In my day there wasn’t such a bountiful array of opportunities for meeting people. Personal ads were viewed as an expression of the desperate. Writing such an ad is a nearly impossible challenge of language. Each word is loaded with presumptions, word by word the ad writer becomes ‘that kind of person.’
According to a book by H.G. Cocks titled, “Classified: The Secret History of the Personal Column,” it was in the first part of the 1700’s that the personal ad appeared. It’s hard to imagine a time when you were considered past your best if you were still unwed at the age of 21. By the 1920’s, those that did advertise often described themselves as bohemian or unconventional. These ads were considered a little seedy and many contained coded messages for those interested in less mainstream activities. Advertising for pen pals or correspondents for lonely soliders was the norm but not so for someone seeking a spouse. It wasn’t until the late 1960’s that police stopped prosecuting lonely hearts advertisers.
We live in times of greater freedom of expression but nevertheless, personal ads hide as much as they reveal. I once had cause to write an ad for a pen pal organisation. It sounds hilariously old fashioned now, inspiring an image of ladies writing tables, hooped skirts and smelling salts for delicate dispositions. It was in fact 1985 and the small pen pal magazine was published quarterly. I had a desire to travel that was unfulfilled and time to spare - a pen pal seemed an appropriate alternative. I laboured for a week over my ad, agonising over every word. How to write something that wasn’t bland or passé, succinct, truth in it’s best light and relying on two things; one, knowledge of myself and what was good for me and two, my ability to convey this?
Possibly it seems ridiculously easy, but here are some sentences, all true, that I could have written at the time:
I enjoy delving into the unknown, going anywhere by motorcycle, making my own rules, question poor authority, fantasise about adventurous travel, and possess an unconventional sense of humour and attitude to life. I love children, animals, walking on the beach, nature, collecting shells, going to the cinema, spending time with the elderly and dining out. I am impatient, have a tendency to throw cups when I lose it, bite my nails, wear black far too much, like the occult, can be challenging, untidy and intense. All of those sentences were accurate at the time but convey very different parts of my younger self. Writing a personal ad requires you to be a writer, editor but also a reader.
I eventually settled on something and it seemed to work, in that I got a lot of responses. Too many responses really. Only men replied and most commented on how exciting I sounded. I wondered if I had communicated myself well and what assumptions were being made. It was also evident that a few weren’t looking for pen pals but rather everything from lover to wife and in one case, a ticket out of a country. A man from India professed in his second letter, a karmic love for me that bridged lifetimes and wooed me accordingly. Amongst his amorous protestations he mentioned how fantastic it would be to visit Canada. After sorting the wheat from the chaff I was left with two possibilities; one called Tim who seemed kind, thoughtful and funny with some similar interests and another, Matthew, who stated that he wrote feverishly, loved women in all their expressions and the occult of a benign nature. I sent my responses via the magazine box number and so began an interesting correspondence.
Over time, I discovered that Tim lived within an hour from me. It wasn’t the cultural exchange I had hoped for but still we wrote, sharing a similar context. In all his letters he was articulate, confident, gentle and over nine months we got to know each other quite well, or so we thought. As we lived within driving distance of each other, he suggested we meet. After much indecision we arranged to get together in a well known family restaurant. Although neither of us had started with this intention, not that we would admit it, we were now wondering if there could be more? Timing is always important. With letters going back and forth each week (real letters written by hand and eagerly ripped open), we knew we liked each other. It seemed like the right time to meet.
Without an exchange of photos, we agreed we would each be carrying a certain newspaper for the purpose of recognition. I was painfully nervous, didn’t see anyone with the agreed newspaper and it didn’t help that I was a few minutes late. Circling the restaurant, I was on the second loop when an unlikely guy said my name as I passed. I noticed the newspaper on the seat next to him, his beige golfing jacket, nervous smile and unremarkable features. We both pretended not to be surprised by what we saw, each wrestling with the gap between imagination and reality. Over the next hour or so I just could not put together the Tim of the letter and this real 3-D version. What had seemed sensitive and gentle now seemed wishy washy and passive. His humour wasn’t so apparent and conversation was stilted. In writing, every word can be considered or erased before being sent. It’s possible to take time, re read and edit, creating the impression you wish. For the reader, invariably imagination takes over; it’s almost impossible not to make assumptions. Soldiering on, we gave it 60 minutes and then I pleaded another commitment. A few letters passed between us after that but by silent and mutual agreement, we let it go.
I don’t know if I would be as hasty now, probably not. I am well aware of how nerves can warp a person, first impressions are not everything and I do not judge so quickly these days. The transition between one type of relationship and another is very challenging and can easily destroy something good. There is wisdom in appreciating what you have and not trying to make it ‘more.’ This lesson was acquired in part with my second pen pal, Matthew. Over time I found out Matthew lived in Italy, in Vatican City specifically. Most exceptionally, he was as he described himself. He was also an American Jesuit Priest, responsible for specific Vatican archives, research and was compiling information for various reports.
There is so much I could say about Matthew. He was erudite, sensitive and very sensual, inquisitive, could be naïve and worldly, spiritual, literary, beautifully expressive and a source of great interest to me. We corresponded for over 10 years, shared highs and lows, discussed ideas and debated the significant and the mundane, exchanged photos and feelings, experiences, hopes and dreams. There was 25 years between us – my youth harbouring an old soul compared to his older, sheltered naïveté. For many years it went on in this way and we both grew from the exchange. This is the greatest advantage of remote communication – it can be very personal if you wish but it’s in your hands entirely.
Four years had brought considerable change to my life and I was now living in Scotland. That summer, Matthew’s work would take him to London and he wanted to meet. There is certainly a story within a story but for the purpose of this piece, we met. We had a generous part of a week together although Matthew also needed to work. I will never forget the first day, the day that very nearly sent me home. He looked as I expected, much like his photos only a little older, with salt and pepper hair. In my mind he was a European gentleman, a Renaissance man – his accent didn’t match this image though. Assumptions and expectation are destructive, they crush what could be and make everything a disappointment. That is what I felt that first day amongst other things.
We walked many miles and talked and his familiar words now animated seemed almost combative. We sparred, drawn to making points and defending our positions. After four years I found I didn’t like him very much. Upon parting, we agreed to meet the next day but I wrestled with leaving early all that night. The morning brought a resolution; with what it had taken to get there I decided to endure another day. It was one of the most memorable days of my life. It’s hard to say what shifted within us overnight. For me, I gave up all expectations and put my disappointment behind me. I didn’t care anymore and therefore relaxed and felt there was nothing to lose. I was unguarded and was able to perceive what I had not been able to see – this was the same extraordinary man I had grown to like very much.
That day language conveyed a different meaning. It was more than the simple descriptions in an ad and soared beyond the eloquent words in our letters too. It connected us, opening up a deeper, more powerful communication that was wordless. As Herman Hesse said, “Words do not express thoughts very well. They always become a little different immediately after they are expressed, a little distorted, a little foolish.” (from “Siddhartha”)
Yet still, there are people out there in the world right now, meeting for the first time, people having conversations and arguments and each one trying to communicate something. In the chaos and misunderstanding, it’s our desire to do it at all that makes it so beautiful.
© S. Marian, May 1, 2012