When I was a young girl growing up in California, a lot of my friends had pen pals. They had friends in faraway places like New York, or Kansas, or sometimes Sweden or Italy. In high school, during summers, some kids spent an entire month of their magical lives living with a host family in another country. All year long they would receive little notes from their Swiss sister, or Italian brother and they would bring them to school and I would be filled with envy. Sometimes there would be a pressed mountain flower inside from the Alps, or a beautiful fabric bookmark from a little village. And the stamps, oh those otherworldly, work-of-art stamps.
Growing up with a divorcee for a mother, who worked as a "secretary" in the '60s, those dreams of European summers were out of reach. So I never gave myself permission to be part of any pen pal group, not at school, and we didn't have any church life, so not there either.
Fast forward to the 1990s when, as editor of this paper, I arrived at the scene of a domestic-violence murder in front of the market formerly known as Albertson's. The woman was from Samak (which is Kamas spelled backwards -- it was the first time I learned that Utah fact) had been shot at point-blank range by her estranged husband. As the trial progressed I learned she had kept 20-years' worth of journals. Her mother gave them to me to read and write about. They were like "The Color Purple," the spelling was atrocious, and so was the grammar, but the writing was hauntingly beautiful.
Inside those journals I learned about her horrible life just a few miles from where I lived. And one of her stories was about the pen pals she had from around the world. It was her escape. She saved those beautiful stamps and letters and she stole coins from her husband's pockets to buy stamps. He wouldn't allow her to work out of the home and rarely allowed her out without him. The letters, which she kept writing until her life ended too soon (at age 42) allowed her a place to learn about worlds she would never visit. And she would receive little gifts of fabric bookmarks and return them with pressed flowers from her mountain home.
A few years ago I started attending a conference with a number of global participants. And I joined Facebook. Now, each morning as I listen to the songs from the birds in my garden, I look online and see the chatter of postings that have occurred over my night, which is often a friend's day. This threw me into the Middle East during the Arab Spring. In the Square during the uprising in Egypt. And this week, on the ground when the plane crashed in the Ukraine. Long before traditional news sources can confirm stories, the raw news feed is coming from citizen journalists, reporting with their ubiquitous cell phones. Taking raw footage of unfolding dramas and texting out dispatches from the edge... we are all journalists now. There are no pens involved with these pals. But words, and emotions and dreams pressed in glass like a summer mountain flower.
Last week I had my granddaughter, nearly 13, come up from Salt Lake City for a sleepover. She had texted me to ask if she could bring a friend up with her and, knowing her sweet friend, I said yes. She texted back a "thank you" filled with those creepy emoticon yellow-smiley faces. I had to laugh. Hardly a letter on fine stationary with carefully chosen words and flourishes in beautiful script but nonetheless a sincere and clear, emotional response.
The girls decided at some point in the evening-turned-night, to rent the movie "Ferris Bueller's Day Off." I remembered all too well when her father and aunt had watched that film with me for the first time, in a proper theater. And the exhilaration we all felt from the crazy kid who broke the rules and sprung himself, his girlfriend and his depressed friend from the norms of their manicured school lives to explore life outside the box. I wandered into the living-room-floor-camp a couple of times and caught a few scenes, including that iconic moment when Ferris says, facing the camera full on, "Life moves pretty fast. If you don't stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it."
When the girls leave the next day with my son, I am exhausted from our adventures of riding the Alpine Coaster and dinner at Billy Blanco's and the filling of every bird feeder in the yard. I pour a beverage and pull out the wide-armed, deep-seated, outdoor chair to the edge of my tiny wooden deck. I am drinking in the sunset when I hear a familiar "ping." I look over at my phone. There is a text from Iz thanking me for "the best day EVER!!!" (I hate multiple exclamation marks almost as much as yellow faces.) And in a few snippets of sentences, Ms. Iz proceeds to recap the fun we had. I set the phone back down. But hold onto the words and emotions like a brightly colored, pressed, mountain flower.
I guess I was meant to wait, until pens no longer were the preferred method of communication, to have such "pals." I am grateful for them all this Sunday in the Park...
Teri Orr is a former editor of The Park Record. She is the director of the organization that provides programming for the George S. and Dolores Doré Eccles Center for the Performing Arts.