Twenty Years with Philip


Pen pals seem to be a thing of the nineteenth century, or the early twentieth, unsuited to our modern age of email and text. This strikes me as sad. Perhaps we’ve lost something without noticing it. We may have let the comforting words of distant companions slip away.

“During the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic,” writes Chelsea Butkowski with American University, “people in the US reported sending more personal mail to stay in touch with friends and family.” At the time, Instagram posts sprung up supporting popular letter-writing campaigns like Letters Against Isolation, The Big Send and Penpalooza. Dr. Butkowski suggests that this rebirth of letter writing can help build an intermingling of online and offline relationships across the world.

A pen pal is not limited to handwritten letters. In fact, one of my most valued friends writes to me nearly every week via email. Over two decades we have shared much laughter and much sorrow. His compassion and advice have helped shape my life. His name is Philip.

I wrote my first letter to him in 2004. “Can God forgive me?” I asked. I had read two of his books on the subject and truly wanted to know the answer to this haunting question about God’s capacity for forgiveness—for things I presented myself as having done (but did not), and deeper, in my secret heart, things I had done but dared not admit. I don’t recall the contents of Philip’s reply, but we’ve been pen pals ever since.

Having a pen pal is a curious experience. As with any relationship, we start slow, perhaps waiting for the proverbial shoe to drop. Well, he seems nice enough, we may muse, but what’s he after? I was solidly involved in a life of grifts at the time. To my astonishment, I discovered that I really wanted to be a friend to my new correspondent.

Our first foray focused on Wendell Berry’s “The Gift of Gravity.” I sent it to Philip and, with his usual penchant for precise language, he pronounced it “most apt” in relation to one of his popular books. So began twenty years of swapping letters, poetry, prose, art, and music.

With a few breaks.

We had been writing semi-regularly when, in January, 2006, I was filming a documentary near Philip’s home in Colorado. I asked my pen pal and his wife to join me at Boulder’s famed teahouse. He was in the middle of writing his latest volume and declined the invitation. He didn’t miss much. I was arrested for criminal impersonation that same week.

Later, at my hearing, the court officer asked if I knew anyone locally. “Oh, sure,” I said. “But they wouldn’t touch me with a 10-foot pole now.” She tilted her head and spun a sheet of paper round for me to read. “Don’t be so sure,” she said. Her notes had a column entitled ATTEMPTED CONTACT and under it, one name: Philip.

The court system dominated my life for a while. I lost touch with my pen pal for eight years. Then something strange happened.

My mother died in 2013. The following spring I spent a few weeks with my dad in Washington state. My connecting flight on the return trip was a fifty-seater from Arizona to South Carolina. Wiggling along the crowded aisle, I looked down and there he sat, my old friend, all crazy hair and crooked smiles.

When we disembarked, I re-introduced myself and our acquaintance began anew. But our letters changed. Philip’s new notes held an undertone of genuine concern for my well-being. The fact that I was no longer on the grift—and full of odorous cattle manure—may have had something to do with it.

Less than a year later, on January 16, 2015, my daughter died of a fentanyl-laced heroin overdose. She was twenty-six. “Jess is dead,” I wrote to Philip. “Please pray for us.” He replied almost immediately, “No one knows your pain.”

My pen pal hasn’t left me alone since. His personal, weekly letters have become an important part of my life. They also contribute to my efforts in service of fellow sufferers.

In those first few months after Jess died, Philip shared his thoughts on the 19th-century German poet Friedrich Rückert, who wrote some five hundred laments in the wake of losing his two youngest children. Three years earlier, Philip told me, he had been asked to speak in Newtown, Connecticut after the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting. His remarks included a reading of Rückert’s “In this weather.” Now we talked over the poem via email, as was our habit, but this time with far deeper resonance.

I downloaded a copy of Rückert’s 1872 German-language book, Songs on the Death of Children [Kindertotenlieder]. In it I discovered a communion of grief that I dared not imagine might exist. I translated one of his best, “Over all Graves,” and sent it to Philip on a whim.

“Over all graves grass must grow,”
“time heals all wounds,” such is the solace,
the worst thing to say, as consolations go;
poor heart, not that, not a healed wound.
It is something, at least, this pain;
we amputate the numb and the dead.

Philip was on a flight to Georgia when he replied that the piece is “very fine.” He encouraged me to render into English more songs from this classic. Soon we were sharing Rückert’s poems in our letters. At times Philip could be snarky, insisting a piece made no sense; or stunned that a moving verse had never before been translated. We weighed each according to its merits, back and forth, the good and the bad. Three years later, ten of the laments seemed ideal for inclusion in my first book on grief, Wounded in Spirit.

We can thank my pen pal for that, too.

In December, 2017, I thought to send artistic masterpieces via email to Philip as a sort of digital Advent devotional. I chose painters who had also known loss, as we both had, and wrote letters describing their journeys of grief. A few weeks into the month, Philip began urging me to turn these missives into a book.

A pen pal can offer insight that we might miss on our own. It never occurred to me that there was a book in our letters. Philip was right. A publisher picked up the manuscript a month later. By the next Christmas, it was in the hands of other mourners.

My second book on grief is an English translation of Rückert’s Songs on the Death of Children, the same German book that my pen pal had introduced to me shortly after Jess’s death. As it happened, Philip and I were sharing a long lunch with our wives the day before this new volume arrived from the publisher.

Our pen pal connection has extended in unexpected ways. A few years ago, Philip introduced me to Tim, a writer and former rector of a cathedral located a few blocks from where my daughter lived before her death. I have also become friends with Rudolf in Germany, thanks to a shared love of Rückert’s verse. It is a rare week in which I don’t hear from these two new pen pals, as well.

It’s not all letters and email. Philip’s sister-in-law lives near our small town. She is the guiding force behind grief programs at our local community center. I facilitate support groups there.

Over the years Philip and I have lost beloved family members. We’ve survived illness and accidents, disappointments and successes, and at times simply needed a safe space to grouse. “Letters are the most precious, most immediate breath of life,” observed Goethe. Perhaps so, in a way. We are occasionally shocked when Philip’s letter to me, or mine to him, seems to arrive at just the right moment.

My pen pal was recently diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. Our weekly emails have grown shorter. He’s as sharp as ever, but at times he seems a tad distracted as he wrestles with this progressive disorder.

Social media focuses on bite-sized nuggets of information. Who needs pen pals and the long letters they inspire? What’s in it for us in an age of instant gratification? Not much, I suppose. Other than relationships that matter, that require attention and patience, that mean more than thousands of texts shot off without thought.

Books come and go, as do essays, but no effort is too great for a friendship that lasts over the years, through our happiest and most grief-stricken moments. For this lesson, and many others, thank you, my pen pal, Philip.

Image Credit: Gabriel Metsu, “Man Writing a Letter” (1662), via Picryl


  1. Thank you David for sharing the price on Pen pals. As a missionary kid pen pals were a reality check! I still have a friend from boarding school in middle school. Stay in touch more by emails than letters.

    • “Reality check.” Ha! You hit upon something I had overlooked. You’re right. Our pen pals, who have known us for many years, can certainly keep us grounded in reality — reminding us that though life goes on in absence, we have distant friends that have much to tell us and are eager to hear our news. Thank you!

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