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!
Inspired, and deeply meaningful. Thank you.
I felt inspired myself as I worked on this. It can feel daunting to add things back in to life but I am going to start in a small way. I think I will gain as much as I give.
1.In Oaxaca, Mexico there is National Postal Museum with letters, stamps and mailboxes. Museo de Filatelia de Oaxaca.
It is a great place.
2. My friend Margaret Chodos-Irvine and I send each other wordless letters every few weeks -visual jottings and decorated envelopes. It is fun to get something besides junk mail and making the missives keeps our creativity flowing.
Ooh, those wordless letters sound lovely! I can only imagine what juice and joy that is! There’s so much artistry in stamps, too, that I feel sad today’s children have mostly missed out on. I was a stamp collector when I was a kid 🙂 I bet that museum is cool.
Fabulous! I really enjoyed reading this, and yes I do miss letter-writing. I lost my mother when I was 22, but I do have a collection of letters that she wrote to a friend spanning over 20 years. This friend sent back the collection to her just before she died, thinking that she might like to reminisce over her life while she was in longterm care in the hospital. After my mother passed, I kept those special letters, which were mostly handwritten in Palmer-method cursive on Aerograms (some were typed). When I pull them out every few years, I do feel it’s like revisiting my mother again in a very personal way. I keep them in the drawer next to my bed. You’ve captured the essence beautifully of letter-writing. Thank you!
Gayle, thank you so much for sharing this story. I lost my mother when I was 26, and what you have described here sounds like an extraordinary treasure. I am so very happy that you have her letters.
I’m sorry you lost your mom so young too. Yes, an extraordinary treasure – mainly because I never really knew my mother from an adult perspective, so these letters were a powerful window into her life, about how she felt, about various happenings as we children grew up, things that I never got a chance to ask her before she passed. They are quite something. She was an American lady and met my New Zealand father Downunder where I grew up and live currently. She and her friend wrote regularly back and forth for 20 years from LA to New Zealand.
Love your book recommendations by the way. I eagerly jump online to the local library site to check out the titles that appeal – most of which I can get here. There’s some great kids books out there!
What a lovely and timely post! I’ve recently decided it would be fun to mail my oldest granddaughter the occasional letter. I have such fond memories of receiving letters from my California grandmother when I was a girl. Those memories are so embedded that when my brother was in San Diego last year on a business trip he asked me if I happened to know the address of where our grandma had lived. He wanted to go by and see if the house was still standing. He was shocked when I immediately spouted out the address. The reason I could do so was because of all the letters I had sent to my grandma as a child. I could still picture in my mind carefully writing out her name and address on the envelopes.
In thinking about starting up a letter writing tradition with my granddaughter I’ve encountered a hurdle. I can’t seem to find any fun stationery. There used to be so many choices when I was a kid. If you have some great sources for stationery I would love to hear about it. Thank you for this post!
I love this, Kristie! I love that you have those sweet memories of your grandma and are now creating more for your grandchildren. I actually did do some scouring around the internet looking for stationery a child would like to use because you are right — it’s not easy to find anymore. I have fond memories of the fun stationery I used in my childhood. I’ll put some links in for what I found at the end of the week in case they are helpful.
[…] Earlier this week I wrote about the peculiar kindness of a hand-written letter. […]
Thank you for this post. One of my favorite book series is Nick Bantock’s Griffin & Sabine trilogy – which owes its existence to snail mail.
Ooh! Thanks for the recommendation! I’ll be sure to search for it.
[…] been celebrating snail mail all week long on Orange Marmalade, considering what makes handwritten letters so great, and discovering loads of picture books featuring letters and snazzy […]
Over the last few years we have been sifting through the collection my in-laws left us to inherit. Many tender moments reading through letters they and others had sent and collected over the years. People just don’t write like that any more. Free email and texting seems to have taken away the thought and depth of meaning abundant in hand written letters. In an age of instant gratification I certainly miss the anticipation and surprise of a thoughtful letter or card magically appearing in a box unconnected to wires or digital signals.
What a wonderful gift you have been left! You’re right –it is hard to convey just how different and how much richer letters were before the advent of e-mail, free long-distance phone calls and texting. Slow is good 🙂