Photo by Hansjörg Keller on Unsplash
When I want to send a text these days, I look at my most-used emojis and feel astounded at how they reflect the essence of much of my communication. It’s a long way from the hundreds of smiles I wrote by hand—like this, but vertical: =). Dashes for the eyes, not dots, are important to me. I don’t know why.
Twenty-five years ago when we moved to Ireland, someone chartered a bus for our friends and relatives to go with us to Dulles Airport, a three-hour trip. After a helpful agent checked in our mountain of luggage, all the dozens of friends and relations trooped through the airport, onto a shuttle, and waved us off at the door of the plane. That’s how long ago it was.
In the first years, we relied on letters and faxes to stay connected with people across the ocean, five time zones away. I spent a big chunk of my stipend on stamps and stationery. I remember the wonder of watching a fax come squeaking off the machine. Never mind that it was thermal paper and could easily fade. It meant someone was feeding the message at this exact moment, and it was magic to feel that connected in real time. I wrote dozens and dozens of letters, and Michelle and I wrote each other every week for the first two years. I often wish I could read them again. Or maybe not.
One friend saw how much Michelle missed me and gave her money to call me once. We arranged by letter what day and time we’d call, so we had to schedule it way ahead. The rate was something like $20 for an hour, and the call was such a treat!
Then a friend in PA told me that I could write her via her family’s email, and I said, “What’s email?” Eventually we got a modem for our family computer and every morning it would do its whirring, chirping, burbling noise to send and receive emails. That was when we got all the silly chain emails that said if you don’t forward this, your billy goat will do something bad. Our family shared one address, and our friends would write our names in the subject lines so it would go directly to our individual folders, but even so it wasn’t a super confidential system.
When I got my own gmail address, I loved the versatility of logging in at any computer in any state or country and connecting with my people. I spent hours and hours emailing friends who lived far away. My isolation and loneliness in Ireland and Poland pushed me to learn what it takes to sustain long-distance friendships. I was willing to put in that time and effort because it was a large part of how I was supported and connected with people with whom I shared history. I had dear friends and mentors who had a lot of patience with me and with email in those days, and I’m deeply grateful. It helped that I could express myself well with words, but communicating via email was a skill I prioritized. I didn’t buy as many stamps anymore, though they were still important. I started typing and printing my letters instead of writing them long-hand like I’d always done. Also, I laughed and laughed when I first learned about the chat option. You could message back and forth in real time! And send animated emojis! There was a new kind of culture in chats I had to learn. You didn’t have to do formal hellos and goodbyes. You could just show up, message something, and disappear as you wanted. Kinda novel. Kinda fun.
In 2004 a friend told me about Xanga. She said it was like online journaling and I thought that’s the oddest thing I’d ever heard, and I would never put my journal online. Then for some reason I got an account, and moved around in that world a little bit but it was always a little noisy and scary and overwhelming to me. I liked it and didn’t like it. I didn’t like the pressure of creating a persona for myself. But I made some good, life-giving connections that I still treasure.
Then came Skype, which avoided the cost of a phone bill, though I still had to pay something to call internationally from Poland. It was a good system in its time, and I feel a little melancholy about its iconic beep-beep-swoosh ring tone. When I had major surgery in Poland, it was worth a lot to use the Skype video option to call my mom the next day, show her my incision, and let her see my surroundings. The tables were turned several years later when she was on chemo and I was five time zones away. Then I used WhatsApp video, and it helped me feel not so far away to be able to see how she looked when she lost her hair, and how she closed her eyes when she was tired.
There are lots of voices out there that decry technology but I’m so grateful for the ways that it has helped me feel not so far away from so many people I love. I’m particularly fond of voice messages. I sent a voice message to RSVP to a bride, and she messaged back: “I’m so glad you sent me a voice message. I can hear your soul that way.” Or another friend who was recently in such a remote place in West Africa that she didn’t get messages for three weeks: “When I got your message, it made me feel so loved and a little weepy because I just want to have an evening together.”
These days, I get tired of staring at chins and necks in Zoom calls and “You’re muted.” BUT WE CAN SEE EACH OTHER AND HEAR EACH OTHER! (At least, we can when the weather is clear and my wifi works.) Bumpy, scratchy Zoom calls are still better than thermal fax paper. Most times, anyway.
I’m super choosy about the podcasts I listen to. I want substance, not chitchat, so I mostly listen to counselling episodes and journalists with the BBC. This week I listened to this one about naming unspoken griefs. They talked about ambiguous loss and how it shapes our relationships. One line hit me hard: “Sustaining long-term long-distance relationships requires you to live in ambiguous loss.” It’s true. I’ve learned ways that work well to communicate but my soul never gets used to the distance, never is reconciled to the dissonance of being psychologically present but physically distant from my people. It’s good to have a name for it now.
These days, my task bar shows two—sometimes three— messaging apps I use every day. Please please please don’t send me an invitation to another messaging platform. Can we please just use what we have, which already works great?
After all the words and voices and sound bites, sometimes there are no words. My most-used emojis tell the story of what I say when I don’t have words. They span the spectrum of my current experience: a (tan) thumbs-up, a face with floods of tears, a broken heart, a dancing lady in a red dress, a laughing scholar, puzzled, wrinkled eyes with a grimacing mouth, a grinning face with sunglasses, hearts floating all over a happy face, a wink, a wink and a kiss, a party hat face, a shocked face with wide open eyes and mouth, hands holding a blue face, cheering, waving hands.
The smiley face with the dashes for the eyes and the (tan) praying hands all do the same job. They give a way, a mechanism, a system for hearing and being heard which is mostly about loving, and I’m very grateful for all of it.