Today’s blog title is a takeoff of the title of a book by the late Larry McMurtry called ‘All My Friends Are Going to Be Strangers’.
Yesterday evening as I was waiting for a ride at the airport, I pulled up Facebook on my phone and saw a post from a friend that one of my online friends had passed away. It hit me hard because it was very sudden, and that I’d never met her in person despite knowing her online for over twenty years. My friend’s name was Valerie Parv, an Australian romance writer, teacher, mentor, Australia Day Ambassador, and who was kind, generous, warm, and funny.
I met Valerie online sometime back in the late 1990’s on a message board. These were places were people came together online before social media like Facebook. The board I met her on was on the Harlequin books website. It was a board that was known to be more than a bit free-willing and goofy and I ventured in nervously. But then I worked up the nerve to post and was immediately welcomed by Valerie and the others. Then I got invited to join the Yahoo! Group they’d set up to talk privately and I was grateful because that was a much-needed place to vent during some very dark times not just for me, but for all of us. Eventually, we migrated to Facebook and our own group there though we interact on our own pages and profiles almost daily.
I’m online every day and I don’t regret it at all. I can pick and choose who I interact with so I don’t have to interact with people I don’t want to be around. I don’t have to put up with people who really don’t like me, or post stuff that I don’t want to see. And no, that’s not putting myself in an echo chamber. That’s called setting boundaries and maintaining them. Doing this enables you to have the friendship and interaction you want to have with people who really care about you and others.
Over the years when I’ve talked about my friends or people I know, I then reveal the vast majority of them are people I’ve met online but not in person. In fact, I have met very few of my online friends in person. My online friends are scattered not just around the United States, but all over the world. I have online friends in the US, Canada, Australia, Europe, Africa, Central and South America, and Asia. Some of these friends I’ve talked to almost daily over the last twenty-five years (give or take, my memory is a bit hazy as to when I first got online). Online we started out on message boards, then migrated to Yahoo! Groups, then to social media like Facebook. We met through mutual interests- writing, books, tv shows but over time got to know each other as people.
Before there was the internet and social media, I had a group of pen pals. A pen pal was someone you wrote letters to, on actual paper mailed in paper envelopes. You had to actually write these letters out by hand (or type them if you could). In the early 1990’s, I joined an organization I saw an ad for in the back of a writing magazine that matched people up from around the world based on age and mutual interests. I corresponded with a group of people like me who were then in their late teens/early twenties from all over the world. We’d talk about where we lived, our lives, send postcards and pictures, and small gifts. My family used to love to see the various stamps from around the world and the postcards that would come in the mail. Eventually over time the correspondence dwindled to nothing as the internet came to life. But thanks to the internet, I have reconnected with one former pen pal on Facebook.
The day before yesterday in my post, ‘Bookstore Dreams’, I wrote about a book later made into a film called ’84 Charing Cross Road’. This is a book of letters between a writer in New York named Helene Hanff and the people who worked in the London bookshop Marks and Co. She never met the man who was her principle correspondent or anyone else who worked in the shop but this story of people reaching out across vast distances was why I joined that pen pal organization because I wanted that connection.
But what does it really mean to connect with people over distances and not in person? A letter written to the author of ’84 Charing Cross Road’, Helene Hanff by one of the people who worked in the bookshop to her as a thank-you for a food parcel she sent sums it up perfectly: “It’s good to know that someone so far away, can be so kind and generous to people they have never even met.”
Valerie Parv was kind and generous to people she had never met in person, and to those she did know in person. She was a writer, teacher, mentor, friend, and sister. Her work will live on in the preservation of her papers and in the memories of those who knew and loved her. And most of all, in her kindness and generosity to others throughout her life.
I will never give up on my dream of meeting as many of my online friends as I can because they’ll never be strangers to me. I may be bopping up their street in a converted yellow school bus but I’ll have coffee and tea and cookies waiting for them. And maybe just maybe, I’ll find a way to cross an ocean with my little yellow bus, too. Though I’m sure that will cost much, much more than an airmail stamp ever did.