The Soul of Mail

Ward - Seattle, Washington, Washington
Entered on March 20, 2009
Age Group: 30 - 50
  • Listen to This I Believe on RadioPublic

  • Podcasts

    Sign up for our free, weekly podcast of featured essays. You can download recent episodes individually, or subscribe to automatically receive each podcast. Learn more.

  • FAQ

    Frequently asked questions about the This I Believe project, educational opportunities and more...

  • Top Essays USB Drive

    This USB drive contains 100 of the top This I Believe audio broadcasts of the last ten years, plus some favorites from Edward R. Murrow's radio series of the 1950s. It's perfect for personal or classroom use! Click here to learn more.

The Soul of Mail

I believe that a letter can save the world. The old fashioned kind, a real letter on real paper, put in an envelope you walk to the mailbox. Snail mail it’s now disparagingly called.

But it is this very slowness that makes writing a letter a sacred act. For six months my mailbox has gushed forth catalogs and bills, devoid of even one treasured envelope with handwritten script from friend or family. Personal letters are becoming an endangered species.

Letter writing is an intimate act. I have to take time out of my day and truly connect with my friend as I write. I see them reading it and I hear them laughter. I enjoy the feel of the paper as I fold it, addressing the envelope, finding a stamp, and the satisfying walk to my mailbox to proudly pull up that red metal flag.

Letters have been at the center of my deepest relationships. My first pen pal was my mother who wrote me faithfully, in her neat cursive script, telling me intricate details of her days recovering from her divorce and a new life in her mid 60’s. Her letters were a lifeline to me, as I want off to live in remote Alaska.

Though we lived on the same road in a small town, I met Carolyn because of a letter. A few days after a rehearsal I had directed I received a letter saying how she had seen me “conducting words in the air” for the actors. For the first time I felt truly seen by another. I wrote her back and a 20-year soul friendship was born with letters at its heart.

We found a mutual awkwardness if we tried to talk about it. So we formed a pack. We would not speak of it. A letter must be responded only with a letter in kind. Over the years these private sharings became mythical, imaginary, soul-to-soul in complete trust and freedom. When one of her hand-made envelopes appeared in my mailbox I let it sit for awhile on the windowsill in my cabin until I was ready to savor each word like a fine wine and then I would read it three or four times.

When she was dying, she gave me back a shoebox full of all the letters I had written her over the years. Looking into my friend’s eyes for the last time we both knew that we could only express our feelings for each other in a letter that would now never arrive.

Dick Buell wrote me hundreds of letters and postcards typed out at his kitchen table on his small Remington. He packed onto a small piece of paper lyrical prose that always let me know that I was not alone. Buell was a faithful lifelong letter write, much more so than I.

Visiting him once, he said, “Wardo come with me.” We walked slowly, as the cancer in his body allowed, to the end of his red dirt street until we stood in front of a small humble mailbox. “Every day,” he said, “I make this walk” He opened the box to show me its dark empty interior. “ His message was clear. I was not holding up my end of the bargain. I went home and wrote him a letter to tell him how truly much I loved him.

So can a letter save the world? Maybe not literally. But if saving the world means slowing down and connecting to another near or far, bringing a bit of love, joy or surprise into someone’s life, then yes, a letter can save the world. And if my mailbox is any indication lately, the world is in sad shape. But in letter writing, the adage is true: if you want to receive you must first give. I must find a stamp. Email can wait.