Pen Pals

Prompt: Describe a place or environment where you are perfectly content. What do you do or experience there, and why is it meaningful to you?

“So many emails say so little,” writes Norma Cone in her first letter to me. Her penmanship incorporates elaborate loops and smoothly conjoined letters from years of perfecting her cursive. In comparison, my script is poorly developed, a reflection of my generation’s dependency on keyboards to mask our flaws. Still I write.

Norma is an ailing senior citizen and I am her volunteer companion, a position I signed up for two years ago and have happily returned to every summer since. For twenty hours each vacation week, I embark on my quest to eradicate the mountains of clutter that occupy every surface of her apartment. When summer ends and my free time becomes consumed, I find a new environment to continue my adventures with Norma – the pages of a letter. When I scrawl my replies with a retractable ballpoint pen, a childish relative to the beautiful fountain pen Norma uses, I want to share as much of myself with her as I can. Whereas anyone can peek at my Twitter page and glean a quick life update, Norma receives the unabridged story packed with details, emotion, and self-reflection. I tell her about my national volleyball team’s success during our tournament in Washington, DC while gushing about how I was in the same city as our political role model, Ruth Bader Ginsburg. I recount the events leading up to my recent concussion, sharing my frustration in my apparent lack of progress. I even offer updates on friends I once brought as guests to her apartment, reassuring her that I will never forget the “value of friendship” she so emphasizes.

The magic of letter writing is in how it prompts us to dig beneath the surface and pursue lines of thought that might never make it into casual conversation. The more I write to Norma, the more I feel pleasantly detached from the hurried realm of social media and instant messaging. The warm, honest communication reflected in letters is representative of the communication I value – meaningful conversation that involves active sharing and lasts more than a fleeting moment. There is no word limit to confine the range of my thoughts. Instead, the blankness of the sheet of paper in front of me, like the first time Norma opened her apartment door to greet me, invites me to explore. As I pick up my pen, that’s exactly what I do. I roam every inch of my ideas until they all bear an ink stain similar to the smear on the edge of my palm when I am finished for the night.

Though I try to keep my writing light, sometimes everyday stresses seep into my ink and are easily sensed by someone like Norma. In response, she begs me to “study hard but still have some fun,” advice that has stuck with me. Whenever I am feeling overtaxed, I find my “fun” in writing to Norma. As my pen glides across the page like a figure skater on ice, it pulls me along with it and creates a sense of weightlessness from my daily routine. Writing gives me a peaceful and quiet venue in which, for once, I feel in complete control over everything. I am no longer bothered by the trivialities or mayhem of the day, but rather am free to express myself however I please. While my studies and activities detract from the time I spend on paper, the indescribable feeling of watching my thoughts manifest themselves on a page constantly beckons me to return – and I always do.

Inside of these letters, I am perfectly content. When my ink pen scribbles down the final words, I release a sigh of satisfaction; for the time being, I have shared as much as I can with Norma. Clutching my finished letter in my hand, I feel an unparalleled sense of contentment now that I have found for my latest words a permanent home.

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