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Physically Limited, Socially Expanded

Penpals Reimagined In the Age of COVID

As a kid, I loved having pen pals. It all started when I was twelve and picked up an issue of “Teen” magazine. I felt so grown up. Here I was, not yet officially a teenager, reading a magazine for cool teens! This first issue was a very special one, too. Among the articles dealing with fashion, hair styles, and makeup tips (not that I was allowed to wear any), was an opportunity to have a real, live pen pal. Someone who lived so far away that we’d probably never meet, another girl living in an exotic locale. At least, exotic to a twelve year old growing up in the suburbs of Cleveland, Ohio.

The match up was to be with a girl about my own age in Hawaii. Wow, Hawaii! I was already envisioning my new friend, a smiling girl with long, silky black hair dancing the hula under the palm trees. I couldn’t wait to find out about her life and all the adventures she was enjoying. Certainly nothing as boring as my suburban middle class existence. I filled out the form with my name, age, and address, and mailed it to the magazine, wondering what I could possibly say about Cleveland that would be of any interest to a girl living in paradise.

Some weeks later, I found out I was matched up with a twelve year old girl named Ona. What an exotic name! I was surprised, though, to see that she had red hair, light skin, and freckles. Not what I had imagined at all. Oh, I came to understand, her father was in the military and Hawaii was where they were currently stationed.

No problem! In no time at all, we were off and running, becoming the best of distanced friends. We stuffed our envelopes full of pages in which we wrote all about ourselves and our families, colorful pages that were decorated with stickers and little hand drawings. We’d send little gifts to each other and share our lives, which surprisingly weren’t all that much different from each other. We actually corresponded all throughout school, even as I picked up (and dropped) other penpals from around the world.

I loved receiving mail! Back then, my parents told me to enjoy it, as there’d come a day that all I could look forward to receiving in the mail would be bills. I did enjoy it, especially when those letters (and occasionally packages!) began arriving from England, Australia, and both coasts of the U.S., as well as Hawaii. My biggest dilemma, after figuring out how to mail international packages, was trying to figure out what I could send from Cleveland that could possibly impress my international friends. What was Cleveland known for back then? A river that caught fire. An old industrial city that had seen better days. Pollution and too many wintry grey skies. It wasn’t easy, especially when my Australian friend sent great gifts like a toy stuffed koala bear and a real boomerang (which, believe it or not, I think I still have somewhere).

As we all moved through our teen years, those penpals naturally fell away, but I’ve thought about them recently during this year of the pandemic. With Zoom especially, it seems like a new and improved version of the penpal has come back into vogue. Quite different, with live video and audio replacing pen and paper, though the Zoom chat window does give an element of written communication. But curiously, in some ways it’s also the same, with new friends popping into my life from all over the world.

I participate in a lot of acting and voiceover classes, webinars, conferences, and meet ups. While the acting classes seem to be fairly well contained within the U.S., the voiceover community is quite global. I’m part of an accountability group that meets monthly, with members living in the U.S., Canada, and the U.K. The voiceover conferences, including this past week’s VO Atlanta and the UK-based One Voice conference, attract attendees from all parts of the world. These conference organizers do a great job scheduling the sessions to suit the time zones of as many attendees as possible, which primarily range from the US coast through western Europe. These sessions are also recorded, which gives those in other parts of the world the opportunity to watch them at a later time.

I’m thrilled to listen and learn from coaches, industry experts, and other voice actors from all over the globe. Different perspectives, new ways of doing things, unique experiences, and insights into other cultures. Occasionally, I’m the odd American joining a group of Brits or Aussies. Like with my Hawaiian penpal, I find that we have far more in common than we do differences. Except that their accents are far more melodic and intriguing than my own!

A few weeks ago, on April 16, I was delighted to have the opportunity to participate in a special podcast that celebrated World Voice Day 2021. My friend Samantha Boffin, who is a highly talented voice actor and promo producer, has a podcast for voiceover directors called “Talking Creative.” Based in the UK herself, Sam reached out to voice actor friends on both sides of the pond to offer advice from the talent’s perspective. Eighteen people contributed, with a few rather funny stories thrown in for good measure. It’s a fascinating podcast, which you can listen to here.

This global digital outreach, this new and updated worldwide community, has been a gift of this past year. If anything good can be said to come out of this pandemic experience, it’s the realization that we all desperately need some degree of social connection. Whether it’s comparing local lockdown rules, how we’re each coping with restrictions, or the ebbs and flows of our businesses, we recognize our shared experience and support one another as we struggle through this bizarre time. Really not so dissimilar from how, all those years ago, girls from all around the world helped each other get through the shared difficult teen years.

Like my penpals, many of these connections may fade away as we eventually return to our more ‘normal” lives. But a few will remain. After all, despite the decades that have passed since we first met (and I’m not saying how many!), Ona and I still communicate, though this time through Facebook. She’s now living in Guam (even more exotic to me than Hawaii!), while I’m living in Atlanta, the Peach State – something I can finally hang my hat on, when it comes to sending gifts. Even Cleveland, formerly known as “the mistake on the lake,” has cleaned itself up, finally becoming the attractive city that it always could have been.

Just goes to show that there’s a silver lining in every cloud. And occasionally, miracles DO happen.