Remember being a child or a teenager and having a pen pal? Remember engaging in a letter exchange (as in a handwritten, pen on paper kind of letter exchange) with someone from another part of the world or from another part of your country, and experiencing the excitement of receiving letters with colourful stamps decorating the envelopes and sheets of handwritten paper (maybe embellished with small drawings and maybe with photos enclosed)?
Perhaps you are not as old as me, and perhaps such pen pals are a blast from the past, but I sure remember my childhood pen pals. For years I exchanged letters with a boy from Seoul, Korea. I was matched up with him by my teacher, and we wrote long letters to each-other in English (about what I don’t remember exactly, but probably about our lives and cultural differences) and we exchanged photos. An then suddenly it stopped. I wonder what happened to him?
I also had a pen pal from southern Denmark (a girl from a small town called Vojens; I can’t believe I actually remember that, because I don’t remember her name). We were also paired by our teachers, and encourage to engage in a written, ongoing conversation, and we too wrote letters for years, exchanged photos and even met a few times. I forgot why we stopped our conversation, but sitting in my room listening to music and writing those letters is a fond memory of mine, and receiving responses from her even fonder.
The slowness of that kind of conversation holds a distinctive beauty. The beauty of anticipation, of not knowing when the answer will arrive (and what the answer will hold), and of course the letter-writing process itself. I recall the satisfaction of folding my handwritten pages, and perhaps adding small drawings, a photo, clippings from a magazine or maybe a dried flower, and then closing and sealing the envelope and writing the address of my receiver in my neatest letters (not the easiest task for me; my handwriting has always been messy and big).
Anyway, before getting totally lost in sentimentalising my past letter-writing adventures, let’s move to the actual topic of this post: my new conversational project Whatever Lasts with my friend Isabelle McAllister.
I met Isabelle back in 2018, when we both moved to Bali with our families. We quickly discovered that we share a passion for a bunch of things, like wearing our clothes for as long as possible (at times beyond a point of embarrassing shabbiness) – and repairing them in fun ways, if possible – reading books on sustainable living as well as philosophical novels, listening to podcasts on anything from cultural dogmas to sustainable solutions and new technology, slow living and (barefooted) nature romanticism, and uncultivated, rewilded living and education.
Around half a year ago Isabelle and I started a written conversation. Not handwritten, but a dialogue in the shape of emails (which according to my teenage son is almost an as ancient form of communication as actual letter writing).
We started our email-correspondence much like a classic pen-pal thing – except we already know each other, of course. But besides from that, pretty pen-palish in the sense that we agreed to engage in good old-fashioned written communication: longer than text messages and no voice-memos. And, in the sense that the conversation takes place from two far-apart places: Stockholm, Sweden and Bali, Indonesia.
I was excited about this conversation from the beginning, because there is nothing like a good discussion about topics that you are deeply engaged in. Especially when your discussion partner, like Isabelle, is a master at leading you to new angles on these topics and guiding you to look into a bunch of inspiring articles/podcasts/books. And, I have already received so many fun, thought-provoking, intriguing responses from her that I am feeling that good old pen pal thrill: when will the next letter arrive in my inbox?
Recently we decided to start posting our correspondence on Instagram. Mainly due to the fact that our communication quickly started evolving into a culture-critical, anti-capitalistic, nature-romanticising debate that we are longing to get others’ input on. Because, honestly, we agree so much on these topics that a healthy dose of critique might do the discussion some good.
So, we hope you will join us in this ongoing written communication that we have decided to call Whatever Lasts. The beauty of it now taking place on social media is also that is has allowed for us to add photos and videoclips to our letters (which makes it feel almost like my bygone pen pal letters with enclosed magazine clippings, photos and dried flowers).
2 thoughts on “Whatever Lasts: Ongoing conversation with Isabelle McAllister”
Kristine, As always a huge pleasure to read you. It is strange that you talk about penpals because just the other day I spoke about it with my family. I used to have many penpals and I so enjoyed writing letters and receiving them. It was so much part of my being and way of socialising that I decided to take it up again and write a Christmas and New Years letter in december 2021 and post it to my friends all around the world. It was so nice to write it, lick the envelope and the stamps on it. I must have posted over 50 letters ! As you now, I homeschool my boys and one of the things I want to transmit it just that : penpals and handwritten letters. I take it as an exercise in English and Swedish. They write about a subject (the book they have read, the fish they have seen, the films they have seen, their dreams etc..) and instead of writing about it in a notebook, they write to penpals. And they practice their handwriting skills which seem to be long lost skill in this digital generation. We have done it for 3 years now . Unfortunately, it has not picking up the way we had expected it to. Are we part of a lost era ? Do we live in the past ? Difficult to say. The new generation seems to be too quick and does not want to take the time to wait. We will continue some of the letter writing with family members and I hope this penpal experience will have given my boys a glimpse of a different way of communicating. I hope they carry that with them in their lives which is dominated by electronic devices. Love Aruna
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Thank you for your lovely comment. It is indeed difficult to pass on the beauty of slowness and the joy of anticipation – as well as the aesthetic nourishment that is a part of receiving (and creating) a handwritten letter. Maybe the key is making it feel relevant to them? I guess in a world where you can press a bottom and your message immediately reaches your receiver, going through the slow and troublesome process of writing by hand and of going to a postoffice and even risking your message getting lost on the way (I have experienced this a few times, even once when sending you a small package and letter years back) can be hard to embrace. I am also trying to encourage my boys to write letters, but have not really managed to get them engaged in communicating in this way with friends and family in Europe. However, I do manage to catch their interest, when my mum or one of my friends from Denmark sends a handwritten letter or card with something small and magical enclosed; like dried flowers or a drawing or newspaper clippings (my mum always does this) or perhaps old photos. I think this makes them understand than this oldschool way of communicating holds one important element that electronic mail cannot replace; the direct, tangible (even fragrant) connection between the hands of the sender and the hands of the receiver that is embodied in such small treasures. This kind of connection is valuable and might even feel relevant to new generations. Hope you are well, my friend. Sending you los of love, Kristine