An Older, Wiser Way to Think About ‘The Pen Pal’

As a kid, I always wished for a friend down the street or to find letters in the mailbox.

While the first never really happened, the second has come true in a way I didn’t expect but is completely natural today. Instead of a friend down the street, I have a friend across the globe. Instead of flag on the mailbox, I have a very welcome little red notification.

In grade school a pen pal was a kid at another elementary school, someone you knew nothing about but with whom you began to practice fledgling writing skills. Today, I don’t see being pen pals as being limited to literal pen and paper, although the feel and sentiment are still important to me. Instead, I define it as a sustained, fairly regular correspondence with a friend in another state or country.

The noise of social media can really dull our sense and enjoyment of connection but the access it gives us — now that’s the real gift. I like the focus a “penpalship” brings. There are few kinds of waiting we like to anticipate, but I love sending off a new message and wondering what my friend is doing nine hours ahead of my time zone.

Between life transitions and new friendships gained over travel and career, keeping this kind of correspondence has, for me, made a fun mystery and adventure of continuing a connection. My pen pal and I have both a little and a lot to catch up on; it’s fed my wonder and reflection immensely.

pen pal photos

So this new year, perhaps you’ll meet someone from the other side of the world or country and learn a whole new way of everyday life. Regardless of whether you physically get to take a trip to meet them, perhaps your words and friendship through a penpalship can do the exploring for you.

As for my friend Nadine and I, it certainly has. Our correspondence has been, in some ways, a means for her to stay (in Los Angeles) and for me to go (to Vienna).

To get your “letter writing” brain going, I interviewed Nadine below:

Mel: To start, what would you say is a pen pal?

Nadine: Off the top of my head, I would say a pen pal is someone you write letters to over a period of time, or even send postcards to once in a while.

Mel: Haha, are we pen pals?

Nadine: In the modern sense, we definitely are! It’s only very recently that I realized that keeping up digitally is in many ways a pen pal.

An advantage to being digital pen pals is that we don’t only share the big moments in our lives as it might have been with a letter, but also the small everyday findings that are “less important.”

Mel: Do you write letters? Or do you mostly communicate digitally?

Nadine: I do write letters still, though less often than before. Keeping up long-distance friendships has become easier through calling and messaging apps, and I find that this is primarily how I am keeping in touch with friends and family in everyday life.

Mel: What keeps you writing to friends in different states, countries or time zones?

Nadine: What keeps me writing is the high value I have for the people I’ve met and befriended. I believe that you can have everything in life, but without friends, it’s empty. I am so thankful for the people in my life and the time we shared, wherever or however brief that time was.

I enjoy keeping in touch out of genuine interest, and to show how much I care and think about them. It’s 100% worth it for me, even when there are lulls.

Keeping up also looks different depending on which friendship it is. It doesn’t necessarily look like writing them every day/all day, depending on the friendship, it can even be every couple or few months.

Mel: Is it ever difficult to communicate through one mode of correspondence when there are so many available?

Nadine: I actually find it easier to choose one primary mode of correspondence. Sometimes having running conversations on multiple platforms can be a bit overwhelming, and I usually end up going back to one source for talking. I do find that it helps to switch it up once in a while — voice messages are my favorite, and after writing for such a long while, it’s always refreshing to have a live conversation via Skype or WhatsApp.

My pen pal and I have both a little and a lot to catch up on; it’s fed my wonder and reflection immensely.

Mel: Tell me a story about someone you met or a place you went because of a pen pal.

Nadine: When I was 15, I went on an intensive outdoor course for three weeks in Canada. I became very close with a few people in the group, and we continued sending letters and CDs with playlists for quite some time after that. The closest I’ve come to going somewhere because of a pen pal would be adjusting my flight between New Zealand and Saskatoon (CA) – delaying the transfer in Toronto for a few days in order to spend time with them there.

Through social media, I spontaneously met up with one of them in Berlin, almost six years after!

Mel: As a kid, did you have a definition for a pen pal that is different now?

Nadine: Yes, I definitely still thought of it as only writing letters, and probably with longer periods of time in-between.

Mel: Where do you feel at home in the world?

Nadine: I’m still trying to figure that one out (haha). While I have very good memories in places I’ve lived briefly, I don’t feel super attached to any single place. At the moment, I feel like I have three homes, but each in a different sense. Saskatoon, Canada, is my hometown — where I grew up. Vienna is “home” in the sense that my parents live there. It’s also familiar, and so going back feels like “going home.” Berlin was the first place I lived on my own for the longest period of time since Saskatoon. While commuting between Vienna and Berlin this autumn, I’ve come to recognize that Berlin feels very much like my own independent space, and I feel very much at home when I am there.

Thanks, Nadine! Now, I’ve got to get back to an email reply.

How would you define a pen pal? Have you ever had one?

Images via Amanda Nolan Booker

Melanie Loon is the Editorial Assistant at Darling, bridging content across print, online and art. For print, she manages relationships with artists from over 60 cities worldwide who contribute to the magazine. As a writer and artist, her work centers on communication, emotion and movement. She’s always tempted to pack too many books.

8 COMMENTS
  • Naomi Hattaway February 8, 2018

    I love this article / interview so much! Moving absolutely can tear at the thread of connection and whether snail mail or digital pen pals, staying in touch with loved ones and friends (or even starting a new relationship with a stranger) is SO important!

    ? Naomi Hattaway | I Am A Triangle, the community for those living abroad

    • Melanie Loon February 8, 2018

      So true! It’s so hard to leave a community or a friend you’ve gotten to know as part of your collective “home.” Getting and keeping connected takes a little something. Amazing that we have so many options today!

      I am definitely all or nothing when it comes to being surrounded by all long-time best friends or adopting every stranger haha. Thank you for reading! 🙂

  • Rachel January 9, 2018

    Thanks for this! I’ve moved four times over the past three years, and it’s a struggle to stay connected with people who used to live just across town (or down the hall!). Love the emphasis on friendship you weave into this post.

    • Melanie Loon January 9, 2018

      Nadine has moved so many times too! I learned a lot from her about how keeping connected to her different communities kind of makes her who she is and opens up adventure and understanding 🙂

  • Melina January 8, 2018

    I actually have a pen and paper pen pal from the U.K. ! I do speak to people around the world on a daily basis, but nothing excites me as much as getting a letter in the mail. While I do suck at writing back in a timely manner, it’s still exciting not knowing exactly when I’m going to get a letter back. Your post actually reminded me that I have to write to my pen pal when I get home from work today! Great post xxx

    Melina | http://www.ivefoundwaldo.com

    • Melanie Loon January 9, 2018

      Yes I agree! I suck at reply times too haha but it is fun to sustain the conversation and give it room on both ends to be a bit of a fun surprise 🙂 Thanks for reading!

  • Sometimes I really miss the days when I was a kid when my friend and I sent letters back and forth between Hong Kong and Australia. We basically only talked through writing for years… but this was all before the internet. I still send postcards now when I’m on holiday, though, so I suppose that’s one way to hold on to the penpal thing! 🙂

    Charmaine Ng | Architecture & Lifestyle Blog
    http://charmainenyw.com

    • Melanie Loon January 9, 2018

      Wow that’s incredible! You must have had so much to share between your experiences 🙂

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