I will date myself now by telling you that once I used to write letters, and receive them. These were always special occasions, and something to be cherished. Since the advent of the computer though, hardly anyone writes letters by hand anymore, and so of course, almost no one receives them. Now that this is so, I’m thinking, people really don’t know what they’re missing.
I have it in mind to write to a friend of mine, who has never in her young life received a personal letter by mail. I can easily imagine writing to my friend from the park across from where I live, especially now that the weather has turned fine. There is so much to this though that I’m thinking about now, that I feel like I have to at least sketch what letter writing has meant to me, and to so many others. It is a kind of writing and communication that is set apart from all the others.
Perhaps this will inspire my friend to try her hand at a letter, or a lifetime of writing them, I don’t know. All I know for sure is that I would at least want everyone to know for themselves what this palpable mystery is all about.
In the past, letter writing was often a part of a courtship, or of people getting to know each other more deeply, and forming lasting bonds. When we write by hand, we are taking our time. Letter writing happens slowly. Does this surprise you? These days we associate writing to others with speed, and quantity, but that is the complete opposite of a careful letter, one full of a person’s heart, their dreams and visions.
You may have noticed how each kind of communication is a different. Writing is different from speaking on the phone, or via video call, which is different from meeting and having a conversation. Prose is different from poetry is different from song. We can all recognize the unique qualities of each of these. What is less known, and what is fading from common knowledge, is just how a letter is different.
You may be surprised to hear that people can express themselves more completely in a letter. This was once well known.
I imagine going off someplace, maybe a cafe, or to the woods, with a pad and pencil (always a pencil for me) and, in a way, stepping out of time.
I have brought with me the person I am writing to, and we are quietly doing this together. When we emerge, I am more fully born into this world, and yet the action is not yet complete. I carry the letter home, and read it over a couple of times. Maybe I set on my table overnight, and then I write it out neatly so that it can be read by my friend.
It’s then placed in an envelope, sealed, and addressed by hand. Stamps are affixed, and it’s taken to the mailbox, or, to the post office, which is the way I prefer, with the whole ritual of it…
And still, there is more to this, before we can say I have written to my friend. There is then the waiting. O, the waiting, the anticipation, especially when letters have been going back and forth, and it takes some days or weeks even for them to travel across the country, or to cross an ocean. There is expectation, and still the feeling of a conversation continuing like a stream, even in winter, beneath what is seen.
And once a letter arrives, o the joy! It almost doesn’t matter if it is long or short, something of our friend is with us now!
Letters are often cherished, and in the past they were kept, sometimes for a person’s whole lifetime. My mother kept my father’s love letters, for example, and my sister, who I am close to, has my letters from 40 years ago.
Why could this be?, and, can you see that by answering, you’re saying just what has been lost in this new, driven and distracted age? Can you imagine anyone ever keeping an email in the same way? Now you get my drift.
Letters, when they are meaningful to a person, are read, and re-read, sometimes many times. Anyone who writes and receives letters will be especially careful for just that reason. These are our very own words, in our very own handwriting (not typed, heaven forfend!), the pages are held in our hands, and when we send them, we are sending a part of ourselves, to belong to another forever.
What is given in this way is something special, and something that, were it to disappear from our way of knowing each other, would be a great loss.
People press letters between the pages of books; they take them with them when they move. They keep them among their most important possessions.
This is when the relationship lasts, and is good, of course.
Letters can also be burned, as a symbolic act, but let’s hope we don’t go there. This too is a fact though, because the form itself holds so much meaning.
I almost don’t have to say this, except that some may read these words who are not writers, and so I will also mention that by writing, we get to know ourselves more fully. What was hidden, is revealed, sometimes to our own delight, or dismay, but always a fuller sense of ourselves comes from it. All writers know this.
I wish that everyone could at least once experience the joys of letter writing. I know this is unlikely now, and so I tilt at this windmill with less enthusiasm than a knight ought to have. I can only hope that maybe, just maybe, some amused passer-by will understand, and pick up his pen.
Not wanting the letter I will write to be about a letter, I thought to jot down these few reflections before I go to the park. Now perhaps, if I haven’t spooked myself, I can actually write to her, and have it received.