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This is the Allusionist, in which I, Helen Zaltzman, suggests language stops offering people tickets to the gun show. Have some dignity.
It’s Radiotopia’s annual fundraiser! This collective of podcasts was born nearly four years ago thanks to the generosity of you listeners crowdfunding it, and your continuing support has helped it grow and thrive and, despite my fairly decent command of the English language, I can’t even tell you how important this is to us Radiotopians - if it wasn’t for you, I wouldn’t even be making this show at all; it came into being thanks to your contributions to the fundraiser three years ago, and I’m not exaggerating when I say NO ONE ELSE WOULD EMPLOY ME. This show is the greatest joy of my life; thanks so much for supporting it with your ear time and your donations and, also - and this is quite unusual I think - you supply some of my favourite parts of the show as well. I’m not sure you realise how many episodes come about because a listener turns up offering excellent material. For instance:
LEE: Hello, my name is Lee. I'm a genderqueer trans masculine gay guy and it's time for me to talk to Helen Zaltzman about my genitals.
BRUCE RYAN: We’re in the Upper East Side of New York, at a unitarian church, for Lollapuzzoola 10 - an annual crossword puzzle tournament.
HZ: How many copyright traps are there in the average dictionary?
ELEY WILLIAMS: lexicography tends to keep quiet about them, otherwise that would undermine them being there. The most famous is probably Mountweazel.
STEPHEN CHRISOMALIS: Indefinite hyperbolic numerals are words that have the form of numerals; they act like numerals; but as their name would suggest, they're indefinite. They don't have a definite numerical reference, and they're hyperbolic. In other words, whatever they are, however big they are, they're really big.
LAUREN MARKS: When I woke up in the Edinburgh hospital, I had very little language: speaking, reading, writing were all dramatically affected. I probably only had about 40 or 50 words at my disposal.
HRISHIKESH HIRWAY: Helen, I can't stand the word ‘namaste’.
LYNNE MURPHY: Several people have observed that the British say ‘please’ twice as much as Americans do.
HZ: Do any of you happen to know what state mottos are for? Because it's quite hard to establish what they are for.
JULIE SHAPIRO: To put on commemorative items that you buy at the truckstop along the side of the road?
HZ: Thanks listeners - you’re doing my job for me, and you’re paying me, why am I involved at all, let’s not answer that right now. If you want to support this show, and all the other shows in the Radiotopia collective, sprint over to radiotopia.fm - and your money not only buys you the glow of satisfaction of supporting independent creators doing the best work we can, it can get you some very cool gifts as well. I’ve got my eye on the Radiotopia socks. But there’s also a unique prize I’m offering just during the fundraiser, and I’ll tell you about that at the end of the episode.
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On with the show.
HZ: I had a relationship before the 21st century. Neither of us had the internet yet, or mobile phones, or even landlines sometimes. So we wrote letters to each other, a lot, for more than three years. And I still have them, in a box, in another box.
The odd thing is, I only have half the story, his half: he's got mine. Or maybe he doesn't, maybe he did get rid of them, a long time ago; I really hope he did destroy them.
I haven't looked at his letters since we broke up, half my lifetime ago; but I can't bring myself to throw them away, either. I've kept nearly all the letters I've been sent - the good ones, from friends, not boring ones from the bank or dentist. A bunch from my friend Al, whose handwriting looks like a row of dead spiders. Colourful illustrated ones on unusually shaped cards, from Joanna. One from my father, in which he'd drawn visual puns. Of course. Postcards of classic oil paintings or significant British churches, with artificially bright messages on the back from my grandmother, and the address printed onto a sticky label. She had thousands of the labels made. Would anyone do that now - get labels printed with their granddaughter's address on?
She's dead now. I don’t think I even have any photos of her, but I do have these things that she touched, that I can touch, and though the words were trivial at the time, each represents a moment she thought about me enough to send me a note.
I, however, very rarely write letters now. I barely even send birthday or Christmas cards. But I can't shake the idea that letters are important.
BRIAN GREENLEY: I'm Brian Greenley.
ALISON HITCHCOCK: And I'm Alison Hitchcock.
BRIAN GREENLEY: And we're From Me To You.
HZ: Tell me what From Me To You is.
ALISON HITCHCOCK: From Me To You is a campaign which encourages people to write letters to friends and family who have cancer, in order to keep them connected at a time when they are potentially feeling most disconnected. But also it's expanded into something called donate a letter, which means that if you want to write to somebody but you don't know somebody with cancer, you can write to us and we distribute the letters to cancer patients in hospital. So what From Me To You is essentially about is keeping people connected, making them feel that people are thinking of them are supporting them, whether they know those people or not.
HZ: From Me To You started with a letter. Well, with one hundred letters. In June 2010, Brian was diagnosed with bowel cancer.
BRIAN GREENLEY: And Alison and I at the time were just acquaintances -
HZ: - they’d met at a yoga retreat the previous year -
BRIAN GREENLEY: - and Alison made a rather random offer which no one else did, which was she said that she would write letters to cheer me up, which I think was a bit strange at the time. Especially as she didn't have a history of writing letters or writing anything since she'd been eight years old. So it was quite a surprise.
ALISON HITCHCOCK: I wasn't interested in writing at all. Goodness knows why I made this offer. I can't actually remember saying it, but clearly I did say it, because I do very clearly remember sitting on my sofa and thinking, "Oh my God, I said that I would write letters and I said they'd be funny and what's funny about cancer? But I've said it, so I'm going to do it."
BRIAN GREENLEY: And I went home on the train thinking of a lot more things than someone's going to write me a letter - about what my treatment was going to be, even if I was going to live; that type of thing. So I was surprised in two weeks. Two weeks later a letter arrived on my doormat from Alison, a handwritten letter. And that was the start of Alison writing to me for over two years. Over a hundred letters.
HZ: Do you remember what was in that first letter?
BRIAN GREENLEY: Yes I do. She had at this point become a vegetarian. So she was slightly worried about her iron levels.
HZ: Did you think, “Well, I’ve got cancer, that wins”?
BRIAN GREENLEY: No, not really, because it was very flippant; but you know, life goes on and it has to be normal. That's what I want my life to be I wanted it to be normal as I could in the face of cancer and all its nastiness comes along with it. So someone saying they think they have iron deficiency just makes me laugh really.
HZ: Oh, for an iron deficiency!
BRIAN GREENLEY: If I could be so lucky!
ALISON HITCHCOCK: There were quite a few of the letters where sometimes I say, "I've been thinking about you this week, because I know that you're going through chemotherapy and I do hope that you're okay. Anyway, back to me, Brian…"
HZ: Did you write back, Brian?
BRIAN GREENLEY: No. It wasn't a pen pal arrangement; I didn't sign up for that. And no, I didn't write back.
HZ: 100 letters with no response.
ALISON HITCHCOCK: Yeah. And I think it was important that Brian was very comfortable not to write back. I never expected him to write back. I don't know how purposeful it was at the time, but I didn't used to ask many questions in the letters, because I didn't want him to feel in any way obliged to write back, because he was ill.
HZ: it wasn’t a completely one-sided friendship: they kept in touch by phone as well, and they’d see each other in person.
ALISON HITCHCOCK: But I used to hold back on the anecdotes that I'd collected because they were for the letter. So if I was seeing him I'd be thinking, well, I'm going to write him a letter on Wednesday night and see him on Sunday. So I'm not going to tell him about this this and this because that's going in the letter.
HZ: And the thing about the letters, as a form of communication, was that Brian could control how he received it. He might have been too exhausted by his chemo treatments to hold a conversation, say, or reply to an email; but he could hear from Alison when he could handle hearing from Alison, saving the letters till then.
BRIAN GREENLEY: Often I would rip them straight open and read them. But sometimes, especially if Alison wrote me a letter to coincide with me going for treatment not the radiotherapy work of chemotherapy which was once every three weeks, she would write me a letter close to that time, and I would save it and take it with me because then it felt as though she was there with me even though she wasn't because I didn't want to take anybody with me and subject them to what was happening in the chemotherapy chair; but she was there with me in spirit and I used to read it. And because her voice was clear in the letters, it used to feel like a strong connection, and it used to make me laugh. It would be like she was talking to me.
HZ: About her iron deficiency?
BRIAN GREENLEY: There was a little 'me me me'. But at the time that's what I needed. We are a bit nosey, aren't we. So peeking into somebody else's life and what they're doing is sort of quite fascinating. Well, it is for me. And so it was a great opportunity for me to sort of view Alison's life and what was going on with it, and the funny things were happening were quite attractive to me in a way because it showed me that life went on and that that life was fun and it showed me a life that I once had. I didn't have it at that time, but it was one I definitely wanted back. So it gave me an optimistic view on life, and it made me think, “Yeah, I need to get better.”
HZ: Brian’s emotions were heightened, understandably, during this time, when he was coming to terms with having cancer and dealing with the impact of the chemo, and the isolation that occurred during his illness and treatment. People often don’t know what to say to their friends who are going through something serious - and it’s a common reaction not to say anything at all, but to disappear.
BRIAN GREENLEY: But the days in which you wrote, the letter arrived, really changed the aspect of the day. Because it made you feel that someone loved you and sent you this letter and it made me feel, "Oh wow, this is a special day, I got a letter." And I don't think our friendship would have become so close without the letters because I learned a lot about Alison in a very short space of time, over two years, and the end of that she was my best friend, and we could have a conversation about anything.
ALISON HITCHCOCK: I was doing this for him. I wasn't doing it for myself. I mean as it turned out I got loads, a whole life changing experience, from writing the letters. But that never was the intention at the beginning.
HZ: Alison had been working in the corporate world, running her own consultancy; but through the letters, she discovered she loved writing, and ended up applying to do an MA in creative writing.
ALISON HITCHCOCK: And I got accepted on the MA and then I had some short stories published and I've written a novel. And I don't do consultancy work anymore. I started working for an organization called The Word Factory that promotes short stories and holds lots of events with authors and writers and readers. And my whole world completely changed and it's all down to the letters. But also from the cancer, from something as dark as cancer, came something - the two things, one was that I discovered my writing, but also Brian and I became amazing friends.
BRIAN GREENLEY: And the third thing is that I got better.
ALISON HITCHCOCK: Oh yeah, you got better.
BRIAN GREENLEY: You know, that might be a little bit important - I got better.
ALISON HITCHCOCK: You did. Well done you.
BRIAN GREENLEY: Good.
HZ: Earlier this year, a new show joined the Radiotopia family: Ear Hustle, made inside San Quentin prison by Earlonne Woods and Antwan Williams, who are serving sentences there. The show is a collaboration with local artist Nigel Poor, who’s been volunteering at San Quentin for several years. In their recent episode Catch A Kite, they were responding to questions listeners had sent in on postcards, also known as kites.
Nigel: This person says, please keep my information anonymous if you share it. I have a cousin who's serving time for murder and I miss him despite the fact heinous crime he committed. He's still family and I don't want to lose touch with him for the bad decision that he made. Long story short, I'd like to write to him but I'm not sure what to say. I feel like anything I could tell him about things I've been up to would seem unimportant and stupid by comparison to the heavy events that he's dealing with. I don't want to annoy him and talk to him about my dogs or new restaurants I've tried. Should I even bother to write to him? What do you think?
Earlonne: You can write your family member or your friend or whoever and you can talk about the birds chirpin' outside your window and that would be sufficient enough for guys in prison. When you come back to your cell and the officer come by and call your name for that letter, you're like, "Cool. Who? Who wrote?" First, in your mind, "Who wrote me?" You know, then you get it and you might even have a ritual. You get their letter, you don't even open it. You go make you a shot of coffee, sit down and really absorb the words. You know. We just want to hear from you.
Nigel: So, I don't think we can say strongly enough how important it is to-
Earlonne: Letters are very important. If you're curious or if you're concerned, um, about writing somebody and how they'll feel, they gon', they gon' love it.
Nigel: So, hopefully, that cousin is about to get a letter.
Earlonne: Mmhmm. And to all the people I haven't heard from: mmhmm.
NIGEL POOR: I'm Nigel Poor, and I'm the co-host along with Earlonne Woods of Ear Hustle.
HZ: Nigel, what is a kite?
NIGEL POOR: In prison, a kite is a message that sent from one person to another, usually going down a cell line so somebody will write a note and they'll tie something on it like string and kind of shoot it down to the next person and it will get passed down the cell line till it gets to the correct recipient. So I took a little bit of liberty with that. And on our podcast we asked people to send us kites, which is a request to send us letters with questions and comments about the podcast.
HZ: And you've been receiving a ton of kites.
NIGEL POOR: We have gotten a bucket load of postcards, letters, kites, whatever you want to call them. We get so many postcards and letters from across the United States and around the world. Beautiful handmade postcards which I love. And really heartfelt responses, all kinds of questions, and it's a really beautiful way of connecting inside and outside people. It's super important. But then beyond that, we have people who have made a lot of requests to find out how to write to the men inside of it, to write to the men in our stories. And so that's something I really encourage people to do, because when you're incarcerated, you're so cut off from the rest of the world. And if you don't have family that visits, and if you don't have friends, it's just an isolated situation. And so getting a letter from the outside world is like a treasure. You know it has it has the power that mail had originally, in the United States where there was the Pony Express and it took months to get a letter and when you got a letter you just savoured it; it was a really important object. And that's how it is inside prison: if you get a letter it's like gold. It's like getting something sparkly and fresh and something that's telling you you matter and someone outside of the walls knows that you're still alive.
HZ: Because they don't have access to the internet, and they don't have cell phones. There's some telephone access isn't there? A little bit.
NIGEL POOR: Yes, there is telephone access. There's rules around that: you can't make calls whenever you want to, but you can make, I think it's once a day, a 15-minute phone call. That is if you have a job. Some people don't have the privilege to make phone calls. So not everybody can do that. So letters again become really special, and it's I think even more special because people on the outside just don't write letters anymore. We're so used to email and texting and stuff. So the art of writing letters to people inside has really fallen off.
HZ: Yeah. I think I've always found it really difficult to write letters to people that I don't know.
NIGEL POOR: Yeah. Yeah. I suppose it could be odd. Well, one thing that Earlonne makes very clear is you can write to somebody inside about a bird sitting on your windowsill and they're going to love that. Now, that's Earlonne talking, I don't know if I would say that; but you know what, Helen? It's like when you meet somebody at first it's a little awkward and then you get to know them and all of a sudden you have all these things to talk about. So maybe the first letter that somebody writes to a person inside is a little stilted. But then you start a conversation and you start communicating and you get to know each other. And I'm sure before you know you've got all sorts of things to talk about.
HZ: I guess in conversation you can pick up a little bit quicker on what's interesting to the person and what to talk about. In a letter it's a slower dance to pick up.
NIGEL POOR: Absolutely; and I want to go back to what I said about when mail was the way to communicate and it took a long time for a letter to get somewhere. And imagine how many friendships, courtships, whatever started that way: it took months and years to get to know somebody and I think there's something really beautiful about that. It's pretty old fashioned but I love that notion of the slow reveal - the letter is about the slow reveal.
HZ: And yet also it has this timeless quality because you can read that years later and it will still feel new. And I guess also, going back to what you were saying, you can't phone at any time, but you could read the letter in the middle of the night say if you wanted some company.
NIGEL POOR: Exactly. And if the person who's writing to you is descriptive, it would be like watching a movie. You know it would bring the scene into clear view again. And you can relive it and relive it as many times as you want to, and savour it.
HZ: Do you have any advice for writing good letter?
NIGEL POOR: Description; be descriptive. Think about the small details in your life and how to make those robust. I don't think that letters have to be full of huge news. They can be full of daily observations and I think that's the nicest way to share who you are: what are your daily observations?
HZ: And if people are thinking: maybe I would write to someone who's incarcerated, how do you get started doing that?
NIGEL POOR: If you want to write to someone at San Quentin you can just go to our website which is earhustlesq.com, and in the FAQ section you can find out how to write to men inside. But I do want to add anyone in prison would love to get a letter. Not just the men at San Quentin. R: I hear from the different men in our stories: I'll be walking into the prison and they'll come to me and say, I got a letter! I got a letter from somebody! And they want to show it to me and they really treasure it. And I think I keep saying that word but it really is a treasure. So it's not something that's just read and tossed away it's something that's read many times and shared and talked about. And it just brings a great deal of joy.
HZ: Visit earhustlesq.com to see some of the kites and to send kites - and to listen to Ear Hustle, which is truly an outstanding show. They just wrapped up their first season. We’re very proud to have them with us in Radiotopia.
Alison Hitchcock and Brian Greenley run From Me To You, to help people write letters to friends with cancer, and to donate letters to be sent to strangers with cancer. Learn more about it and get involved at frommetoyouletters.co.uk, where there are also letter-writing tips, information about the workshops they run, and inspiration for your letter-writing.
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And after all that, your randomly selected word from the dictionary today is…
logomachy, noun: an argument about words.
Try not having one of those in an email today.
This episode was produced by me, Helen Zaltzman, and Martin Austwick, who also does the music for the show. Thanks to Julie Shapiro, and thanks also to Radio Public for their support for Radiotopia. You can listen to this show on Radio Public. and you can also find it at facebook.com/allusionistshow and twitter.com/allusionistshow, and at its forever home, theallusionist.org.