On an otherwise ordinary Thursday evening at the end of July, I found myself rolling a carry-on bag through a bustling Chicago airport to catch a flight to California. A common enough scenario for many people, but certainly not for someone who had last traveled to the west coast on her own over four decades ago. Was it scary, strange and surreal? A big "yes" to all that! But what set the experience apart even more, is that it came about due to an outpouring of extraordinary kindness from unexpected quarters.
Before the Internet existed, the best way to make friends in distant places was through the art of letter writing. As a person who equally loved making new friends and writing, sharing my life with pen pals (that's what we were known as back then) was a natural choice. My pen pals and I would not only share letters but also photos and sometimes even gifts at holidays. I can still remember excitedly waiting for the mail to arrive each day because there might be a card, a letter or even a package for me! Where my family and school friends left off, my pen pals stepped in. Often, I found myself feeling closer to people on the other side of the globe than I did to those with whom I interacted daily. I now have a better understanding of why that was the case. It was not about the quantity of time I shared with people face-to-face -- but the quality of sharing I did with people heart-to-heart.
So why, in telling the story of my recent journey to California, do I find myself reminiscing about my long ago letter writing? It is because in both cases, I found myself embarking on adventures that would not have taken place had I not first taken a leap of faith and authentically opened my life to others. Of course it is a gamble and certainly, along the way, I have had my share of disappointments. But like anything else really worthwhile in life, to hold back in fear of what can go terribly wrong is to deny yourself the potential happiness of what can go incredibly right.
In more recent time, my pen pals have been replaced with virtual friends. They call it a Social Network now and there is no longer need for stationary, envelopes and stamps. If you can access a keyboard, a computer and an Internet connection, you can make a friend anywhere in the world. And better yet, if you approach that experience openly and honestly, you have an excellent chance of connecting with some remarkable people who can truly enrich your life.
Which brings me back to my trip to California or, as I came to refer to it, my "miracle trip." As a semi-retired person who lives on a very fixed income, my recent travels would not have been possible without the generosity and support from friends and family (both near and far). People who surprised me by gifting me with an airline ticket, who offered me a place to stay, who covered most of my daily expenses during my week-long visit and, most importantly -- showed me (not for the first time) that nothing matters more in this life than compassion, kindness and love.
There was a postage stamp issued many years ago that I have never forgotten. It featured the beautiful words of English poet, John Donne (1572--1631) and stated, simply: "Letters Mingle Souls". Through the wonderful, very real friends who came into my life when I was younger as pen pals and those I have more recently been blessed to encounter as virtual acquaintances, I have come to know the truest meaning of those words.
And along the way, I have also learned that, as much as the world we live in and the tools we use to connect with one another have changed -- the deepest essence of who we are remains the same. So whether near or far, via emails or posts on a site, "letters" still mingle souls and caring about one another still brings people together. I know, because it has happened to me.
My trip to California was as memorable as it was unexpected because I didn't travel there as a curious tourist -- I journeyed there as a grateful explorer. I didn't shop for souvenirs -- I collected memories. I didn't come to sightsee -- I came to soul search. And in the end, I returned to Chicago so much richer for the experience. I returned, reminded once more, that home is not a temporary spot on the map -- it a permanent place in the heart.