A little corner of a space station,
on an island-city-nation,
between what is known and unknown
I tried a couple of times to write something about the letters, to say something smart, witty or profoundly philosophical but nothing that I started to say was going to come close to the complexity of what these contained or how I felt when I read these today with the burning sun outside just like it was there on the island.
I’d held on to one for four months without reading it and another followed me to yet another address making it quite clear that I wasn’t forgotten.
The second one was a postcard so there was no excuse to wait to open the cute little seal as one would have to do for the first one.
But still I waited.
It was a magic place last year, magic for me anyway, where the letters were from.
It was a place full of technology people where, paradoxically enough, I grew to love handwriting on paper once again. It was a place where heads bent over exercise books and scrawled notes from end-to-end from one margin to the other and people suddenly took out little Moleskines to note down something innocuous even in the midst of the most everyday of conversations. I saw folks treasuring pen and paper in a digitized world, folks who were pioneers of online education, thinking about the future, talking about handwriting in keynote lectures while I’d thought the skill was about to make a final exit.
I spent one summer afternoon in that land of perpetual summer watching The Tempest, that play about island magic as we sat on an open field on our island waving free plastic fans sponsored by some cell phone company to ward off the heat and humidity chewing on samurai flavoured McDonalds burgers.
That summer I also read Villette on my flashy new MacBook, light and thin as a gold sheet, cold and sparkling as a jewel, for the very first time, quite in contrast to the novel (if you conceive of the novel as a thick-bound sombre-looking volume behooving its Victorian character).
A novel about a schoolteacher spending a long summer in an empty school, a misfit, an outcast, an abandoned Victorian woman burdened with a case of incurable cerebration if ever there was one.
In the book, Lucy Snowe is also obsessed with letters, not so much to read them as to touch them, feel them, look at them, hide them away and find a corner where she might almost read them.
Just like one of these letters, which travelled with me, sealed, in my most important carry-on in my most important pouch with my passport, through four plane rides and three countries as I moved between my known and unknown . . .
I had seen my sender write letters of course, spend evenings on them, scan them, post them, track them (also worry about how scanners in post offices read envelopes) and render words into things you could touch, feel and maybe smudge a little.
I was influenced.
I even became a thoughtful-looking picture in a gigantic stamp myself in that magic island where you could be many of the pretend-things you wanted to be (if only in dress-up parties for grown-ups or in pre-set photo booths at malls and exhibitions).
So when I received the letters, they were treasures. Of course I put off reading them savouring the anticipation, cherishing the future moment when I’d open them.
Then four whole months passed and here I was bumping into one of them while looking for a government issued photo ID.
What if there was some important information somewhere in that sealed envelope? What if the sender had assumed all these months that I had, indeed, read whatever it was and my non-response was a response?
All the while, the words on the envelope, standing between the known and unknown, had been one of the few still centers of my rather uncertain life. A jingle that stayed, a rhythm that soothed, a memory that brought back faith of something that was coming. A little bit of happy life trapped in memory and memory trapped in words and words preserved in slightly smudged writing that gave the illusion of permanence through its perishable, material, graspable, slightly stiff surface.
All the same, I took digital pictures first before I read them today.
My reward was that I got transported back to that Shakespearean and not-so-Shakespearean world of container ships and bubbling fountains and flying planes and glass offices and bazaar-style electronics sales and little 7-year-olds who asked you (like any other 7-year-old in any other place), ‘What’s the only kind of ship that never sinks?’