Remember the letter? You know, the thing you made by taking a piece of paper and writing on it with a pen or pencil before folding it, sticking it in an envelope, addressing it and mailing it to someone?
Even the process involved in assembling a letter sounds time-consuming in the age of social media’s snap-of-the-finger communication. That said, today we sing the praises of the humble letter.
My first introduction to letters came from my parents who ordered me to write them to my grandparents.
My efforts usually produced the following letter-writing masterpiece:
“Dear Grandma Sally, I hope you are well. I am doing fine. I fell off my bike but it only hurt a little bit.
“School is good but I don’t really like math. Mrs. Sheets, our teacher, said I shouldn’t read a book in class when she is talking.”
I have to admit letter writing was a chore that took me away from more fun pursuits, including riding and falling off my bike. But something surprising happened to me when I wrote letters. The process of writing about my life, even as a kid attending grade school, made me step back and look at who I was and what I was doing a little differently than I had before I picked up a pen and poised it over a blank piece of paper ready to write “Dear …”
I didn’t realize it at first, but letter writing turned out to be a two-way street that also made me a letter recipient.
There is no emotion quite like the mild electric tingling that runs through your body for a second or two when you hold in your hand an unopened envelope with your name written on it — not typed or printed — but written by the hand of another person.
A letter — that centuries-old creation that one person takes the time to compose and send to another — promises intimacy and revelation so different than verbal or electronic communication.
Words written in the writer’s unique script contain permanency that imprints not just on our mind but on our heart with the revelation the writer intended, or maybe didn’t intend for us to experience.
We read, “I love you so much,” and conjure up the face of someone far away and imagine them expending the few minutes it took them to devote their attention entirely to the task of opening their heart only to us through the intimacy of words on paper.
A letter unopened and bearing scribbled or carefully-wrought letters spelling out my name and address have alternately thrilled and terrified me throughout my life.
I have left envelopes unopened for days out of fear of what the letters inside them might reveal or illuminate. I have torn them open like a starving man ripping into a meal and then carried the letter with me for days, reading it over and over, basking in words meant only for me.
My wife has an enduring interest in the letters John and Abigail Adams wrote to one another in the tumultuous days of our nation’s birth. At first, I couldn’t understand her fascination. But I have grown to appreciate how letters between people in love served to frame their lives even as they captured the drama unfolding around them.
John Adams wrote me a letter about a month ago. Actually, I received in the mail a reproduction of a letter dated July 2, 1776 that the future president wrote to Samuel Cooper. The letter came to me courtesy of Letterjoy.co, a service our daughter, with her uncanny insight into my personality, found and signed up for.
Adams writes optimistically about the fight against the British but worries about a smallpox outbreak and concludes, “Between you and me, I begin to think it is (T)ime for our Colony to think a little more highly of itself …”
It is amazing to consider that nations and a million different human endeavors were built for thousands of years on letters and other correspondence.
They were the main source of communication — and vital sources for newspapers — until the advent of the telephone, leading to the rise of video and mobile technology.
Napoleon (anyone who knows me well is now groaning) ruled an empire with letters and gunpowder.
Surrounded by secretaries with quills poised over paper, he paced around a room, narrating a letter to each secretary, bouncing from one topic to another, until the letters were finished and on their way by horseback across Europe.
My dad loved letters. My brother, sister and I tucked letters he wrote us away over the years after reading them. They come out every so often for reading and remembering. If we’re lucky, a grain of the pipe tobacco he liked to smoke falls out of the envelope and enhances the memories frozen in the words he wrote us years ago.
In this age of screens and swiping, we have dubbed letters “snail mail,” all but stripping them of romance. Maybe it is time to hold an annual lottery where every American is matched with someone else they don’t know and encourage them to write one another a letter.
Who knows? Putting pen to paper could serve to bridge political divides and forge new unity to bring solutions to social ills.