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Tuesday, November 23, 2010

On Letters

Do you remember, back in the day, when if you wanted to get in touch with someone who didn't live in your town, you wrote a letter? This required an actual pen, and paper, and time. You needed the quiet of an afternoon and a table in a sunny corner, or a blustery evening and a comforting mug of tea, or a wintery morning with the flakes softly falling and the coffee brewing.  You needed the physical and emotional space to compose.  You had to be able to think about what you wanted to say and how you wanted to say it.  More than that, you wanted to be able to think about what you wanted to say and how to say it.  You actually spent time crafting your prose--or, at the very least, writing complete sentences in which one might find attention even to obscure grammar rules like not ending with a preposition.

You couldn't just dash off a quick three lines, hit "send"and have an answer by 2pm. Sure, if you were alive in 1845 in London, you could do that.  Back then, the post came three times a day, and you could send a letter across town at 10am inviting someone to dinner and know by 3pm whether to set an extra place or not. 

But if you were born this side of the turn of the twentieth century, or in the vastly bigger spaces of the United States, you wrote letters to which you would not have answers for days.  You sent something off on a Tuesday knowing full well that if your correspondent were really dedicated and wrote you back almost instantly, you still wouldn't have a reply until a week from Friday. And that was okay.  You went about the rest of your life, secure in the knowledge that your words were winging their way to your family/friends/beloved, and then in nine days or so, you started haunting the mailbox, eagerly anticipating the reply.

I had an epistolary relationship once (even just the word "epistolary" makes me happy). I was in college and had fallen in love during my junior year abroad.  Once I came home, I found myself every night writing a portion of a letter to him.  He did the same. Once I'd filled all the pages I could fill and still keep the letter's weight low enough that I would only need one international stamp (which cost the princely sum of 50 cents) to send it, I would mail the letter.  This was almost always every five days.  And every five days, I would get a letter from him.  Of course, the letter I got was not in response to the one I'd just sent.  Instead, we concocted our own convoluted kind of correspondence, in which we partially told each other what was going on in our lives, partly answered questions that had come in the last letter, and partly just prattled on about how goo-goo-eyed we felt about each other.

Interesting aside: The fastest I ever got mail from the US to England was three days, but that letter was an exception; it was a particularly important one that I'd spent hours writing, and I lost it on the way to the Post Office to buy the stamp. Apparently, some kind soul put it in the mailbox for me. It reached my boyfriend as if it had traveled by special messenger -- without any stamp at all...  I was convinced at the time that true love really could conquer all.

Of course, I learned true love could not win out in every situation.  Such as, when you have decided that since you are so far apart, seeing other people will be a good idea.  Or when you come to the realization that the person whose letters you love is not actually a person whose person you love.  But still, the power of the letters is seductive.

I am thinking about this right now because the weather has just turned cold.  Over the course of today, the temperature dropped more than fifteen degrees--and that was during the sunny hours.  I have eaten myself completely silly, drunk multiple cups of coffee and tea, and generally found myself retreating inwards to the warmth of blankets over my knees and other cozy things.  And this is the time when I begin to think of letters, when I miss the pen-and-ink correspondences that I used to have with my friends all those years ago before email and cell phones and text messages and eight frillion other ways to find out instantly how they are doing.

I miss those slow, pleasurable hours of writing.  I miss the thrill of seeing well-known handwriting adorning an envelope in my mailbox.  I miss the spreading happiness of reading the words someone else has taken the time to pen.

I am terrible at letter writing these days. I tend to rely on email and phone calls just like everyone else. But I am thinking, lately, that perhaps I should go back to it.  Perhaps I should set aside a few hours each week to write to my friends.  Perhaps they would even write me back.  You might think that there is nothing that can be said in a letter that you can't convey more efficiently in some other way--and I will agree with you as to the communication of facts. It is faster by far to pass on information in other ways.  But there are things that letters convey that no other media can manage, things about time and tone and thought, about eloquence, about the poetry of life.  Things, I think, that we may be sadly lacking in our hyper-media age.

It is that last, that sense of poetry, that makes me want to make a place for letters again in my life. Language is too precious to be reduced to mere conveyance of information. At least, in my world.


anymommy said...

I loved this, it was like a letter in itself. I have mixed feelings. I love that it's so easy to stay in touch, but I think that ease does reduce us to two-liners, quick notes, catch up here or there and the art of really telling someone your thoughts in a letter is fading.

Maybe that's why so many of us like to blog?

LceeL said...

Dear Andrea,

Is it just me, or do you find it difficult to start an email in the same fashion you would begin a letter - i.e., with the typical Salutation? Like ... Dear Schmoe, ....

I try to do that, most of the time, but unlike a letter, starting an email with 'Dear' anything just seems out of place - at least, to me.


Kate Coveny Hood said...

A love letter to writing...I really liked this.

I can do e-mail because real time reading/response aside, it's still very much like letter writing (to me). I always wrote long e-mails and thought about what I wanted to say. I checked for typos. And I eagerly awaited replies. In fact - this is how I got into blogging. I wrote stories to my friends and decided that I liked it enough to actually do something with it.

What I will NEVER get into is texting. I need words - full sentences. I hate abbreviations and symbols. That's fine for practical communication - but there is so little room for humor and insight. You can be ironic and brilliant in an e-mail (please send as many of those to me as you want - I love them), but not in a text. "C U L8R" isn't an acceptable sign off in my little old lady book!


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