As of this afternoon, I have 100 separate email threads in my inbox from strangers all over the world, most recently an 18-year-old guy from Singapore who’s telling me how nervous he is to begin mandatory army service next year. One week ago, I wouldn’t have seen these virtual conversations coming.
Let’s journey back. About seven months ago, my brother told me about something called “The Listserve.” In short, those who sign up for The Listserve receive a daily email from someone around the world. The topics of these emails vary, as they reflect the journey of the individual who has been chosen by a lottery to share his or her story on that given day. As of today, there are 23,323 subscribers.
As an example, one of my favorite Listserve emails is from an English teacher in rural Vermont who chose to share wisdom she’s acquired from her students, ages ten to fourteen. Things like:
- Always wear socks
- Don’t eat yellow snow (and if you find something brown on the ground, it’s probably not chocolate)
- Never try to ride a shopping cart down a hill
- Don’t be mouthy to your parents
- If you ever love two people, go with the second one because if you really loved the first one, you wouldn’t have fallen in love again
What’s interesting in reading these emails each day is most of them get me thinking about my own life and how I’d encapsulate it into 600 words for over 23,000 strangers to digest. My brother and I once talked about what would happen if we won the lottery. He said he knew exactly what he’d write. I said I had no idea what I’d write in spite of thinking about it every day.
Journey again with me into the recent past as I’m sitting on a beach in Tel Aviv at the end of an incredible 3-week Israel exploration. I vowed to put away my iPhone during my trip, so naturally I was checking my email on said beach when I received the email. The Email—capital “T,” capital “E.” My reaction was surely similar to those of other previous Listserve winners:
Oh crap. Oh crap…Oh crap!
While I didn’t have a computer to type up my response, I grabbed the journal my brother gave me before I left for my trip (Thank you, brother!) and started scribbling ideas, and by ideas I mean incoherent bullet points. My 48 hours was running out. Beyoncé’s “Halo” gracing my ear holes, I buckled down and typed the following on my iGadget:
Ten years ago I saw “Toy Story” and vowed to work at Pixar when I was older. Now two-and-a-half colleges and a dozen internships later, I work there.
Eleven years ago I stood as a bar mitzvah in front of my peers and family members, all smiley Chesire cats, only to realize that I had no idea what religion really meant to me. Now over a decade later, I’m currently in Israel meeting four cousins I’ve never met because the only truly religious experiences I’ve had since my bar mitzvah have taken place at the four Beyoncé concerts I’ve attended.
Twelve years ago I realized I was gay, or at least different enough to feel defeated when a classmate called me a faggot while playing basketball in gym class. Now I’ve been out to everyone in my life for almost three years and am learning that writing helps me channel my earlier negative anxieties into something positive.
This is all to say that I’m learning about the power of knowing your history, of being able to continually connect your present experience with the past—the now with the then. This has manifested itself in my three-week trip to Israel, during which I cried at Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust memorial and museum, while walking on a recovered path from a concentration camp and sat with four Israeli soldiers who explained that conscription requires all Israeli citizens at the age of 18 (with a few exceptions) to enter the military. These soldiers—my youngest cousin included—are in their early twenties but feel to me to be a decade older. I listened quietly as they recounted stories of people like Eli Cohen, an Israeli spy who worked his way into Syria’s political hierarchy in the 1960s until he became the Chief Adviser to the Minister of Defense, which my new Israeli friends believe allowed Israel to find success during the Six Day War. The pride in their voices was palpable. I thought about how while young Israelis are protecting their tiny country, us young twentysomethings are often lost in conversations that are mere regurgitations of things hastily read on our iGadgets en route to a job or internship (read: to the pursuit of an ever-growing career). This makes me wish I would’ve done one less internship and instead explored my family tree to learn more about my great grandparents who moved to America from Warsaw, Poland a long, long time ago.
I feel lucky to have had this time to explore my family roots. Time, that is, to “fill the tanks.” Joss Whedon, the prolific director/writer/producer, uses this phrase, and I love it. He believes in time away from routine to take in a new book, movie, or play. Or, for me, conversations with family members who live 6,000 miles away. I’ve been re-reading Peter Pan on my trip and I love the idea of Mary Darling literally tidying her children’s minds, which are confused and circular and comprised of zig zag lines. I like being open to a certain cultural messiness and taking satisfaction in being confused or surprised or both.
I won’t close with any commands or calls to action, because I don’t know the context surrounding your respective journeys. I will, however, finish by saying that I still can’t figure out how to best close an email. Regards and Best feel slightly cold, Love is often too strong, and Cheers…well I’m just not cool enough to use Cheers.
I hope that this email will serve as the beginning of a larger conversation with some of you.
Beyoncé for life,
San Francisco, CA
P.S. If you’re lucky enough to have parents in your life, call them and say hello. Then call them one more time because they’ll surely want to talk to you more.
P.P.S. This is totally a command. Sorry I lied earlier.
I didn’t know exactly when it’d be sent out, but I quickly had an answer when my phone started buzzing the next night while watching “The Sound of Music” with my cousin. Rolfe was in the middle of telling Liesl that he’d take care of her, which means I was one happy Jew because pre-Nazi Rolfe is dreamy. In that moment, I learned of the most special part of The Listserve: the responses. While I don’t feel totally comfortable elaborating on them in great detail out of respect for the privacy of those who responded, I’ll say that I’ve heard from fellow gay Jews to a husband and wife who’ve been deciding whether to send their daughter to Hebrew school and who are now, because of my email, sending their daughter to Hebrew school.
The most profound things are inexpressible, so I’m afraid I’ve failed to relay what all these responses have meant to me. In any case, I look forward to continuing some of these conversations with some of my new virtual acquaintances. Will they last? I don’t think it matters. Like a portal, if only momentarily, I’ve been let into someone else’s existence. My virtual path has crossed their virtual paths, albeit briefly, and that’s pretty cool.
So…to Listserve, or not to Listserve? That’s the (21st century) question, really.
Thank you to the Listserve creators—Josh Begley, Yoonjo Choi, Greg Dorsainville, Zena Koo, and Alvin Chang—for making this experience possible. As Woody Allen might quip, you’re all beautiful people and a credit to the human race.
Beyoncé for life,