbox, marked with that PAR AVION stamp. It was a small rectangle of hope, bulging with exciting mysteries spilled technically from a stranger’s heart. I had of course never met my pen pal but she was nonetheless instantly a close friend with whom I had no qualms confiding all my secrets.
Back then the things that excited me most include: Corey Haim, New Kids on the Block, books like Sweet Valley High and TV shows like Charles in Charge. My favorite movies were Stand by Me and The Breakfast Club and if I could be any girl it would be Alyssa Milano but only because my imported Tiger Beat magazines featured her cuddling way too many teen heart throbs.
If I wanted to find out more about all these things that intrigued me, I needed to hear it from someone who was living the dream, who spoke with that thrilling American accent and was physically closer to everything I wanted to be a part of.
Much like a living fluid diary, my pen pal would receive snippets of my life in the form of letters, one earnest chapter at a time. For weeks on end I would wait and wait for her reciprocal chapters to arrive, never knowing if that day would be my lucky day. Three weeks – that was the quickest turnaround I could expect to get a response, thanks to the 5-7 business days it took to get our letters one-way between Australia and the US.
But often time passed beyond that without any news, because life sometimes got in our way, and we didn’t always reply as quickly as we hoped we would. Patience was forced to become my strongest virtue, as excitement turned to desperation and my curiosity failed to be sated.
As soon as her reply arrived, I would begin writing my return letter, using my special stationary paper purchased from the now defunct Granny May’s store. As important as the sharing of information was the responding to questions and we both were incredibly intrigued about the place the other party called home. Our questions were endless: What is your school like? What do you do for fun? What do you eat, drink, wear and listen to? We were two teenagers, comparing notes on our journey through life, living different lives in different places but at the same time, a common thread was woven through our stories.
We wrote about boys and love and things that made us happy and sad. We spoke about our dreams for the future while our lives were still a blank canvas waiting to be painted with our best laid out plans. Anything and everything was still possible then so we wrote with passion and hope, without editing our thoughts because we didn’t know then that things didn’t always go according to plan.
Having a penpal was like writing a journal entry I set free into space and that I hoped would be caught on the other side by someone who treasured it as much as I did. I spilled secrets that I imagined would be kept safe by a friend I had never met, who lived in a place that was too expensive to call or visit, except in my imagination.
I sent things like photos and small mementos to let her know I was real and so she could put a face to the pictures I tried to paint with my words. And over time I discovered enough about this pen pal that she became much more than just a friend but a gatekeeper to my heart and soul, because writing to her unlocked parts of my soul I didn’t even know existed.
I wrote and shared everything because this spillage was never enough, not for me or my foreign friend, who waited patiently to hear the next part of my story, to see if I did indeed become what I set out to become. Having a penpal was both a gift and a privilege – the first step for me as a writer learning to share my story because whatever came to mind was always the truth and therefore always just right.
The kids today with their instant everything – their iPads, computers, phones, internet and technology – will never quite understand what it was for us back then…when we had great stretches of time to think and time to fill with nothing but our imaginations.
We were told only boring kids got bored so we got lost in this abyss of endless time, trying to keep ourselves occupied and working out ways to stay connected to our friends without any help from the adults. We didn’t know how but we were determined to find a way.
We had no choice but to learn how to be patient and we intuitively understood that everything had its time and place. And sometimes for me this time and place was intercepted by a letter from the other side of the world that made me feel not so alone. The beauty of having a pen pal – one of the lost arts of the world.