I believe in the old-fashioned art of letter writing.
A good letter is thoughtful, provocative, intimate, and well crafted. A story written for an audience of one, a letter is an investment in its recipient: a vote of confidence and trust. Written correspondence is not for the faint of heart. An act of faith, it requires courage and commitment. My conviction attests to a host of related beliefs: in reading, contemplation, solitude, sharing, and posterity. Above all, it reflects a belief in anticipation and eventual fulfillment.
These days, I peer into my mailbox yearning for a personal epistle the way a farmer gazes at dry fields hoping for rain. The ascendancy of e-mail has produced a drought. Long e-mails I print and save, though they are poor substitutes. I miss the sensual charms of paper and ink, folding and unfolding, tucking, licking, stamping. And, of course, the most evocative element of all: handwriting—as distinctive to the eye as a voice to the ear.
E-mails lack the smudges and wrinkles of travel. Precluding ritual trips to the mailbox or post office, e-mails are simply ‘sent.’ Letters are ‘sent safely off’ on a journey, like loved ones at the airport. E-mails are hasty and fleeting; letters are effortful and enduring. E-mails are anxious and needy; letters are patient and generous. E-mails click, tap and divert; letters sweep, sing and seduce. E-mails are dashed; letters are drafted. E-mails are light bulbs; letters are slow-burning candles. The trivial in a letter is still profound, but even substantive e-mails seem trifling.
After the birth of my son, while reflecting on my past and his future, I organized my cache of personal correspondence. It was time-consuming, but vital. While my newborn napped, I indulgently arranged and rearranged the envelopes by different criteria, the way a music lover might a record collection.
Each letter was a life raft on which I floated back through shared histories, searching for strength and renewal. I relived my sister’s rocky transition to college, her old homesickness newly poignant in light of her peripatetic adult life as an actress, full now of closing nights and opening curtains. I rediscovered bulky packets from my loquacious brother. Now an editor, he had once sent lengthy letters, drafts of stories, poem fragments, and pieces of dreams he’d deemed worthy of jotting and sharing. I revisited missives penned by my eloquent parents, full of sweet support for their first-born. And I marveled once again at the trove of letters to and from my husband, who wrote devotedly during our courtship. Embarrassed by our youthful and hyperbolic proclamations of love, I was nevertheless touched that those strangers from long ago could still be nesting together the way our letters curl side-by-side in their keepsake box.
I believe in saving letters; that they increase in value over time, like fond memories or fine wines. When I finally completed my ‘archive’—when the last envelope had been boxed—I sat down to write my son a letter. One day he’ll be grateful to read it. This I believe.
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