One of the most unexpected revivals during the COVID crisis has been letter writing, as people have yearned for a more personal touch than an email, text or Instagram post. Personal phone calls are also on the rise, as well as milk deliveries from real milkmen (a species we had thought extinct). Kate Carr‘s piece Where to begin was commissioned by the BBC show The Verb to address the topic of loneliness, which is on everyone’s mind right now. Using glass beads, chimes, the sound of pen on paper and people reading love letters in their native tongues, Carr has created a piece for our times.
“Looking to enjoy again some blue wide skies and waters,” the premiere narrator intones with a sigh. The beaches reopened in Jacksonville today; in New York the beach budget was cut, and this may be the year without a swim. How better to share our joy, our despair, our love than in a handwritten letter? “I’m listening,” a woman and man write to each other. Before the crisis, the world was enduring a deficit of listening, as subtleties and softness were drowned by louder voices and tones.
During the Great Wars, before the advent of computers, love letters were sent back and forth overseas: heartfelt confessions, family news, fears (often excised by those who intercepted such letters). As they read the letters, the recipients often wondered if the authors were still alive. The added weight brought meaning to even the most maudlin of words: “I miss you.” “Tell Mom I love her.” Letters that arrived intact were considered holy, kept in a family trunk, inherited by children.
Carr returns this tenderness to the discipline, interspersing the missives with instructions on how to write a love letter, courtesy of Salomé Voegelin. “Whenever I imagine being truly joyful, I picture myself with you,” writes one lover. Life is broken down to its simplest essence: connection. This has been the greatest robbery of the crisis: not the lost income, but the lost ability to embrace. An honest love letter is like such an embrace, unfolding and refolding, time and time again, defying the passage of time. But there is also an element of sadness in Carr’s piece: “I knew my poor word selection was going to come back to haunt me.” “Guess you had to erase it.” We hear scratching out, crumpling, ripping. Will the love letter remain unwritten?
The pen is drawn across the paper like a lover’s hand across an arm, a shoulder, a heart. We send our love in the post in hopes that it will be returned. “I believe that I have fallen in love with you.” What brave words! People are still falling in love, even now, separated by meters, yards or great distances. This is no small miracle. Where to begin? (Richard Allen)