My friend Laura is working on her history dissertation right now and she’s been all over the world doing her research…from Nigeria to Brazil to England. During her recent foray into the Special Collections at the Bodleian Library of Commonwealth and African Studies at Rhodes House in Oxford, she found the following gem of a letter. (Note: she asks that you read it aloud in your best British accent for full effect):
Kikuyu [Kenya] Dec 22nd 1894
My dear old Dad,
I am writing under difficulties for I am at present laid up in bed through the kindly attentions of a rhino with whom I had an interview on the 11th. As long as the conversation was carried on at 100 yds range I had decidedly the best of the game, but when the beast entered thoroughly into the spirit of the game, his arguments were so pointed that I was only too glad to be allowed to retire from the game alive.
I love the British powers of understatement and humor in even the most trying of times!
This letter demonstrates that even if you end up confined to bed after a Rhino attack, you should not let that get in the way of maintaining your correspondence with friends and loved ones. So get writing!
I had the pleasure of seeing Carol Burnett live this evening. It was an informal set-up where she stood on stage, shared some of her favorite clips from her show, took questions from the audience, told funny stories and touching stories and was, in a word, magnificent. She was genuinely engaged with the audience, endearing, and witty.
I was struck at several times during the show about the role letters had played in her life and the lives of her fans. Two people stood up during the night to tell Carol that they had written her letters years before and that she had written them in return. They could have asked her anything while they had that microphone, and they chose to express their gratitude for her letters, saying how much they had meant. One man said he’d passed her a note after a show in 1985, reaching out to her because she, like he, had alcoholic parents. He thought she might be able to relate some wisdom to help him get through a tough period. And apparently she did, through a letter. When she asked his name, and he said it, she remembered him! They had apparently exchanged Christmas cards for a couple of years after his initial note.
She also discovered Vicki Lawrence through a letter. Vicki, then a high school student, wrote Carol a letter inviting her to a “Miss Fireball Pageant” in which Vicki was competing. Carol said the letter had taken three weeks to get through the studio mail process, so she received the letter the day of the event and decided–what every star does when she gets a request from a random high-schooler–to go to the event! Vicki won the competition and apparently made an impression. A few years later when Carol got her own variety show and they wanted to cast a young woman, they sought Vicki out…all because Vicki reached out through a letter.
These little stories showed two things. One, Carol Burnett is a remarkable woman with great empathy and the abilty to meaningfully connect to random strangers. Two, the power of letters to share thoughts, build connections, and open doors is very real. Letters are sneaky–they can connect you, a mere mortal, to famous people, people with power, strangers on the other side of the world.
Have you ever sent mail to someone famous? Did you receive a reply?
In high school, waaaaay back in the early 90s, I had Egyptian pen pals. They were two guys named Sameh and Aiman, both college students. Sameh was majoring in engineering and wanted to be a police officer. Aiman was an English major and hoped to be an interpreter or guide. I think we found each other as pen pals because we had a common love for collecting stamps (we were philatelists, if you want the official term). Our letters largely revolved around exchanging stamps, stories about our families, and information about our countries and cultures.
We wrote back and forth for a couple years. Occasionally, Aiman would send me drawings. I’m not so sure he wasn’t looking for a girlfriend, too. His letters took a somewhat romantic turn:
I somehow skirted those overtures and eventually we fell out of touch after I went to college. Given the unrest in Egypt lately, I was thinking about my old pen pals and wondering how they might be involved, hoping they are safe.
As I sat and pondered what their lives were like now, it was nice to have the pile of snail mail to sift back through to conjure memories. What gifts letters can be so many years later. In the next couple of weeks I’m going to share more blasts from the past.
With Valentine’s day just around the corner, many are pondering how to put their love into words. There are lots of opportunities to express yourself in written words during this holiday, whether in a card, a letter, or those little notes on flower bouquets.
Normally I’d say, “Write from your heart” to someone struggling to put pen to paper. But as this Superbowl commercial demonstrates, that may not always be the best course of action:
If you’re looking for some guidance, why not peruse great love letters from the past? I have a few books I’ve enjoyed. Love Letters, collected by Everyman’s Library is a good place to start for examples. Or How to Write Love Letters by Michelle Lovric is a beautifully designed book with both examples and also guidance on doing it yourself. Remember, writing from the heart is good most of the time. If you think you might be missing the mark, don’t be afraid to call in the professionals!