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first person

Illustration by Chelsea O'Byrne

The past months of isolation and distancing have led to creative ways to stay in touch and boost spirits. Some such as online card games, “voice” letters and online medical appointments, I really like. But I am ready to unshackle myself from the chains of chain letters.

In the early weeks, as most of us scrambled to make sense of what was really going on, we shifted to online connections to remain in touch. Zoom became a new verb, “let’s zoom,” my friends said. It was a distraction from the stark realities of COVID-19, especially as death tolls mounted around the world. The internet also brimmed with feel-good messages and images. I would often receive the same quote or meme from two or three different people as we tried to soften the grim news with hopeful thoughts.

In this early online onslaught, I also received many e-mail chain letters with the classic chain-letter formula – “send a beautiful … [the first letter I received asked for a quote] to the first person whose name appears on the list, put my name first on the list, put your name second and then send to 20 of your friends. Please do not break the chain.” I received that chain letter twice. The first time, instead of fully opting out, I made my own rules and sent a nice quote to the friend who sent me the chain, and to the person who was the first on the list but also wrote as tactfully as I could, “I don’t do chains.”

Shortly after came the recipe chain letter. Same formula, but this time it asked me to supply a favourite recipe. One smart recipient of that chain, suggested we not follow the rules but shamelessly break the chain and each one of us send a recipe to every person on the e-mail. That seemed like a smart solution to break the commitment, and it worked well. Then I received two more identical recipe chain letters from other friends. I declined and to soften the “no,” I offered up the same suggestion that ended the first recipe chain letter. But I never heard anything after that, which may have been my loss since I was cooking more than ever and fresh recipes may have been a bonus.

There is guilt in breaking a chain sent by a friend. But where does that come from? These days, I cannot plead that I’m too busy to complete the chain and it is hard to say to a friend, I am not interested in what you have invited me to do.

Are chain letters some type of pyramid scheme? A quick Google search tells me that the earliest chain letter started in the 1800s as a way to raise money for a church. I also remember doing them as a kid, writing, addressing, stamping letters and hoping to get lots of money in the mail (did anyone ever win at that?).

I thought I had learned long ago not to get involved with chains, but through this pandemic period, I flirted with the quote and recipe chain, then fell off the wagon and jumped full bore into a book-title chain. I caved because it came from a close friend who is a prolific reader. I love books, too, and after procrastinating, I wondered – what is the downside of picking 20 people I know who enjoy reading and asking them to share favourite book titles? To justify breaking my own rule, I added my own introduction to the chain letter, “I normally never participate in chain letters, but this time I broke my own rules, blah blah blah.”

The moment I pushed send I regretted doing so because within the hour I received thoughtful e-mails from three friends explaining why they would not be participating. I was instantly annoyed at myself for doing what I don’t do, but did do! Another friend sent no explanation (which was fine) but included some of her best reads from the last year. Of the “thanks but no thanks” notes I received, one in particular resonated because it helped me clarify what I dislike about chains. “I hate to be a party pooper,” my friend wrote, “but I truly don’t do chain letters. … I hate imposing on others.”

A light bulb went off for me. After all, has anyone ever said, “I got the best e-mail today – a chain letter”? The chain-letter mentality is like forcing someone to buy something they don’t want at your home Tupperware or jewellery party.

In the end, I never received anything from anyone who may have received my name on that book chain (and that’s fine). But the friends who declined did send me lots of book titles to follow up on, including two from the woman who received book advice from me, which was off-book, so to speak, for the chain rules. But I am officially done with all forms of chains, including the Facebook versions.

So, I make my global apology to my friends for imposing chains on you. I am also sorry that I won’t be participating in any future chain letters – with this public declaration, from now on, I’ll always be the weak link.

Nancy J. Wood lives on Vancouver Island.

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