I see that you wrote me an email, from the return address on the list of messages in my inbox.
My heart begins to beat faster, a smile dawns on my inner self. My facial muscles remain stationary as my fingers go through the motions as they have done so many times. They could do it in the dark, in their sleep.
I click on your name and open up the email. My hopes continue to soar, upward, ever upward. Then, suddenly, there is a new, unpredictable gust from the cold North wind that catches them up, wrenching them from their heavenward trajectory, and soon they are falling, falling, falling. Really falling. No, catapulting. They plummet even more rapidly than they rose–for they didn’t dare to become themselves for so long–like a balloon deflating. This balloon is on the opposite course from the one my friend–a seventy-something little boy–lets loose once a week outside of Wegman’s, which offers free balloons for “children” if you get there early enough on Saturday or Sunday mornings. My friend’s balloon rises up into the ether. Between shopping for the food he will cook into a meal for his wife of some four or more decades, as though for a first dinner to woo her, and returning to their home a grown-up man, he takes a moment for himself and his balloon, never tiring of the activity. He stands and watches it go, feet planted until it is out of sight. And I stand, feet planted, watching him, until he no longer sees it. He turns to me, remnants of an enchanted, transported state fading in his smile, and we say goodbye.
My balloon, the one that seemed, like his, destined for celestial climes, took a serious nosedive. Why? Because of email.
My eyes took in the opened message. There were letters there. And words. And those words formed themselves into sentences, and those sentences into a message.
But where were you?
You claimed to be there. There was your name in my inbox. There is your name signing off after the message.
But were you really there?
If you were, the words hurt me deeply. If you weren’t, or only part of you was there, they don’t need to hurt so much, if at all.
So as you see, quite a lot was at stake for me. My balloon could have been a contender: it could have continued skyward as in my friend’s weekly reverie. But it popped.
Email can be–is–a scourge. Elsewhere I have tried, joining those other braver souls, to look at the bright side. May I leave that activity for another post, by me or my friend and fellow blogger Michael, whose eloquent posts give me new hope?
For today I feel bereft and wish to capture this moment, in all of its damaging splendor. After all, if hope is to become itself, it must know what it is hoping for, and we usually (maybe always) find that from grasping fully the world we have lost, the one we lack, the one we mourn.
Is email a replacement of letters or use of the human voice (as over the phone or in person)? If we are to give ourselves over to a whole new technology, shouldn’t we have some clarity on that? I am using email to refer to all of the (fairly) new electronic communications technologies our society, and a growing portion of the rest of the world, has embraced. Do we not owe it to ourselves to hold it up against traditions, customs, practices, genres, forms we employed in the past, and sometimes still do today? Are we so hell-bent on the new that we don’t have the time or patience to honor the way things have been done before, and done well? Our very existence might be rather clear evidence of their worth. They worked. They sustained life. We are here.
Now we throw off all we have inherited without a thought. Will electronic connections sustain us? Or are we seeing human bonds dissolving before our eyes?
Back to your email.
My mind puts all of the pieces together and tries to take in the message as a whole, as one. Imagine how complicated the process is, how many microscopic body parts were recruited to pass on how many fragmentary bits of information. How many tributaries were traveled, bridges crossed, rivers forded? How many filaments were thrown out? How many caught? How many tried but found no place to catch, like Whitman’s “noiseless, patient spider” throwing out filament after filament? How many didn’t even dare try, languishing in the absence of hope?
All that in the past, the message coalesced. Is this what we call understanding? If so, isn’t that glorifying it a bit? Can a process that involves so many hits, and so many misses, really be considered anything like communication? Do we really believe that one idea or feeling can be conveyed from one person to another and arrive in a form that is anything like what was intended? From place of origin to destination, so much gets lost, never to be seen again. And if that isn’t bad enough, on the receiving end, our minds not only grasp hold of all kinds of filaments that weren’t even coming from the sender in question, but they are capable of imagining all manner of new threads, verily calling them into existence. We make them up. While many voices have rightly praised human invention, one must admit there is a darker side to this uncanny ability we have. Just think how much trouble it gets us in.
That complicated process having taken place, I am now brought to my knees by your–if indeed it was from you–message. I “cry me a river.” Why?
(1) It wasn’t what I expected? No, not that. I tried to guess, but we can never entirely predict the mind and heart of another. Besides, we can adjust to pleasant surprises in a split second. Something unexpected isn’t always a bad thing.
(2) It wasn’t what I wanted to hear. Yes, that. Adding to the difficulty of the whole endeavor, not just communicating but attempting any relation in the first place, we put in the vacant space that should be awaiting the message another pre-formed message that the new message must then try to unseat. Sometimes we even have multiple messages already cramming that room, as if an entire Roman legion were taking its refreshment within our four little walls, an army against which one foot soldier has hardly a chance of being heard.
What exactly did I want to read in that email? The details change but the particulars of one fade into the next, don’t they? Something suggesting that we are connected, closely, intimately, uniquely, even ultimately. Something to stave off the cosmic loneliness. Something implying you had understood my own messages I had relayed in the past with such care for you, for how you might experience it; every such message a request for connection, for closeness, for that human warmth that alone makes life worth living. That most humbling of requests: for love.
If it had been a letter, there would have been other real-world signs that might have assisted me in gleaning what you were thinking or feeling. If it had been a phone call, you might have heard the catch in my voice upon your first couple of sentences and you might have immediately disabused me of any false understandings, any negative reading of a positive intention. Best of all, if you had told me in person what you had to say, there might have been a look in your eye, a touch on the arm, a gentle, sacred embrace.
With email, all is leveled, made uniform.
I feel my balloon rising an almost imperceptible measure. It could have been anyone’s message. Email is just cold plastic and metal conduits of virtual filaments conveyed by digitization running by the tapping and clicking of our unthinking digits.
The message might not have been from you after all. After all, you weren’t anywhere to be found. Maybe you will communicate something further another way. Maybe then, with one less obstacle in the way of my gleaning the content of your message, we might have a chance.
A Noiseless Patient Spider
A noiseless patient spider,
I mark’d where on a little promontory it stood isolated,
Mark’d how to explore the vacant vast surrounding,
It launch’d forth filament, filament, filament, out of itself,
Ever unreeling them, ever tirelessly speeding them.
And you O my soul where you stand,
Surrounded, detached, in measureless oceans of space,
Ceaselessly musing, venturing, throwing, seeking the spheres to connect them,
Till the bridge you will need be form’d, till the ductile anchor hold,
Till the gossamer thread you fling catch somewhere, O my soul.
-By Elisabeth Lasch-Quinn