When Paragraphs Become People

October 4, 2010 | 27 comments

I wrote the words in cursive, looped to satisfy grade-school penmanship standards:

A Fourth Grade Girl
Marathon, New York

I enclosed an invitation:

My name is Jennifer Dukes, and I live in Marathon, Iowa. I’m writing to see if there is a fourth-grade girl in Marathon, New York, who would like to be my pen-pal.

I inserted a wallet-sized photo of myself, but removed it before I mailed the letter. I wondered if anyone would want to befriend a girl with crooked teeth and crooked hair-part.

So I sent words only.

Three weeks later, an envelope arrived, with grade-school tilt of words addressed to me.

Her name was Heather. And she didn’t actually live in Marathon, New York, but up the road a bit. And yes, she liked Strawberry Shortcake, too. And could I please tell her more about the cornfield in my backyard?

We built on a foundation of words, one paragraph-truss at a time. We revealed more and more of ourselves until we framed a friendship, much the same way a carpenter builds a house.

We spoke of games of hide-and-seek and how we secretly still played with Barbie dolls, even though all our friends had sworn them off. (At least, that’s what they had told us.)

We wrote of first bras and favorite books and junior-high crushes. And we compared two families in two towns, half a nation away from one another.

Through words, we transmitted the weight of who we were.


I hadn’t thought about Heather for years.

Until yesterday.

I sat in the third row of the SUV, tracing Texas roads from a writers retreat back to the airport. For three days, I and other editors on the High Calling team discussed the power of words and compelling stories.

Before the weekend, most of us hadn’t seen one another face-to-face. We knew each other through words on blogs, paragraphs in emails, and thumbnail photographs in Facebook statuses.

I didn’t know the penetrating color of her eyes,
or the sound of her infectious laughter — like a trumpet blast coming from a tiny flute.
or the feel of his fist-bump,
or the way he wore a perma-smile,
or the lilting southern accent that colored her words,
or the way she said her name like this: “Cleh,” rather than the hard-r “Claire.”

I thought about these things on the way to the airport. And Bradley, with the silver-framed glasses, must have been thinking them, too. He put voice to my rattlings. From the second row of the SUV, Bradley said that the people he had met face-to-face validated the two-dimensional people he’d known on his computer screen.

“Our words carry our spirits,” he said.

My heart quickened as Bradley continued: Isn’t that the way of Jesus, too? For Christ is the Word made flesh. And the Scriptures carry the weight and the spirit of the Person of Jesus.

“Our spirits reside in the words we type,” he said.

We turn our moments and lives into sentences and paragraphs — transmitting very self to very self.

And in a stroke of blessing, we had a small window of opportunity to touch the person we’d already come to know through word and photo alone.

We said goodbye in an airport parking lot, and I turned to go quickly, before they saw me uncorked — once again — with tears streaming down cheeks.

Yes, these people had become real to me.


And this all made me think of the words that made Heather, Heather.

I remember the day I mustered up enough courage to slip the photograph of crooked me into the envelope. And I remember the day she sent one back of her own crooked self.

And I thought she was exquisite. I wanted to be her friend forever. And we promised one another: We will meet one day!

But the letters stopped. She sent the last two, and she asked me in the very last letter: Why aren’t you writing me anymore? I don’t remember why I stopped.

I can still remember the shape of who she was to me. But the childhood friendship is an unfinished and fragile work.

I wonder if I could find her, a woman whose spirit is now but a whisper in my memory.

Photo: Cobweb at Laity Lodge, Texas.

Who has become real to you through words alone? Did you have a childhood pen-pal?

Related Posts:

Afterness by Claire Burge
Leaving Texas by Deidra at Jumping Tandem
A Scavenger Hunt Snapshot by Glynn Young
Saturday Escape to Silence by L.L. Barkat
Barefoot by Deidra at Jumping Tandem
The Wound — The Blessing by Laura Boggess
Retreat into Real Living by Veann

by | October 4, 2010 | 27 comments


  1. Doug Spurling

    Awesome parallel "When paragraphs become people" and "The Word became flesh"

    Now, we the body of Christ put on skin to "flesh out" the only Jesus some will ever see in this life."Christ in you, the hope of glory"

    "our words carry our spirit" our soul, the eternal part of who we really are. "Know each other after the spirit."

    I'd like to write more but my grand daughter is sitting in my lap and wants her Papa to do more than just talk – guess we need more than just words at times too. Gotta go play.

  2. Daniel

    You all have become real to me through your words. I read of your experience in San Antonio and am drawn to tears at the beauty placed before me. Although I am but a quite soul sitting in the back of the congragation this collective of hearts has become for me a place to call home. I can not remember how I was brought to you guys, but I am grateful to know you are out there; All over and with various backgrounds and accents. You are the Church and I feast on your words daily. So sorry I have failed to return the favor. Keep up the fight, living waters flow from each of you and I drink deep.

  3. Angel

    I never had a childhood pen pal but I feel sort of like I have many of them now that I have discovered the Blog world. As we write post after post, comment after comment, "revealing more and more of ourselves", I wonder which of these far away people might turn into friends and which will become "a whisper in my memory". Thank you for this beautiful post.

  4. Nancy

    I keep thinking this blog world is such a strange reality–the way I've met and gotten to know and care about people I've never met. I echo what Doug said, above. So true what you said, "Our words carry our spirit." I read accounts of bloggers meeting one another in real life, and wonder if I will ever get the opportunity to meet some of these dear, sweet souls in this lifetime. I do know that there are some I'm definitely looking up in heaven and we are going to have a serious party together!

  5. Real Live Preacher

    I have been perhaps the most distant of any of us in this group. It has been hard for me to invest in your lives, especially as one who was called for many years to invest so heavily in the lives of the people in my church.

    This retreat was good for me. You have become more than the woman with the hip looking blog and the Y scar to me.


  6. Beth.. One Blessed Nana

    amazing post Jennifer. I love it! I feel as if I know you as well through the words I read on your blog and push down into my heart for them to take root.

    Thanks for another awesome read here…

  7. Red Letter Believers

    Words do make a difference, and that's why what we do really can make an impact.

    It doesnt always have to be public. It can just be a good word to a friend, a note to a distant relative or a phone call.

    God gave us tongues to speak and hands to write. I think it's prime time to use them.

  8. Jennifer @ Getting Down With Jesus

    @ Doug Spurling — So good to see you here, brother! Sounds like a great way to spend the day — with a sweet child on your lap.

    @ Daniel — Your voice is valued. Feel free to stand up from the back pew and holler! But if you'd rather stay quiet, that's OK, too. 🙂 … You are of value to the Body of Christ … regardless of your volume. Thank you for sharing today.

    @ Angel — So true. Some friends are here but for a season; others, for a lifetime.

    @ Nancy — If we don't get to chat on this side of Heaven, I look forward to a rip-roarin' good time with you on the other! 🙂

    @ Gordon (Real Live Preacher) — You've invested, in more ways than you perhaps realize. I am intensely grateful for you.

    @ Beth — Thank you. ((hugs))

    @ RLB — Good point. I used to do a much better job of penning notes to friends and relatives. So often now, I defer to email. I need to pull out a few Forever Stamps and envelopes. 😉

  9. Amy DeTrempe

    Great post. I did not have a childhood penpal, or at any age for that matter. But, people who write the blogs I read regularly have become real to me and I've only met one of them. I didn't expect it to happen, but it did. And so have my critique partners, even though some I still have not met because we are an online group.

  10. Amy Sullivan

    Oh, it sounds as if you had a great trip getting to know the HCB editors even better!

    I met my pen pal from an address off of the back of a Lisa Frank sticker book…your sweet story of Heather made me think of her!

  11. Graceful

    Deidra over at Jumping Tandem. She was very real to me in just words before I met her in person. And then she was even awesomely better in the flesh!

    I had a penpal back in grade school: Rachel, from England. I remember being started when I saw her photo — a tiny wallet she sent me via air mail. She looked so much more solemn than she seemed on paper.

  12. Verna

    I started writing to a girl from Canada when I was 14…. At the age of around 19-20 my sister and I took the bus to Canada and I was priviledged to meet her and her family. Our friendship continued across the years and I went back to Canada to see her, then she and her brother came to Illinois to see me. Later when she taught school in OK my daughter and I went out there to see her, and later she came thru this area to see us…. Lasting memories were made. I regret not going to her funeral when they called to let me know she was with Jesus. However, I am now comumunicating with her sister. We both love the Lord and I truely hope someday I shall be able to go see her in person since it was many years ago when I saw her the first time we went to Canada.

    Just recently on our news there were two ladies in their 70's who had been writing together for years that got to meet each other.
    It was so neat.
    Sorry you were never able to meet the young lady who wanted to know more about the corn growing out you back door.

    have a great day.

  13. Beth E.

    I understand some of what you experienced at your writers' retreat.

    I went to a retreat for Christian bloggers. It was a gIRL (girlfriends In Real Life) Gathering. I had not met anyone face-to-face until that weekend.

    What a wonderful time we all had! It was an opportunity to share our battles and our victories, blend our voices in praise and worship, discover God's plan for ourselves in His word, and wrap our arms around one another in love. Plus, we laughed…a lot! Truly awesome!

    I'm so glad you had such a wonderful weekend. Maybe you and I will meet IRL one day. 🙂

  14. Jennifer

    I once had a pen pal in Korea, but we only exchanged 2 or 3 letters, nothing like the budding friendship you describe here. But my shy husband made me love him through his words. A long summer apart between college semesters, he showed me a love in letters that I now get to live in actuality. Your friend is right–we do show our souls in writing. So glad you enjoyed your trip.

  15. Laura

    Oh, Jennifer. I'll never forget the way your eyes sparkle and the way you look in my eyes when you speak to me. What a special time we had. So good to love you with skin on!

  16. alicia

    The timing of this is amazing to me, Jennifer. I'm flying out this weekend to meet Bina face to face for a women's retreat through her church! Your words erase all hesitancy that I may have. So glad you had an amazing weekend!

  17. Linda

    I only got to spend a few short hours with friends I had never met apart from their words, and I felt all the things you have so beautifully written Jennifer. I am more thankful than I can say that the truth is – we are real through our words.

  18. Ann Kroeker

    I loved racing around San Antonio with you, pausing for pictures, laughing with everyone as Claire led the way! You are a joy, and I was honored to talk with you about so many things, including our writing lives.

    Bless you, dear one!

  19. Glynn

    Our first introduction in person – a scavenger hunt! And we won!

    It was an incredible four days.

  20. Kathleen Overby

    Vicarious joy in yours.

  21. Sam Van Eman

    Great to make my way around these after thoughts. But Laura got a mug and I'm jealous.

  22. Marcus Goodyear

    Jennifer, I am so honored that I was in the car where that conversation took place. Honestly, I've never experienced anything like the retreat this weekend–and I've been to a lot of retreats.

    Absolutely incredible.

    And part of that incredible was you. Thank you so much for coming.

  23. Sandra Heska King

    From one crooked, cross-eyed gal to another with a cornfield in my backyard, I think you're swell. And I hope I get to hug your neck in person one day. Your spirit touches mine.

  24. L.L. Barkat

    oh dear. Maybe I need to work down to clarinet or something 🙂

    Such a pleasure to meet you. My daughter loved your candle.

  25. Carey

    I had numerous pen pals. The first that comes to mind is a gal I met I believe at Calvinette camp. We lived all of probably 40 miles away. But that was before email and facebook, and long distance calls were taboo unless necessary. So we wrote. I remember her because she was killed in a car accident at 15. I went to her funeral. A sad sad ending.

    I wonder…Sierra has a pen pal from London that she met on a vacation with family in Jamaica. I think Sierra sent the last letter with our Christmas picture last Christmas. Wonder if she'll ever hear from her again? Maybe she moved, or maybe…she just didn't write anymore. Sierra doesn't worry about it. We'll probably send her a card one more time this Christmas season.

    Thanks for the post, friend! Got me thinking, as you can tell.

  26. deb

    I knew reading your reflection on this would be a gift.

    I'm so happy for you , truly.

  27. Verna

    In answer to the question you left on my blog when you visited my blog on things I have made.

    Yes, I have made the things that are on that blog. I am still finding photos of things I made in the past and am showing current things as they are made and either sold or given away.

    That particular blog was started so I could remember what I have done in my sewing/arts/crafts/etc. My other blog is general things about my everyday walk in life as I try to serve Jesus as best I can where ever I am.

    thank you for stopping by my blog.


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