Sunday, August 7, 2011

You've Got Mail

I received two letters today. Not e-mails, not bills, not junk mail, not text messages. Two letters. Hand-written address, envelope and stamps. The real thing. Both from my daughters, on the occasion of my birthday. In these days of the fleeting ephemeral rush of letters on screens and impersonal fonts, they arrived like messages from the gods.

All my life, I’ve loved letters. How many days I spent waiting for the clink of the mailbox and rushing to see what the world would deliver today. There was a sense of anticipation and often, disappointment. But when those letters did appear, it was a moment to relish. Look at the handwriting, feel the heft of the envelope, sometimes smell a familiar scent. And then wait for the right moment and the right place to sit down and slowly savor the news from a friend, feel his or presence, step into the moment and place it was written and enjoy the embrace of a soul-to-soul connection grow yet stronger.

And how I loved writing letters. I often would sit under a favorite tree in the park, begin by describing what was around me—hummingbirds hovering by the salvia flowers, little kids feeding bread crumbs to ducks, wisps of fog curling around the Monterey pines. Then the moment of taking stock and thinking about what was new in my little life or fresh on my mind and what might be of interest to my friend. A few lines asking what was new at the other end and then closing the loop with some kind of appreciation for the gift of our friendship. Even without such words spoken, the effort alone made every letter a love letter, a re-commitment to something important enough to step to the side of our busy lives and re-make a heart-to-heart connection.

One of the saddest things to me about modern life is not only the loss of the art of letter-writing, but the end of the saved letters in boxes in the basement or attic. When my Dad was at the end of his days, I found all the letters he had saved. They included the ones I had written to him and my Mom from college, the thin-blue aerograms I had sent from Europe or India or Bali, the birthday cards, the small tri-folded pages from San Francisco with news of his grandchildren. I also read some revealing letters he had written to my mother in the early days of their romance. How much I learned in the privacy of ink on paper that he never once revealed to me in conversation. And recently, my mother-in-law uncovered letters that my father-in-law Ted had written to his family during World War II. Such treasures! And again, out came the stories never once hinted at in the 35 years I knew him and my regrets that I hadn’t read them and discussed them with him before he passed away.

Letters reveal something of the inner life that we hide away in everyday conversation. They are an act of the imagination that reaches down and across and up to the thoughts that need a special kind of invitation to reveal themselves and form themselves into articulate and evocative language. And yes, we can write them on a computer and send them on e-mail and even print and store them in a box. But we often don’t, at least with the same kind of depth of reflection that the handwritten letter composed sitting at a table with low light and soft music achieves. E-mail simply doesn’t invite that kind of time and space. It is a technology of the quick hit, the casual hi, the “hey, what’s up?” kind of connection. And Facebook even more so. Skype is it’s own kind of pleasure when we’re far away, but it also robs us of the feeling of being far away, off on an adventure away from our normal routine. Then when we start to miss our comfortable, familiar life, we sit under a palm tree and write to the folks back home. I think of that book title: How Can I Miss You If You Don’t Go Away? Our modern world of constant communication and instant access means that indeed, we are never wholly away.

Of course, it’s fun to Skype my daughters in Buenos Aires and Washington DC, but though pleasant, the conversations are inevitably casual. But to read in her own handwriting the thoughts one daughter had traveling alone in northwestern Argentina, to feel her pausing in a long hike “amidst cacti, red rock, low bushes and looming mountains” and begin to write 60 memories of our 27 years together, each one igniting the fireworks of my own imagination re-living those moments—well, that is a treasure more precious than all the Skype conversations we’ve ever had or ever will have. And then to feel my other daughter sitting around the kitchen table with her family creating a birthday-card passport with simulated stamps of the 57 countries I’ve visited (with three empty spaces to fulfill my 60-country goal), putting a saying or proverb inside of each country’s stamp, is to receive an act of love ten million times more powerful than the Hallmark e-card. Both are on paper that will invite me to re-read them many times over and store them in a special box that I will grab first in case of fire.

What’s the punchline here? Not the usual “electronic technology sucks” but a more measured reflection on what we’ve gained and what we’ve lost. For someone who has waited for the postman his whole life, e-mail is a gift from the gods! No need to wait for the once-a-day mailbox clink—it’s now replaced by the instantly accessible and constantly friendly greeting “Welcome. You’ve got mail!” And I do hear from so many more people so much more often than the paper letter ever delivered. And yes, sometimes it is deep and profound and makes me happy.

But having passed through my Luddite phase, I stand by the goal of conscious use of new technologies. Consider the right tool for the right job at the right time for the right cost, be aware of the limitations and curses alongside the benefits and gifts and choose wisely.I am making a plea for the return of the handwritten letter. In typical American-style, we probably need a holiday like “National Letter Writing Day” where once a year, everyone writes letters in their own script (while we still have it) to everyone they know and love. They could send them all at once or mail one a day or spread it out over a few months. Am I just imagining that the average person would be as thrilled as I was to receive such a treasure? Just wondering.

Meanwhile, I’ve got to check my e-mail.

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