On Bad Pen Pals, Loneliness and How We Keep in Touch


I’m working on a chapter called “Bad Pen Pal.” It’s going to be chapter 13 in The Saltwater Twin—or maybe chapter 12. The impetus for some chapters is a story, for others an idea. The flicker for this one was friendship. I wanted to write something about how we learn to make friends and how intense friendships can be when you’re young. I wanted to write about the heartbreak of losing a friend and the less intense but still potentially ache-inducing drift that sometimes comes with time and distance. I wanted to describe the way some lost friendships still weigh on me at times, keep me wondering where and how and why we foundered.

The title comes from the first time I lost touch with a friend. I was eight. Actually, my friendship with Bonnie never truly got off the ground. We spent one day together, while our fathers attended a conference. Bonnie lived in a different state, but she suggested we stay friends. We could be pen pals. I liked the sound of that. It sounded exotic to have a pen pal. I liked how letters were little packages. I liked that my name and address printed on the front meant that it would come to my house, of all the houses in the United States, all the houses in the world; it would come to me. I liked the marvelous way envelopes were sealed with spit, their folded triangles, the magical canceled stamp. But the content of Bonnie’s letters left me unmoved—maybe because we just didn’t know each other that well. We hadn’t any history. I recently discovered I have one still in my possession, a Christmas card that reads,

I miss you a lot! Please send me a picture of you! How have you been? I have been fine. My cat got hit by a car and lived for a half of an hour after that! Have a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year! Did you get my last letter? On your next letter, tell me if you got the Christmas card letter. (that is this letter.) I have to go bye bye.
Love, Bonnie your pen pal
P.S. If you lost my address it is: [address follows]


What I gather from this remnant of Bonnie’s and my failed correspondence is that I was already delinquent in my half of the bargain, since she worried I’d lost her address. Also that Bonnie liked exclamation points and maybe was not so torn up about the demise of the family pet. I kept meaning to write back, but I don’t think I ever did, and though I guess I didn’t hang on to it, I remember getting a goodbye letter from Bonnie saying she didn’t understand why I didn’t want to be her pen pal. Looking back I wonder if I was the subject of conversation at Hines’ family dinners, if Bonnie’s dad thought his colleague had a heartless daughter.

Since Bonnie, I’ve been guilty more than once of being a bad pen pal. I’m generally a terrible correspondent and have a difficult time maintaining friendships over time and distance. People who were central to my life are no longer in it save for Facebook. I couldn’t find Bonnie there, but I think I found her Pinterest board. She likes a coffee table that was in Real Simple.

Keep in touch: In seventh grade Monica Hazlett scrawled it in the margin next to her picture, beside which she’d penned the word “Gross!” with an arrow pointing to her face. Several girls that year wrote, “Keep in touch” in my yearbook. I remember being confused by this. Girls who had deigned to speak to me only when they wanted to copy my homework or tell a joke I wouldn’t get and laugh at my not getting it wrote, “K.I.T!” with their phone number below or in some cases, like Monica, “U R 2 Cute 2 B 4gotten!”

When I bump into someone (in the grocery store or on that weird backwards telescope known as Facebook) who effuses, “It’s so great to see you. We should get coffee/wine/pie,” I feel that same seventh grade mistrust. Keep in touch is a thing people say. It’s phatic speech, like “How are you?” It doesn’t seek or require a response.

I’ve looped back to this chapter several times; the subject has proved difficult to parse. It’s somewhat maddeningly chicken-and-egg. Am I trying to find the stories from my life—like the ones about Bonnie and Monica—that illustrate what I’m trying to say about friendship, or am I trying to figure out what I have to say about the stories from my life? Not that stories should have tidy little morals. I’m not fond of “life lesson” style writing.

Still, I want to learn something. I’ve been reading books and articles on friendship by psychologists and sociologists (there are experts on everything!), who report that friends may help you live longer and that the average length of a friendship is seven years. I’ve also read about the flip side of friendship—loneliness—in a really interesting memoir called, appropriately, Lonely, by Emily White. I realized, reading White’s story, that I’d been a lonely kid—something readers may have inferred from that seventh grade story but that had never dawned on me before.

There’s something in chapter 12—or 13—that I’m going to figure out. Something hidden within my own stories about friends found and lost. Something about friendship and loneliness and connection. About bad pen pals and keeping in touch.

photo by Amanda Venner
photo by Amanda Venner

14 thoughts on “On Bad Pen Pals, Loneliness and How We Keep in Touch

  1. Can’t wait to read The Saltwater Twin. I, too, struggle with friendship. As a child, we moved around a lot. I made friends but then always had to leave them behind. I still keep in touch with a best friend from 4th grade and one from 5th grade. We just got together for lunch in December. I find that I usually cut ties with people before they leave. A defense mechanism, I suppose.


    1. Lucky you to have two friends from back then! That’s pretty impressive. I, too, have set friends adrift and then wondered if it was the right thing to do. Trying these days to tolerate some uncertainty in relationships, some ebb and flow. Not my forte!


  2. Interesting and good post. Friendships are built through having common experiences, facing common obstacles, enjoying common events, getting to know each others deeper thoughts. My high school friendships are still the best. I still connect with two or three office friends (female and male), but not many. Some have many friends, others like me only a few. Some are more “loners”, others are more extrovert. Friendship is a highly personal matter. If you don’t have many, it’s probably because that’s the way you are, and that may also be the reason that you lost some. Keep the one or two that count. – John http://johnschwartzauthor.com


  3. Hi Maia,
    I really enjoyed your piece on the challenges of friendship, new and past. We can be made more whole by our friendships or feel the guilt that comes from not maintaining those relationships that are important to us. Hank and I are looking forward to a Marquette reunion with many of his college friends this summer in South Carolina. Most of the group has kept in touch regularly and we have enjoyed several gatherings over the years, but this year several people we have not been in contact with are joining us. I trust the newly connected will fit in well with the regulars.
    Your writing continues to give me great pleasure and pride. Best of luck with current research and writing.
    I am in Madrid for this month helping Mary Kate out with her four week old twins. I am happy to be of support, but am missing my best friend of all back home in cold New Hampshire.
    Take care,


    1. What I find interesting is that I (and probably most people) have friends or groups of friends who correspond to certain periods or places in our lives–a convergence of geographic, social and/or circumstantial factors that unite us and enable us to form a bond. Some friends are boomerangs, they go away and come back years later; other are ephemeral, either because paths and priorities diverged (e.g. moves, marriage, parenthood, eldercare) and the things you had in common are no longer front and center in your lives, or due to some sort of deliberate estrangement. Maybe, I’ve thought, some friends have a specific purpose in your life at a certain time.

      I also recall the days of the neat package of the written letter/envelope–it was something generally to look forward to or be happily surprised by upon its arrival. It was personalized, if not stylized, down to the handwriting. I wrote letters then–long tendrils of thoughts which meandered and grazed like sheep out to pasture, while somehow providing an update of what was front and center in my life (the injustices of Chemistry class, etc.). When I consider what time and effort I put into them, as opposed to the instantaneous text-by-device of today, it seems to me that communications today, while more frequent, are more superficial. That’s neither a positive or negative comment–simply a sign of the times, or lack of time. Does that then enable us to have more friends or maintain friendships more superficially or to retain more distant contacts if we can “like” something on social networks with minimal effort?

      And for some of us, friends can be more family than family….


      1. I certainly agree about the friends as family. There have been friendships that felt almost destined–like we were meant to meet. (Even though I don’t really believe in that sort of thing, that’s how it’s felt.) But I also think we have a collective cultural fantasy of a tight knit group of friends that acts as family that, in my experience anyway, isn’t always as long lived as it’s portrayed. Maybe it’s more like your groups of friends that correspond to a certain time and place but don’t necessarily extend beyond that.


    2. Susan, thank you so much for sharing your thoughts! Madrid and baby twins sounds like a winning combination. Hope you’re having a wonderful time. xo


  4. Cultivating and the art of  maintaining friends  has always been a favorite subject of mine. I am reading your blog this morning just as I am in the process of leaving for work so excuse me for not taking more time to consider this important and highly  personal matter further. I have found that e nduring friendships invariably require time, effort, and a willingness to take risks, such as risking oneself in terms sharing oneself with another. And in this matter I always try to remember never underestimate how much others are eager to hear and care about what you have to say.

    I miss you



    1. Thank you for taking the time to share your thoughts, Hank! I agree, friendship demands taking risks, at all stages of the relationship. I like what you say about others being eager to hear what you have to say–it’s a good reminder. Miss you, too. We will have to chat soon.


  5. Mighty Maia,

    Pen pals strikes a familiar chord with me – as part of a sister cities exchange in the 90s, I organized an elaborate student pen pal exchange with Pittsburgh’s sister cities with 6 counties…Novokuznetsk, Russia, Donetsk, Ukraine, Charleroi, Belgium, Sheffield, England, Port Elizabeth, South Africa and San Isidro, Nicaragua. I still get reports from folks (friends of my son and daughter who were a part of the project) – about the continued contact that the letters inspired. I think the farther away the contact the more the interest – driven by the exotic allure of a package from far away.

    I eagerly jumped on a few connections – taking my kids (and soccer teams) on trips to see their pals first hand and inviting same here for extended homestays. Terrific influence on my kids as travel is often but the kids
    writing back and forth primed the pump!


  6. Funny I should read this now…. I have been thinking a ton about you. Just want to say hi and send you a big hug! Hopefully we can catch up soon!


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