A mailbox is not a particularly friendly sort of place these days, is it?
Flyers, advertisements and marketers telling me I may have already won $10,000 keep company with bills, tax statements, and the odd catalog. Rarely does a hand-addressed envelope smile up at me, and I don’t think I’m the exception to the rule.
When I was a child, I wanted to be a postal carrier when I grew up. An odd dream, maybe, but the thought of walking outside all day long and delivering letters to people just seemed a very happy way to live. Today, it seems much less appealing. So much of my mail goes directly into the recycling bin.
I am not a Luddite, but I do see ways technology has degraded communication, even as it has sped it up. Speedy communication, don’t get me wrong, has saved many a life as well as many a confused moment waiting at the airport to pick up a passenger who missed his flight. We can hardly remember the days when we weren’t in constant touch with one another, from almost any point in the world, and in thousands of ways that has made life safer and less vexing.
Communication at our fingertips has also made it easier, though, to mistake ubiquitous texts about that funny thing on Jimmy Kimmel last night or who we just bumped into at the grocery store for something far more complex, thoughtful, and satisfying. Can we even remember what it is we’re missing?
Letter writing is a slow-it down, kind, deeply human means of caring that could use a phoenix-like resurrection in our era. Have you ever stopped to try to quantify what it is about a handwritten, physical letter that we’ve lost in the digital age? It’s a nebulous thing, but here a few ideas.
Writing by hand, the very tedious nature of it, changes the way we process thoughts. It is more thought-full, thought-slow. We look at the blank sheet of paper and our minds gear up for longer sentences, more of them, rather than rapid-fire, succinct, thumb-tapping bursts of whatever is urgently on our minds.
We have considered and taken the time — a rare, quiet, sustained chunk of time — to think about one particular person, lasso our scattered thoughts, determine what to say to them. It takes time, more time than we remembered, to write out even one full sentence. This slower process means that thoughts line up differently in our brains. They can’t rush out as quickly. They have to wait their turn. Meanwhile, our minds have time to reflect, make connections, even absorb what we have just written, which impacts the next thing we do or do not write. There is more of a chance for more well-formed ideas or our unique way of expressing things, what we pay attention to in our surroundings and our lives, to emerge.
There is a reason people have more regrets about what they say in tweets and e-mails than in handwritten missives and often that has to do with speed. Slowing down every step of the process, even the physical nature of putting the letter in an envelope, writing the address, stamping it, conveying it to a mail box, can create the space needed to cushion us from hasty words.
We are so used to both receiving and sharing immediate news, hearing concurrently what someone is experiencing, doing, thinking via live-Tweeting and Instagram-storying and Snapchatting all of which eliminates opportunity for perspective — How much of this would matter if I was writing a letter a week from now? Do I feel differently about it today? What were the consequences? Slowing down and filtering our communication on the one hand, and on the other hand waiting, waiting, waiting for a letter, savoring the news or thoughts painstakingly written down, sometimes reading responses to what was on our minds and in our own letters weeks or months ago, all this inefficient, slow business seems, counterintuitively, to enrich communication.
The tactile nature of a handwritten letter creates room for individual flair and foibles. We might choose the stationery with care. Our very handwriting is a reflection of ourselves, whether it’s the flawless, Palmer-method cursive of my mother’s generation, or a mish-mash of style and scrawl. Words are misspelled, crossed out. Sentences are contortions of thoughts that didn’t come out quite orderly. Clarifications and post-scripts are inserted in teensy lettering running sidewise up the paper. Pens run out of ink and the color changes. The coffee you’re sipping spills and stains the paper. Dog hairs creep in. All of this juicy stuff charges letters with personality, humanness, reality, rather than the austere, pristine nature of the digital world.
Physical letters are in some strange way so connected with a person that we feel a nearly-tangible presence when we handle them. We can take them out, time and again, and somehow experience a sensation of being in proximity to the author. How often do we hang onto a birthday card with a scribbled greeting and signature — Love, Dad — long after that person’s death because just seeing the handwriting seems to reassert their presence? Letters become mementos; e-mails don’t.
Envelopes allow for tangible enclosures quite different from attached files. A wrinkled newspaper clipping, a Polaroid photo, a recipe written by hand, a pressed flower, a toddler’s crayoned artwork, one packet of some favorite tea. These oddments are a joy for the sender to include and a joyful surprise for the recipient.
Particularly because they are a rarity these days, handwritten letters have appreciated in value. They’ve become a gift of time and care, something that communicates intentional kindness, ointment for the wounds many of us bear of loneliness, alienation, fear, anxiety, and fractured relationship.
Since one of Orange Marmalade’s priorities is kindness, I thought I might encourage all of us to think about the possibilities of letter-writing for ourselves and our children, not in a burdensome way, but simply as an option to mull. Later this week, I’ll have a post with picture books starring snail mail you might read to spark the imagination, as well as a post featuring fabulous hand-decorated envelopes sure to inspire creativity in your households.
What about you? What do you think is special or significant about snail mail?
Do you have any cherished letters tucked away in your house?
Do you miss the days of paper letters? Or not? We’d love to hear your thoughts!