I tend to keep personal letters I receive in the mail, whether handwritten or typewritten. Maybe my practice is driven by their rarity. Or perhaps they offer evidence someone thought I was worth the time and energy required to write and mail them. I think it’s the latter. The letters have no value except to me. I’ve come to realize over time their value declines. Though I hold on to them, sometimes for years, eventually I discard them. The desire for order and minimalism ultimately overtakes sentimentality, I guess. But sentimentality always returns.
The topic of letter-writing and letter-keeping is on my mind because I spent time the other day reading a letter I received from a friend ten years ago. Not a close friend; more of an online acquaintance with whom I developed a relationship. We still keep in touch on rare occasion, but the ties between us seem to have frayed to threads. That happens, I think, when communications wither over time and distance. The very few times (three, was it?) I met her in person were brief. Once, in New York city, my wife and I had dinner with her. Another time, I met her and her friend (I don’t recall his name) for dinner; I think it was dinner, anyway. And a third time she joined my wife and her sister and me briefly for a segments of our train ride between Boston and Aurora, Illinois (to attend a memorial service for my sister-in-law’s husband). The details of our friendship are irrelevant to my musing about the exchange of letters, aren’t they? Yes, but that’s what old letters do. They dredge up experiences long since buried under the rubble of time and experience.
Though I treasure the exchange of letters, I seldom write them. It’s not a matter of being lazy, though that might contribute to the dearth of written communication in my history. I think it’s that I’ve learned through experience that other people do not necessarily appreciate letters as much as I. Many people do not seem to attach much value to letters; neither writing them nor receiving them. Have I always responded to letters I received with letters of my own? I doubt it. Thus, I suppose others might wrongly assume of me what I may wrongly assume of them.
I have never been one to write letters by hand; I always type them. While some say a handwritten letter is more personal and intimate than its typewritten counterpart, I say my handwritten letter would be impossible to read. That having been said, I do appreciate handwritten letters I receive; they do seem more personal than typewritten letters. But my handwriting has long since deteriorated into the illegible scratch of an illiterate chicken fed hallucinogens, bound with stiff wire, and given a paint brush dipped in tar to use as a writing implement.
Letter-writing has become so rare, it seems, that sending and receiving letters are almost deviant acts. Recipients of personal letters are assumed to have overly-intimate connections with senders, as if the letter was an open admission of a sordid relationship. The same assumptions are made of senders. They must be engaged in some sort of disreputable affair, the details of which are contained in the private communication. Yes, I’m overstating the type and scope of judgment about those who exchange written communications by mail; but I’m not sure just how far beyond reality my overstatements are. Email and text exchanges do not seem to enjoy the same bad reputation as letters send by mail. However, they may be on their way to condemnation and shaming. We shall see.
It is interesting to me that a letter that runs two or three pages or more is viewed as a precious gift, illustrating the value the sender places on his relationship with the recipient. On the other hand, people often decry a lengthy personal email, judging it overly-wordy and ego-driven. Maybe I’m wrong on both counts; I am touched to receive either form of personal communications. But especially when sending an email, I try (but often fail) to limit its length for fear a longer missive will be set aside for later reading, only to be forgotten and ultimately discarded, unread.
I predict personal letters will one day experience a resurgence. As some point in the future, society will reach a level of emotional isolation that triggers a backlash. Letter writing will be part of that reaction. When? Tomorrow. Or five hundred years hence.
I love letters. When I receive them, my day brightens. They elevate my mood; even when it’s already good, it becomes stellar. Tiny leaves beginning to peek out from naked tree branches after a long, bare winter lift my spirits. Letters have the same effect on me. Whether I receive replies or not, I think I will begin writing more letters to people I have not seen in a long while. If nothing else, the letters will surprise them. Perhaps letters will delight them. There’s no way to know without mailing them, now, is there?