geraldine brooks   The Vanishing Pleasure of Awaiting a Letter  
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  You've got mail! exclaims the cheery automaton at America Online. The flag on the mailbox icon waves invitingly on my computer screen. For a second, I'm 10 years old again, waiting for the postmam's whistle to slice the stillness of an Australian afternoon.

I would run down the drive to the yellow mailbox on a post by the privet hedge. It was metal, hot to the touch in tbe strong Sydney sun, with a rusty hinge that whined and groaned as I opened it.

Toc-tic. A barely audible click retrieves my e-mail. I scan the few sentences: instant answers to half-baked questions, or written equivalents of a hasty wave. The insistent "REPLY" icon encourages a response in kind: Do it now, get it over with.

I tap out the last part of a friend's e-mail address -- It gives me no image of where he is. All it tells me is that cyberspace is no place, the realm of the senseless.

The envelopes in my yellow mailbox had blurred postmarks inking the edges of intriguing stamps: Maplewood, NJ.; Netanya, Israel; Visp, Switzerland. The names transported me to landscapes that didn't exist in my corner of the world. As I lifted the letters from the box, mirages of fall foliage, winding souks and alpine crags shimmered off the concrete driveway.

Not long ago, I found those old letters in a tea chest in the basement of my parents' Australian home. Their friable pages, held together by withered rubber bands, contained a fossile record of my past. The letters reintroduced me to people I had been -- the shy little girl and the longing adolescent that my adult self no longer knew.

When those letters arrived, I lived in a very small world. Sydney in the 1960s wasn't the exuberant multicultural metropolis it is today. Out in the city's western reaches, days passed in a sun-struck stupor. In the evenings, families gathered on their verandas waiting for the "southerly buster" -- the thunderstorm that would break the heat and leave the air cool enough to allow sleep.

I was waiting, too. Waiting for something to happen, and wishing that I lived in a place where something did. At school history books were filled with tales of elsewhere. I read British poets, struggling to imagine what "frost" looked like. I hummed television theme songs about Daniel Boone "who fought for America to make all Americans free."

At 10, I received a letter from a girl named Nell Campbell who lived on the other side of Sydney, in a very different social world. Writing to her expanded my view beyond the gates of my tiny Catholic girls' school, where we were trauled for lives as mothers, teachers, nurses or nuns. Nell's fancy private academy encouraged far grander and more eccentric ambitions. Nell's goal was to star "in musical comedy" and, years later, she did -- tap dancing her way into "The Rocky Horror Picture Show."

Nell taught me that it was possible to write to strangers and have them write back, and so I gradually widened my world, waiting for letters from all the places where I imagined history happened and culture came from.

For 15 years, my pen-pal correspondence crisscrossed oceans. I was still too shy to say hello to the boy next door, but I fantasized about marrying my Israel pen pal and going off to live with him on a kibbutz. And yet it was a young Arab whose gentle, reflective letters eventually touched my heart. And the small, slow details of life described by a pen pal in rural France gradually taught me that Sydney wasn't quite the cultural backwater I'd always imagined. Joannie, whose New Jersey address I found in the Mr. Spock Fan Club newsletter, became my soul mate. We grew up together, thousands of miles apart, discovering our politics in a common opposition to the Vietnam War and our fragile new sexuality in shared confidences about first loves.

Waiting for those letters was almost as important as receiving them. In the long weeks it took for a letter to cross an ocean, I would create my own fantasies of my pen pals' lives. At different times, I put Joannie's father in the CIA, sent Israeli Cohen off to war against Arab Mishal, had Janine encounter Chagall as he sketched by the Cote d'Azur.

Fnding those old letters gave me back my girlish self and her fevered fantasy world. I'd forgotten that I once knew how to say "Live Long and Prosper" in the original Vulcan. And that I called myself by the hideous nickname "Gez." I'd left Gez far behind, but Joannie's letters retrieve her. She is a bundle of adolescent awkwardness. The wires on her braces have cut her inner cheek. She slumps on the sofa, holding a strand of ponytail up to the light, scanning for split ends.

America Online tells me I can have an e-mail pen pal. There is a rich menu of countries to choose from. But when I go looking under Afghanistan, there are no names listed. The same goes for Iran, Iraq, even high-tech Israel. Instead, I go in search of someone like I used to be. I find Heidi, a 10 year-old ice skater who "would like someone in Australia but wouldn't mind America, France, England or in Hawaii, Tahiti, Tasmania or New Zealand OR ANYWHERE IN THE WORLD."

I hope Heidi finds both kindred spirits and alien souls. But outside this country, e-mail remains a conversation among the world's elite. Her pen friendships won't bridge the chasms of First World and Third, of wealth and class. If PCs had been around in the '60s, Joannie in Maplewood might have had one, but the humble circumstances of my Arab, Israel and French pen pals wouldn't have afforded such a luxury.

I would like to tell Heidi to try letter writing as well, that the immediacy of e-mail -- something that would have appealed to me as an impatient child -- is also the very thing that will cheat her. It was the anticipation, the waiting and dreaming, that made my pen pals' letters so much more precious to me.

I'd also advise her to save her e-mails so that her adult self can revisit them one day. Photographs in a family album might tell her what she looked like. But old letters are echoes of our childhood voices. They tell us who we were.

This essay originally appeared in the Washington Post.

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Copyright © 1997 Geraldine Brooks.