No. 1 | The Words of Twenty Strangers


TODAY, while sitting in my chair by the window enjoying Sunday morning, an email with the subject line “free pommes” arrived in my inbox. It's from a friend who I haven’t spoken to in many months, but who’s the kind of person you might expect to pop-up unexpectedly with a bumper crop of apples. Once, he went out of his way to share a cannoli. 

As I opened the email, in my Pinterest-addled mind, I saw myself making a small batch of blushing apple sauce, then a rustic galette with beautifully-fanned apple slices and a stippling of sparkling sugar. When I read the email, however, there was no mention of apples. Confoundingly, it was not an offer to share produce; it was a chain email. 

The chain email says its purpose is to be “a quick, collective, constructive, and hopefully uplifting exchange.” All one has to do is forward the email to twenty friends and in return twenty others will send them “an encouraging quote or verse.” So, it’s a benevolent kind of chain email. If I choose not to forward it, nowhere does it suggest that, as a repercussion, small, mean men in trench coats will follow me to the supermarket and I'll never have sex again. Still, whether benevolent or malevolent, I see chain emails as stigmatized and it feels embarrassing to even think about foisting one on twenty of my own friends. I think this is because I'm a tiny bit of a snob and generally believe those who forward chain emails to be both intellectually-diminished and insecure. And yet, this, as I'm about to tell you, is certainly not the case with my friend who forwarded the chain email to me.

My friend’s name, like Inigo Montoya’s, begs to be said with dramatic inflections, but I’m not sure I should be outing him by name. If I was writing him into a fictional story, I’d likely call him Cerulean, inspired by the colour of pants he was wearing when he first made an impression on me, so that’s what I’ll call him here. 

In addition to being a film critic and book reviewer, Cerulean is a playwright I came to know through A. (a.k.a. Mr. Margo). Cerulean hosted a gathering of playwrights at his house who were acquainted through the same affiliation and I went along. It’s not often these days that you first get to know someone in their home. In my experience, you can go many months knowing someone before you see where they live and you may not be invited very often if they aren't natural housekeepers or enthusiastic hosts. Cerulean, however, is a born host, and moreover he lives in the kind of space—a damp and charming carriage house—you always imagine writers and artists living in, but few really do. 

Upon arriving at the carriage house we were offered proper mixed drinks, introduced to the other guests, and invited to indulge in a spread that included our host's homemade guacamole. An avocado pit resided in the bowl with the guac to keep it from turning brown—a trick that impressed me even though I’m allergic to avocados. We were then offered a tour of the carriage house. We left the dining table that divided the kitchen from the living area in the low-slung main room and went down the hall, remarking on the stone flooring, to the far end from which we’d come in. We climbed a narrow, wrought iron spiral staircase (a set piece, we were told, from the movie Titanic) up to the bedroom Cerulean shared with his wife, a photo artist who was out of the country. The room also doubled as an office, with a desk piled with a pleasing amount of books and papers in the corner. There the tour ended.

Later, when I visited the washroom at the other end of the carriage house—with its partial glass brick wall through which the outdoor foliage thrummed and cast a green glow—I thought it too should’ve been included in the tour. Had I been a few more drinks in, I might’ve been tempted to lie down in the bathtub to imagine amber-scented bubbles, a glass of rose gin, and a lover in the shadows reading something lyric and longing like “The Blue of Distance” or poems from The Captain’s Verses. 

As the night carried on, our new friend (who looks strikingly similar to Billy Corgan) spun records and did slick moves in his cerulean blue pants. At one point, we sat together on a sofa talking intently about my then-mentor—a writer whom Cerulean admired and had interviewed over tapas for a literary magazine. The mentor/writer had written an elegiac and heartbreaking book about his wife after she broke her neck body surfing in Mexico and died. Cerulean wanted to know how I’d come to work with him. He listened intently as I told the story—asking questions that were both intellectual and emotional—and I thought: this is a sapiosexual man who adores women. 

So, as I said, this friend is not the kind of person I would've expected to propagate a chain email and now I'm having to reconsider my own position. Might I too be a person who could forward this kind of chain email? A response has been politely requested within five days and the email is ticking away in my inbox.

Now that I'm coming around to the idea, I'll admit that I’d hate to miss out on the opportunity to have twenty strangers send me words that, through a collective act, would be specifically intended for me. In truth, I’m innately drawn to projects that randomly connect humans in whimsical ways. 

Many years ago in my former city, a woman in a ladybug hat would sit on a bench on a main, but idyllic street on a certain day of the week for the purpose of operating a mixed CD exchange. You’d give her a mixed CD you’d made, then you were given the opportunity to reach into a bag and pull out a mixed CD someone else had made. The exchange itself was smooth and done with few words, like other covert exchanges that are done on the street

The CD I pulled from the bag had letters cut out ransom-style and glued to its cover that said, “OH, rAD! Presents STRInGS”. Late that night when I got home from work, I shoved my feet into the arse-end of a pair of bunny slippers, put the CD into the drive on my computer tower, and kicked back. This was at a time in my life when being devoted to torn and desperate men was not yet personally passé. As a consequence, I was suffering. When the second song—“Crosses” by José Gonzalez—came on, I began to bawl. Strangers had made it so that, when I needed it, the line “we’ll cast some light and you’ll be alright” reached my ears. 

That’s why these kinds of projects, which may seem frivolous on the surface, are actually important sparks of light.

The chain email instructs: “Please send an encouraging quote or verse to person #1 below. It should be a favo[u]rite text/verse/poem/prayer/meditation of yours that has lifted you when you were experiencing challenging times. Don’t agonize over it; it should be one you always turn to.”

Okay, so if I can’t agonize (which is frankly against my nature), there are two quotes I think of right away. There's a Polish proverb that I've found particularly helpful in dealing with family drama: “Not my circus, not my monkeys.” Then there's the classic Annie Dillard quote that never fails to snap me to awareness: “How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.” Either of these quotes could be pivotal for my person #1 to hear (though, #1 could already be familiar with them because they're both fairly popular memes, which is why I'd prefer to agonize over picking a real stunner).

Of course, in the time that I’ve spent pondering whether or not to forward the chain email to my own friends, and in writing this to find out, more than five days has passed. This, it would seem, is a unique sort of failure as the email assures me that “seldom does anyone drop out because we all need new inspiration.” 

As letdown as I am that my inaction proved to be an action, the word “seldom” has begun to niggle at me, so  I just looked up the rather astounding math. If everyone who was sent the chain email participated, sending it on to twenty others every five days, the number would grow in only thirty days to 64 million people. In another ten days, that number would be 26 billion, which is more than the number of humans on earth. 

While the chain email means well (even giving a considerate nod to different nationalities’ spelling of the word “favo(u)rite”), it’s quite plainly exaggerating its claims to a magnificent degree. This is oddly freeing. If the chain email can fudge things, so can I. 

So this is what I’ve decided to do: I’m going rogue. I’m not going to insert my name as person #2 in the chain email and send it on to twenty friends because that ship feels like it's already sailed. Sadly, this means that I won’t get to benefit from the words of twenty strangers. I am, however, going to send this essay to my person #1, who’s name and email address I've been provided with. She took the risk of participating in the chain email and I don’t want to short shrift her. She may or may not even read this, but if she does, I hope she’ll take it for what it is: a spark of light from a well-wishing stranger, waving from her chair by the window.





I reconstructed the mixed CD, OH, rAD! Presents STRInGs, for you here.

"The Blue of Distance" is a series of essays in this gorgeous book: A Field Guide to Getting Lost by Rebecca Solnit. I wept pretty tears when I read it.

And here's a Pablo Neruda poem from The Captain's Verses for the romantics.