The year we just spent in France is not the first time I've lived abroad. From 1991-1996 I lived in North London with Fiona. Oh, it was a heady, youthful, liberated period,filled with Grant family weddings, O'Brien roast dinners, Salsa Rosada, traditional patchwork quilting, and Jubilee Line travel accompanied by Ruth Rendell and Oasis. There were also vast numbers of parties, primly organized around themes like Magnetic Poetry, indoor fireworks and “luxury” foodstuffs, all of which tended to degenerate pleasantly into plonkfests.
It would also be fair to say that although I talked to my parents every week, I was officially estranged from my father. Reasonably enough, I now realize, it was tough for him to embrace my divorce and new “lesbian lifestyle,” no matter how essentially traditional my relationship was (and those who know both Fiona and my dad will have noticed a few spooky similarities). And I’m afraid he took it personally that I couldn’t any longer factor his desires and opinions into my life decisions.
So for a few of those five years we didn’t really talk about anything important, and if we did try, our conversations tended to degenerate unpleasantly into sulkfests. And then we both, me and the man who hand-built a wooden case for the used electric typewriter I lugged to college, discovered e-mail.
Here was a whole new way for us to talk—without having to face each other in person, without the painful tugging at heartstrings created by patronizing tones, by furrowed brows, by uncomfortable smirks, by tears. As a pastor in the habit of carefully crafting his sermons week after week, but not so much in the habit of revealing his personal uncertainties in the pulpit, my dad used this e-mail miracle to write about what he didn’t understand, what he didn’t believe in, what he worried I was losing through my choices.
On my side, I gained time. I could read his letters hot off the printer and again on the Tube. I could contemplate his meanings, take time to simmer down, take time to develop at least a little empathy. And I could use all my well-honed writing and teaching skills to educate my father about Heidi the Person (not Heidi the Daughter): my uncertainties, what I couldn’t believe in, what I was gaining through my choices.
Now, I’m not saying that “The Power of E-mail Mended our Broken Hearts, Praise the Lord!” If truth be told it was really the eventual arrival of the grandchildren that brought us all to our senses, and now, ten years later and back together again in Mid-Atlantica, computer-aided communication can’t always be relied on (my dad read the October 15 post with Rebecca McClanahan’s poem and thought I was writing about my nephew. Satchel, have I ever tried to teach you to type, dude?).
But I am saying that there are times when the combination of low-tech written word and high-tech instant messageability are just what the shaman ordered for improving communication. We chat, but we slow it down by typing. We write, but we speed it up with fiber-optics. We leave homes, but we don’t lose friends. The peasant in me is reconsidering her objections to our brave new digital world.