16 Oct Special delivery
When I was in elementary school I had a pen pal. I remember having a pen pal but I don’t remember writing to that pen pal. I remember receiving letters and post cards, and had every intention of writing back but there were bikes to write, Barbies to play with and Full House to watch.
Fast forward a few years, there’s a PC in our family room, we’d just barely transitioned from dial-up to cable Internet. I was still constantly afraid that my mom would pick up the phone and I’d lose my internet connection. I set up a Hotmail account (which I still check occasionally but it’s full of email updates from the Dave Matthews Band), and an Angelfire Blog. That blog and that email address led to MSN Messenger, Live Journal and a string of defunct blogs. When food bloggers started getting famous and landing cookbook deals I imagined being one of them. Except I had to go to high school and then university and then worked shitty minimum wage jobs and partied more than I wrote for my blog.
I became very adept and meeting people and communicating online, and now this has become the primary way I engage the world. There are those that lament the shift of the world from in-person to online, but for those of us who often felt outside or unsafe, online could be a place to find community. Let me point out the obvious, the Internet is in many ways toxic and dangerous, death and rape threats are launched at women and members of the LGBTQ2S+ and/or BIPOC community daily, maybe even hourly. It was never really “safe” on the Internet if you were marginalized, just like it’s never been safe in public if you’re marginalized, but there are also opportunities for connection, community and real friendship.
Maybe it’s that on the Internet, for better or worse, you can curate the community you’ve always wanted to be part of. Of course, the thing with building community is that you get out of it what you put into it. It’s like any relationship, you have to be there, be present in a meaningful way in order for it to embrace you and to be there for you.
When I decided to transition away from freelance journalism to writing and then doing my MFA, it wasn’t just that I wanted to learn to be a better writer, and to expand my skills, I wanted to feel a part of something, I wanted to find people who I had things in common with. Of course I have that IRL, but the truth is, lots of those folks are writers too or at least lovers of books and writing.
Today I opened my mail box and found a unicorn and donut wrapped book from Isabella Wang. (Truth, this is not just any book this is a signed copy of her book of poetry Pebble Swing, that was just published by Nightwood Editions.). Like many of the writers I have gotten to know over the past five or so years, I’ve never met Isabella IRL. I’ve been lucky to share virtual space with her, to celebrate her successes to laugh at her lovely sense of humour. And Isabella is just one of many folks — writers and lovers of books — who I’ve felt community with, because of the Internet.
I’m still horrible at replying to texts in a timely fashion. I spent way too much time on my phone. I scroll and scroll and scroll. But the Internet, for all of it’s dark corners and wasted space, is a place where I’ve found friends. I wonder sometimes if I’d actually bothered to reply to any of the letters from my pen pal, if we’d now be sending emails back and forth. Maybe I’d be liking pictures of her garden or her cat. But I can’t even remember her name, and likely she was given a new pen pal because I was irresponsible with her communication and kindness. Where ever she is I hope that she’s found people who surround her with joy, who celebrate her successes and laugh at her quirky sense of humour.