I believe in the importance of writing letters.
This past December my father got sick—terribly sick, the kind where the doctors just push their way to the hospital bed without stopping to tell you what’s happening. It was a lung problem, and because of his illness I wound up spending every day in the hospital with him, watching a grim gray holiday sadness steal over the ICU like a fog and eating Christmas dinner out of the hallway vending machines.
When someone you love is in peril, time stops; anything happening outside of the hospital might as well be taking place on another planet, and sitting by his bedside got me thinking about grown-up things like love and compassion, about relationships and spirituality and how, really, all that matters in life is how we treat one another. I also found myself remembering how friends back in high school were involved in Amnesty International, spending their study halls writing letters to dissidents serving time in foreign prisons, often for speaking out against corrupt and sometimes murderous regimes.
After my father recovered, I visited the Amnesty International Web site where I discovered a story that inspired me to pick up my pen and begin writing letters to Vladimir V. Naumov, the Minister of Internal Affairs in Minsk, Belarus. The letters concern a 19 year-old dissident named Zmister Dashkevich, arrested for voicing opposition to the government during the 2006 elections. I’ve committed myself to sending a letter every few weeks, and often I find myself wondering what, exactly, is happening to those letters once they arrive in Eastern Europe. I’m imaging some twentysomething post-Soviet intern sitting in a drafty 19th Century office, a young man drinking bitter and over-brewed tea from some polished Communist-era Samovar, and I’m imagining what must be going through his head when he sees these letters arrive with their exotic Lancaster County postmarks.
When I send these letters to Minsk from my local post office here in Holtwood, Pennsylvania, I feel like I’m giving the envelopes a secret, thrilling mission to a dangerous foreign capital, one from which they will almost certainly never return. And I wish I could say that I knew someone on the other end is taking my letters seriously, and that because of them, a frightened young man in a snowy gray country will soon be released from his jail cell, imprisoned for doing something that, here in the States, would have barely elicited a yawn from the local police.
Though my father has since recovered from his hospitalization, I’m not sure that I have. Seeing him get so sick pried me open, and it left a mark on me just as real as his surgical scars. It’s taught me that suffering, no matter where it’s happening, is not an abstraction; that life is short, and we all have a responsibility to take actions to help bring about a better world.
I believe in the importance of writing letters; I believe in hope.
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