It’s fashionable to bash Facebook, whether or not you subscribe to it yourself, but I have to say, as a relative newcomer to the social media, I love it as an adjunct to the actual community we share in this town. And there’s a difference, too. Clearly nothing can replace a neighborhood where all your physical needs are met, especially the post office, the hardware store and the grocery store where, unless they’ve recently had a whack-attack of re-organizing, you know where everything is located right down to the festive bags of McIntosh apples and the toothpaste selection.

And then there are all the people you know, from closest family to dear old friends, from acquaintances with a context and a name to vaguely familiar townsfolk. So now, throw into that mix a first meeting with a real flesh-and-blood person whom you’ve known only as a Facebook “friend” and something special happens. You’ve achieved a small measure of intimacy by a communication device that has always brought people together. (No, I’m not talking about Facebook. I’m referring to the grand old act of writing to one other.)

We used to call this ritual, quite simply, having a pen pal, and it’s long been a social studies feature in grade school for hooking kids up with pen pals from other nations. If a third grader from Hixville, Long Island can share stories about hanging Christmas lights on her street with a cohort from Ukraine who’s been making beets and barley soup with her grandmother, and if the correspondence is kept up for a few years, an unforgettable bond is forged. The girls might even visit one another over the course of consecutive summer vacations. One might choose to attend the university in the other’s country, living with her pen pal’s family.

Here on the Island in the late nineties, Lynn Ditchfield set up a grand experiment at the high school for her sophomore-year Spanish language class. The 18-or-so kids in her group, my son included, were matched up with a similar number of students in an Argentine school in a suburb of Buenos Aires. The Argentine kids migrated here, each one staying with the family of pen pal linkage, then later in the year the American gang traveled to South America. Their Argentine buddies treated them to their own exotic life style of 11 p.m. suppers, followed by dancing in the clubs, home after 3 a.m. and up for school at 10 a.m. That last part was heartless. They should have let the little angels sleep until noon.

My mother had the classic pen pal as a kid growing up in Chicago in the 1930s. She corresponded with a French girl in Normandy. They wrote about boyfriends, family, weddings and funerals. My mother told Adele about her first year at Black Mountain College, an experimental liberal arts school of 21 students and many more teachers in North Carolina. No college for Adele, she apprenticed at her aunt’s fine lace and linen factory in the town of Alençon. During the war, no letters traveled back and forth across the wounded seas. Then later the girls reconnected; they had both married, and later they were both expecting babies. Adele sent my mother an exquisite embroidered hanky of two kitties hugging, one white, the other tan with brown spots, decked with bows around their necks. (I keep it in a gilded hand-painted Florentine frame; it’s one of my few cherished items.)

Right around the time that Adele’s baby was due, she stopped writing. After half a dozen letters asking for news, my mother let go of the long tradition. She has always backed away from reflecting on what happened to the close friend she’d never met. No one else in Alençon picked up apen­ — or even knew to pick up a pen — to write to America about the fate of Adele.

So, hey! We’ve wound a long way from Facebook and the neighborhood grocer to the postwar years in Normandy. The imagination is tricky that way. But I did want to mention that, running into some of my virtual friends as real people in the byways of Martha’s Vineyard — Angela Anderson, Barbara Beichek, Carol Lashnits, John Eide — putting faces, in other words, to soulmates you already know through their insights, their wit, their aperçus of the world around us, it’s a rush, a new kind of rush, the rush my mother and Adele could have enjoyed if they’d never lost touch and we all could have met for a picnic on the banks of the Seine (it runs westward to the sea, you know), with all their kids meeting and looking for connection between the languages.

Friends of the Library hosted their annual holiday party last week, with the usual amazing spread of sweets and the good cheer that attends plenty of book talk. Even Santa made an appearance, encouraging everyone, big and little, to sit on his lap. (I think it was Bill McGrath behind the beard and the cigar — just kidding about the cigar!) If you’ve ever thought of joining the Friends, stop by the library and do so. The group even has a newsletter going now, and they’re eager to involve more people.

Jean Curtis Loud, of Oak Bluffs and now working in Middleboro, was recently rushed to hospital for two large blood clots in her lungs. She’s home and recovering and in typical good Jean spirits. You can send her a card at 47 Chestnut Street, Middleboro, MA 02346.

Featherstone’s holiday gift boutique will be open for a couple of more days, Friday, Saturday and Sunday, Dec. 16, 17 and 18, from 2 to 4 p.m. The gifts represent 70 Island artists and are priced between $5 and $250.

The last winter farmers’ market of 2011 at the Ag Hall in West Tisbury will take place on Saturday, Dec. 17 from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. Vendors from Oak Bluffs are Enchanted Chocolates, Frosty Hollow Orchids, Little Rock Farm, Island Alpaca and Whippoorwill Farm.