Friday, November 24, 2006

Day 24: Lost Art

A letter. For me. That was something of an event. The crisp-cornered envelope, puffed up with its thickly folded contents, was addressed in a hand that must have given the postman a certain amount of trouble.... [T]he style of the writing was old-fashioned, with its heavily embellished capitals and curly flourishes....

It gave me a queer feeling. Yesterday or the day before, while I had been going about my business, quietly and in private, some[one]...had gone to the trouble of marking my name onto this envelope. Who was it who had had his mind's eye on me while I had not suspected a thing?

The Thirteenth Tale, Diane Setterfield, Atria Books, New York, 2006.

Long ago, before there was e-mail and instant messaging and Skype, there was letter writing.

Back in the 1980s, I was a prolific letter writer. There wasn't a week that would go by where I wasn't writing to or receiving a letter from a friend or relative or some acquaintance. When I lived in Austria, coming home from a day of tracting and meeting with church members was the best time of the day. My roommates and I would open our mailboxes in anticipation of letters from home. Since we were only allowed two phone calls a year--at Christmas and on Mother's Day--letters were like manna from heaven.

Letters were how you built relationships with those you loved or were in love with. Letter writing was an opportunity to pour out your heart--its joys and sorrows, dreams and disappointments, news good and bad. It was a way to meet and become intimate with first strangers, then acquaintances, then friends, then dear friends over the course of months and years. (I even wrote to the Queen of England once, and received a reply! We still remain perfect strangers, having never moved beyond that first letter, but I wasn't looking for that, at that time.)

For years, I wrote consistently to an acquaintance in England, a cousin in Southern California, a friend in Florida, members of my church in Austria, even my sister when she lived in Hong Kong. We shared our deepest thoughts and feelings with each other, the day-to-day of living, the moments of wonder, the changes and progressions of our lives.

And then, one day, it seems, the letter writing stopped. It's not like it trickled out and finally ceased. It just flat out stopped. Some of it, I suppose, could be attributed to life becoming busy and people no longer having time.

My friend from England got married, moved to the States, and had three or four kids. I've since lost track of where she's landed and I can't remember her married name, only her name as I knew her: Gillian Firth of Manchester, England, who had a sister named Alison.

My second cousin, Kimberly Clarke, got married and had several kids, too. She lives in Las Vegas with her husband, Ken. I hear about her through occasional updates from my mother's cousin.

Terry Gillam, last I heard, is still down in Florida, struggling against the demon of depression and hard relationships. Last time I heard from her was in the 1990s in a card I received while I was living in California.

The folks I met and lived among in Austria have long since moved out of my address book. The Stahls. The Voduseks. The Anreiters. Even the Plattners, though I get occasional e-mails from Helmut or Christine with the latest news about their daughters.

My sister has long since returned from living in Hong Kong. I see her every two weeks or so as she lives only 20 miles away.

And through all of that, I moved on with life and became busy with college, then grad school, then work and being an adult.

Now, it's all e-mail. And while I have several friends I correspond with via this medium, it's simply not the same.

There's just something about a letter. The feel of the paper. The characteristics of the handwriting. The knowledge that actually sitting down and writing takes time and thought. The care and love that is conveyed in folding the pages, tucking them into an envelope, and putting a stamp on it. The sending and receiving.

We've lost much with the decline and extinction of letter writing. We've lost a connection with ourselves and each other, I think. With letters, we never worried about tone or misinterpreted what was said. We believed that the person who wrote to us genuinely cared and we accepted their offering in the spirit of generosity with which it was given. There were no ulterior motives or underlying tones or concerns about how our words might come across.

Letters were a record, a chronology of life and its march in our days and weeks and months. Letters measured the meaningfulness of our living. They were timeless and priceless.

In today's instantaneous, immediate gratification, need-to-know now, open forum world, letters are an oasis, a respite, a gift. They force us, when we are fortunate enough to receive one, to slow down and enjoy a more contemplative moment. They are the difference between making your own tea and buying it at Starbucks. They are quiet and warm and familiar.

I miss letters. I miss writing them and receiving them. And while e-mail is great and Skype is a wonder of modern technology, neither is as exciting or as heartwarming as a letter.


Sister Mary Lisa said...

Janet, this is really great stuff. It's so true. My cousin and I wrote letters while we were teens. I used to love her cool stationery. We used made up names for ourselves: Francois and Maurice. Isn't that hilarious?

Merujo said...

Amen, mah sistah! I miss letters, too. I'm making a slow return (really slow since my handwriting ain't what it was before the eye thing started) to real correspondence with postcards. I've started exchanging postcards with blogger friends far away. It's such a delight to find one of their cards in my mailbox now. And I've started writing funky family recipes on some of the cards, so there's warm wishes and something new to try on each one. I'm loving it.

Janet M. Kincaid said...

SML: I love it! I use to exchange e-mails with a friend and we signed ourselves Mabel and Agnes. I'm definitely following Merujo's lead (see her comment above mine/below yours) and am going to start sending out more postcards and, where possible, letters.

Merujo: Once again, you inspire me! See my post for today for more information.

Sister Mary Lisa said...

I wonder if they even sell postcards here....I'll have to check out a C-store...

Janet M. Kincaid said...

I would LOVE a postcard from Montana! I have no doubt you have them somewhere out there. You have to; it's the most beautiful landscape in the country. Or so I've heard. One of these days, I have to get up that way.

Sister Mary Lisa said...

You are always welcome, you should know that.