Who here remembers actual letters? Postcards? Pen pals? Holiday cards? Any sort of written communication mailed between two people? *Crickets* Yeah, I thought so. I’m old, so I remember all of this stuff. I’ve written before about the benefits of putting electronics aside and using paper and pen occasionally for my writing, so now I want to chime in on the benefit of letters.
Yeah, email and texting has taken over a lot of my communication, just like it has for everyone. It’s fast and (mostly) free. But I still enjoy a good letter and work hard to keep at least one letter writing tradition alive.
I have a long-time friend who lives in Michigan. We met at summer camp, in the days before email was a thing. To keep the friendship going between summers, we wrote letters. Lots and lots of letters. We stuffed manilla envelopes with pages and pages of writing, as well as random things like postcards, pictures, and small gifts. When email became popular years later, we switched to that. But it wasn’t the same. Sure, we were able to convey information about our lives, but it lacked the personal touch of our random envelopes. By mutual agreement, we switched back. And we’ve been writing that way ever since.
Now, I realize this seems old fashioned. “But you can send photos over email, or just post ’em on social media! You’ll save time and money with email! There’s no reason for letters anymore! You’re killing trees and wasting gas!” That’s all true. I admit it. There’s no practical reason for letters. We can send much of the same information electronically. And we could be a bit more environmentally friendly if we used email. But it’s just not as much fun. And that’s why we do it.
It’s fun to go to the mailbox and find a big envelope waiting for me. Opening it is full of anticipation. What does she have to say? What did she send this time? Now that almost all of my mail is junk (thanks to e-billing, I don’t even get bills anymore, just crap and the odd magazine), it’s nice to walk to the box and find something in it that I actually want. When I open her letters, I get to spend a good hour reading about her life and looking through the random things she’s included. Over the years we’ve traded postcards, pictures, pressed flowers, magazine/newspaper articles, copies of things we’ve dug up from our shared camp days, souvenirs from trips and our hometowns, holiday cards, presents, and so much more. Most of this stuff is small, but the thoughts behind it are big.
I can hear people who’ve never written letters now: “Isn’t that time consuming?” Not really. We write as we have time. Neither of us sits down for hours on end and writes one letter. We write a paragraph or two as things come up that we want to share. We write for a while and then draw a line, or make a note that one thought is ending and another will begin soon. The result is, admittedly, disjointed, but we know each other well enough to understand anyway. We set the trinkets aside as we think of them, too, putting them near the letters. When we’re ready to mail, we stuff it all in a big envelope, weigh it and mail it. Rinse and repeat. We average one a month, sometimes more, sometimes less. It just depends on life.
Neither one of us types these letters. Typing might be faster, and it might be easier to keep track of the disjointed pieces, but it loses the personality. There’s something about the scratch outs, margin additions, doodles, and footnotes that reminds me of her personality. If our letters were typed, they could also be edited, and that would remove the spontaneity, random thoughts, and quirkiness from the whole affair. It would render the letter just another carefully curated missive in an age where everything is curated for best effect. I don’t care about her “best” self. I care about her authentic self. Reality is so much more interesting than airbrushed photos and carefully edited captions.
That’s what hand written letters allow us to share. Reality. It’s the closest thing we can get to actually being there and sharing our lives. We do get together occasionally, and we do trade emails and phone calls when something is really important or time sensitive, or if we just want to hear a friendly voice. But the letters, with all of their quirks, faults, mistakes, and offbeat trains of thought connect us to who each other really is. When I read her letters, I “see” her and her world more clearly than I ever could in an email or Instagram post.
I honestly believe that the letters are the reason our friendship has survived nearly thirty years. We’ve gone from summer camp friends to grown women with kids (in her case), spouses, aging parents, houses, jobs, and all the stuff that comes with adulthood. When we do see each other, we’re able to pick right up where we left off because we’ve taken the time to really share things with each other. We don’t just dash off an email and consider it good enough. Or slap a picture up on Instagram and say, “Hey, look where I am.” Phone calls are often rushed, too, as one or both of us will discover midway through a conversation that someone needs us, or we have to be somewhere. The conversation gets cut short and is unsatisfying.
Our letters (and the odd process we have for writing them) give us time to think and to share what’s most important. (As well as sharing some stuff that’s just stupid and silly.) We’re able to share context and emotion, something lacking in email and social media. And since we can read them at our leisure, there’s never any danger of cutting things short or feeling like we didn’t get to finish the conversation. I honestly think that the time it takes to write and read our letters is what makes them so special. In a world where everything is faster and faster, taking the time to write letters says, “I value our relationship and I’m willing to invest in it,” more than any form of e-communication.
When I’m writing to my friend, I often feel a kinship with women from an earlier time. Way back when, letters were the only way of keeping in touch with family that a woman may have left behind when she married. If her husband wanted to go west, the woman knew she might never see her family again. Letters were the only way to stay in touch so they had to be thorough. Sure, my friend and I can jump on a plane any time and see each other, but that’s not practical. To keep the relationship healthy, we have to communicate regularly and there’s no better way than through old-fashioned letters.
I’m sure I’m preaching to a brick wall. No one wants to go back in time and write letters! But I encourage you to try it. If you have a friend or family member who lives far away, try writing them an actual letter. See if you enjoy it. You might discover a fun new way to communicate. Bonus: Letters create a time capsule of your relationship. If you keep the old ones, you have something tangible to look back on and remember.
(Photo courtesy of 2204574)