I have carefully saved every single letter I’ve received since I was a child, and a rough draft for every letter I sent out before I was too busy to write rough drafts (about age 23.) The oldest are yellowing in an old square cookie tin in my childhood room. I’m sure my mother would love me to finally empty out that closet. The more recent are in a file cabinet, each in its envelope. I burned and discarded my adolescent journals. (They practically burned themselves, so full of sap and crackling teenage angst.) But I will not willfully part with the letters. They are the souvenirs of affections and friendships, and the memories of the very best times. No one takes the time to write a trivial letter. They are all precious.
Poetry and power lie in the very physicality of letters, in holding the words of another. Letters reflect the time and place of the writing- postcards, stationary unique to locale, the age and type of paper. They bear witness to the state of the writer at the moment of composition- the way he shaped his letters, the speed and neatness of the writing, the strength of the pen strokes. They can carry the scent of a place and the markings of their place of origin. They may be read over and over again without the aide of an electric screen. They can be kept in a pocket. They can be treasured.
Reading a letter in someone’s handwriting is like hearing her voice. I know the handwriting of my family members and letter writing friends by sight. For the recipient, there is meaning in holding this thing that was created in the hands of a friend, lover, family member, honored or even unknown person. I love letters- short ones, long ones, ones with doodles, tear stains, or chocolate smudges.
Hot Swede and I spent the summer before we were married apart. I was at the Chautauqua Institution for most of the summer. He was at home in Minnesota and on tour as a member of a nascent chamber music ensemble. I received a letter from him every day but Sunday, when the mail was not delivered. Every day. They are written on proper stationary, with interesting stamps, in as neat a penmanship as his left-hand and our right-handed language allows. I treasure each one. Combined with all the letters I sent in reply, they make a stack just under a foot tall.
Nothing did more to convince me that this was a man worth combing my hair for than receiving and reading all those letters. Each one was a gift. Hot Swede had never written letters before but did so because he knew how much I value them. They are love letters, descriptions of the day, musings on music and friends, questions begging reply. I soaked them all up. (Since saying the old “I do” 13 years ago, he’s written me one letter…and it was an apology. Ha!)
A handwritten letter is always a gift- completely unique and created with only one reader in mind. The sender takes the time to craft a personal message and present it in a way that reflects not only her thoughts, but the very movement of her hand and the tactile imprint of her surroundings. A letter is a record of a moment of her thinking of someone else.
Of course, these memories can be recorded digitally. Social media makes it easier than ever to stay in touch. We share messages, photos, jokes, and have destructive ideological typing matches that only result in raised cortisol levels and people behaving like the very worst kind of pedants. We Skype family around the globe for less than the cost of a .44¢ stamp. People are doing plenty of writing. My 2nd grader has a blog. (We started ours at the same time, how cute.) Facebook et al are powerful tools- facile, ubiquitous, and cheap. I like Facebook. I’ve rekindled valuable relationships that enrich my inner life and significantly allay the loneliness of being a stay at home parent of young children. It is useful and I enjoy it.
None of it replaces ink and paper for its ability to carry deep significance and leave its mark on the soul. Who doesn’t enjoy getting a real letter? I love writing them too- choosing my ink, pen and stationary, feeling the scratch of my nib on paper, enjoying the pleasing sight of a sheet filled with the lines and curls of the Latin alphabet in cursive. Each time I write a letter, thank you note, or sympathy card, I say, in the very action of taking the time to connect in this ancient way, “I value you. This is important. I mean what I say.”
I am resolved to write more letters. I am resolved to write to remaining influential pedagogues and family and thank them for their lessons. I am resolved to keep my promise of writing letters to my children each year. I want my words and gratitude to be present in their lives, even when I cannot, and not as a memory, but actually there, in hand, in view.
Need more inspiration to write a letter? Check out the amazing collections of letters over at Letters of Note. (Yes, I know it’s run by a company who trades in online correspondence. The irony is not lost on me. Check it out anyway. You will be rewarded.)