Friday, July 09, 2010

About letter writing

While Atticus and the girls were out of town, I took the opportunity to clean out a couple of files and storage boxes, which led me to sort through some old correspondence.


I mean letters. Do you remember them?

They arrived in envelopes. The ones I sorted were old, yellowing things with stamps varying in value from fifteen to twenty-five cents.

Letters that people had sent me -- pieces of paper over which someone (a lot of someones, actually, someones I loved and still love) had labored to articulate feelings, ideas, hopes, random thoughts, jokes, or sometimes, simply, the idea that they were thinking of me. Or that they were glad I had been thinking of them.

What are we losing in this iWorld we live in?

Will my children have files, boxes, piles of correspondence which they'll one day need to sift through and measure, reminisce over, weigh the importance of, keep or discard?

Such a sweet gift - a piece of handmade writing, in an envelope that is not a bill, sitting in our friend's path when she trudges home from a long day spent among wahoos and savages, a day our words will help repair. They don't need to be immortal, just sincere. She can read them twice and again tomorrow: You're someone I care about, Corrine, and think of often and every time I do you make me smile.  
~~ Garrison Keillor, How to Write a Personal Letter

I tossed a lot of stuff out. Meaningless notes, lists of classes I was taking, gossip about a teacher, accountings of relationships past, things that embarrass the person I've become, or notes from people I don't even remember very well. But I kept as much as I discarded. Expressions of love from a young Atticus. Heartfelt notes from my sister, written during difficult times in her life, and in mine. Letters from my friend, Jack, with whom I was trying to decipher the world. Notes from my old friend, Jeff, who doesn't write anymore, but whom I still love and always will. 

We need to write, otherwise nobody will know who we are. They will have only a vague impression of us as A Nice Person, because, frankly, we don't shine at conversation, we lack the confidence to thrust our faces forward and say, "Hi! I'm Heather Hooten; let me tell you about my week." Mostly we say "Uh-huh" and "Oh, really." People smile and look over our shoulder, looking for someone else to meet. 
~~ Garrison Keillor, How to Write a Personal Letter

In many ways, Facebook has taken over what letters used to be. And how many of us aren't grateful? Hasn't the Christmas card list been whittled down to nearly nothing, or at least to something manageable because, honestly, everyone already knows what we're doing, thanks to Facebook? And thanks to our blogs. And thanks to email, which is quick and easy. And always -- still -- feels like just a bit of a cheat.

We want to be known. We want her to know that we have fallen in love, that we quit our job, that we're moving to New York, and we want to say a few things that might not get said in casual conversation: Thank you for what you've meant to me, I'm very happy right now. 
~~ Garrison Keillor, How to Write a Personal Letter

I miss the ripping open of an envelope, the anticipation of what the words on this page will convey, the intimacy of a pen, parchment, and innermost thoughts.

Perhaps I am too old for innermost thoughts. Perhaps letters -- the kind I'm romanticizing -- are the stuff of youth, and perhaps there is no place in my life for them now.

But I don't think so.

A letter doesn't have to be filled with existential angst to be a pearl without price. Innermost thoughts needn't be forbidden, or difficult or searching. They can simply be. They can be what I am now. The person I've become. The person you've become. Those needn't be the same thing. "This is what I'm thinking about these days," the letter might say. "This is what I wonder about your thoughts. And how is homeschooling going, by the way? What's that like?"

Probably your friend will put your letter away, and it'll be read again a few years from now - and it will improve with age. And forty years from now, your friend's grandkids will dig it out of the attic and read it, a sweet and precious relic of the ancient eighties that gives them a sudden clear glimpse of you and her and the world we old-timers knew.
~~ Garrison Keillor, How to Write a Personal Letter

I am a nostalgic person. I am a saver of things, a hoarder of mementos, a connoisseur of remembrances of things past. I am a sigher over love letters, a disbeliever in the depth of the love of a man like Atticus, a keeper of the many thoughts and people who shaped me.

I am a lover of the letter. And I miss it.

I shall begin to write letters again, I think. And I can only hope that the sweet gifts, these  pieces of handmade writing, will flutter back to me in the end and become something  -- a  box, a pile, a treasured stack wrapped in ribbon -- that I will give to my children and say, "Here ... this is me. This is who I was, and who I wanted to be. Read. And savor. And write."


The Sojourner said...

Lest you despair of the youth, I can tell you that at least 3 people born in 1989 are still writing letters. My boyfriend decided, when we went home for summer vacation a month after becoming a couple, that he needed to write me letters to keep me company until we went back to school. That was two years ago, now I have...33, tied up in a blue ribbon and taken with me wherever I go. He has at least as many from me; I don't know if he ties them up in a ribbon or not.

At about the same time he introduced me to his best friend, an old-fashioned southern gal, who (if memory serves) has a goal of writing at least 20 pages of correspondence per week. I have perhaps 8-10 letters from her stored away, written in beautiful script on pretty stationery.

The lesson I take from my boyfriend, though, is that you don't have to have the beautiful scripty handwriting or the pretty stationery. You can scrawl your thoughts on a piece of notebook paper and it still has that magic; you can still write things that would simply never come in an email.

That was a long comment, but you might like a bit of a missive. :)

nutmeg said...

I have one dear friend in Wisconsin with whom I correspond in this way. She has wireless at her home, and a phone.... but this is how we stay in touch. It is very sporadic, but I have every one of her beautiful letters.
And there are many times throughout the year that I take out my box of keepsakes and read them all through again.

Emily said...

Oh I LOVE handwritten letters, and I still send them! To me there is nothing better than the handwritten letter, note, or card. True sentiment is expressed in them. I keep all my letters in a lovely box. :)
When I enter the monastery, handwritten letters will probably be the only way I'll get mail--I look forward to that!

Melanie Bettinelli said...

I used to write letters. Lots of them. Big fat ones and little notes with a poem enclosed and postcards and envelopes that were decorated with little inked flowers or brightly colored watercolors. But somehow I got out of the habit right after I was married and started having children. The internet was easier and who has time to sit down with pen and paper. But I shouldn't have let the habit die. I used to be known among my friends as a great correspondent. I'm sad that isn't true anymore. Thank you, Karen, for inspiring me to try to get back into the habit.

Karen Edmisten said...

Dear Sojourner,

Your missive of July 9th arrived in my mailbox, and I must thank you profusely for cheering my letter-deprived heart. :) I am in complete agreement with you and your boyfriend that notebook paper will do, as will napkins, random scraps of paper ... anything, really, on which one can write.


Dear Nutmeg,

What a gift you and your friend are to one another! I hope you both keep writing until you are old and grey and have a wobbly script. :)


Dear Emily,

I will look forward to one day sending you a handwritten note in the monastery!


Dear Melanie,

I, too, was a prolific letter writer at one time and my notes were as varied as yours sound -- quotes on envelopes, poetry, newsiness and serious thoughts. We shall get there again!


Sarah Reinhard said...

Ah, Karen, I'm inspired: I think I'm going to have to sit down some evening and actually write you a letter. Will you write me back? I owe you a long chatty email...wouldn't it be better via USPS? Huh? Will you be my pen pal???

Judy Dudich said...

So glad to have found this wonderful post via Sarah R's blog:)
Also glad to share that "letter writing" is alive and well in our home! My best friend (who moved across the nation) and I write every week to one another...and my daughters and sons each have 2-6 pen pals a-piece...some as far off as Great Britain; and some as close as the neighbors in the woods...we decorate the envelopes, we make our own stationery, we stamp, we color, we add pictures, and we share our writing...with others...on a regular basis! After reading your post, I now feel like a crusader-of-sorts! Happy letter-writing and nice to "meet" you:) (Thanks to Sarah!)

Karen Edmisten said...

Nice to meet you, too, and so happy to hear that letter writing is still alive and well in your home and beyond! Thanks so much for stopping by and taking the time to comment.

Sarah, get thee to a pen and paper, anon!