John Scholvin

John Scholvin

still can’t fit a half-stack in the trunk

05 Feb 2024

write me when you get there

fountain pen on paper

photo by Aaron Burden via Unsplash

I don’t know where I saw it today. I was idly skimming around the internet, wasting time while waiting for some long-running job to fail and issue a series of cryptic error messages that would take me the next hour to parse.1 But I saw it somewhere and it has been sitting with me all day. “Write me when you get there.” I was struck all at once by the simplicity, the old-timeyness, and the contrast to what I was doing at the time. And more.

It’s hard to imagine in the current era, but I’m old enough to have lived it on a literal level. During my sophomore year in college, I dated a girl who lived in Italy. At the end of that school year, she went home for the summer, and I probably said something very close to exactly those words as we said goodbye in front of her dorm while the taxi idled. In 1986, email wasn’t a thing for most people, texting was still a decade+ away, and international phone calls were insanely expensive. Write me when you get there.

I remember her letters coming that summer, every couple of weeks, and dutifully writing back. I also remember my puzzlement as her letters finished with increasingly exasperated pleas to write back. I had been writing back faitfhully. Never missed one. I never put it together.

When she returned in the fall, she was furious: why hadn’t I written all summer? We got into a vicious, relationship-ending argument over it. I don’t remember the details now, but presumably she thought I was lying when I said I had been writing the whole time. Turns out I had botched the address slightly, and the post office there didn’t know what to do. Her mom eventually got the whole stack I’d written, all at once.2

That uncertainty, that built-in error band, is a lot of what captivated me about “write me when you get there.” Sending a letter is something of an act of faith, certainly much moreso than sending a text or an email. Letters get lost. It’s not hard to imagine going back a little further than 1986 and to extend that uncertainty to the actually-getting-there part. Will your ship make it across the ocean? Will the wagon train make it to Oregon? Will the guy who picked you up while hitchhiking let you out of the car? Write me when you get there. If you get there. (And, assuming you do, will your letter make it back?)

Yes. I’m surely gazing way too deeply into this throwaway phrase I can’t even place exactly, but I felt a certain pang about the uncertainty in that last part, too. when you get there. Where is “there”, exactly? Does the traveler know? Does the well-wisher know? Does anyone? What kind of journey is underway? Maybe it’s to mom’s house near Milan. Or maybe it’s to walk the Earth like Caine, or wander the desert like Moses. Write me when you get there. Write me when you figure it out. Share your found wisdom. I’ll be waiting.

That’s the final piece. Write me when you get there because I care about you. Because I want to know what you found, or didn’t. Your thoughts matter to me; you matter to me. I want to know. Not to put any pressure on, or anything. I don’t need six pages of longhand fountain pen on parchment. A postcard would do, too. (Or, yeah, an email. Or a text.) But if you have some time to tell me about your journey, I promise I will read it, take it to heart, and make it part of me.

Write me when you get there.

  1. So you say you want a career in computer science! ↩︎

  2. Reconciliation was out of the question for reasons by that point, but I was grateful to have been verified not insane, and for her apology. ↩︎