This is all it takes: an email.
Most of us take our digital connectivity for granted. But, really, it's miraculous. And it can keep us together like no previous generation was able to manage. Facebookers know that. I’m not one. And now that Facebook has proven itself the enemy of democracy, the thief of time, and the depleter of self-esteem, I feel foresighted — and also, to be honest, that I missed out on a good thing.
Email is always reliably there. It's a private medium of permission, civility, reciprocity; something we control that doesn’t control us, unencumbered by the power-thirst of billionaires trying to convince us that we need look no deeper than what they offer on the scrolling surface. Email asks that we be somewhat thoughtful. So a mere thumbs-up, LOL, or dancing lizard GIF doesn't cut it. Lazy email is impolite. A waste of the miracle.
One day last February, I was especially thankful for the miracle of email after stumbling upon an amateurish social media platform called oldfriends.com. I can't remember how I got there. The site organizes registrants by high school and graduating year. And there, under my year (1973) at Richview Collegiate in Toronto’s west end, was a modest-sized list of fellow classmates.
Then my heart jumped. The list showed that my girlfriend from ages 16 to 22 had died in 2016. It read “unverified,” but it also showed “d” for deceased. I panicked. My face flushed. My pulse quickened. I immediately searched her name on Google to find an obituary, bracing for the stab of sadness.
And it was fake news. There she was in a YouTube video, recorded in 2017, speaking to a crowd about her work in the arts. She seemed to be the same principled, forward-striding girl I had loved as a youth, just four-and-a-half decades older.
So I sent her an email, hoping that her Hotmail address had not changed in the dozen years since I’d last used it. I told her I was relieved that she was still breathing. I told her a bit about my life, my wife, my children and grandchildren, and that it appeared she was having a full life, which, I said, I was always happy to know.
And five days later, thanks to email, the connection was complete. She sent news of her life, her husband, kids and grandchildren, and a few bits about mutual friends from long ago when we were innocents roaring around unsafely in boat-like automobiles through the manicured suburbs of Etobicoke while our parents (mine, anyway) blithely drank martinis in front of the television.
Now I want to send more emails to people I cared about, to dig up those I’ve lost touch with, to use this miraculous medium to make sure that the last time I saw them or heard from them won’t be the last time.
And not just news. Fond recollections. Hard-won insights. Queries about who they are and how they are getting along these days at this very different stage of life. And I expect that they will respond. When we show effort, it often comes back to us. I think we incite what we demonstrate.
Sure, it might not amount to much. “Hi, Good to hear from you. Take care.” But I'm going to think of it as a depth sounding — a signal is sent out, it finds the mark, and back comes a ping. I’m still here. It's good to hear from you after all these years. We had quite time, didn’t we?
I think it would be comforting for me to know where the pieces have landed and how they fit. Just looking at those names on that list of former classmates causes a minor flood of affection. I’d like to send them all depth-sounding emails. I'd be thrilled to receive their pings.
Is this nostalgia or a real and good human desire to gather our threads because it helps us make sense of the dream that is our past?
Or am I dreaming? Is the past better left as a neatly ordered box of sentimental affections?
I don't know. I'm going to find out.
I've heard this before from people arguing against the wondrous efficacy of email: "Most people aren't writers like you." That's true. Then again, I read this in the New York Times last Sunday and took heart:
We’re all writers now. We fling words out into the universe through text, email, Facebook and more. Even people who hate writing have to do it, because you need to text your husband back, write your boss a condolence note and do better on Tinder than “hey.”
So, you are a writer after all.