This past week I received two letters in the mail: one from my book club friend whom I’ve mentioned here previously, and one from a woman I interviewed for Nature with whom I correspond (ir)regularly.
It’s surprising how pleasant it is to get snail mail.
First there’s the envelope to admire: in this case one was gold and the other was handmade paper with flower bits in it. Their handwriting of my name and address was like a tiny window into their personality.
Unlike emails, you don’t quickly read a letter and then move on. You have to pay careful attention to what’s been written. So instead of opening either letter right away, I waited for a space in my day when I could quietly absorb their contents. This is particularly helpful for letters in which your friend adds little notes here and there amongst the sentences and paragraphs (something you can’t do in a digital file).
Reading a letter is an immersive experience. Unlike an email or a tweet or a text, where the sender can edit before sending, or just fire off a brief note, a handwritten letter puts the sender in a different state of mind. As Roland Jouvent says:
“With handwriting we come closer to the intimacy of the author…That’s why we are more powerfully moved by the manuscript of a poem by Verlaine than by the same work simply printed in a book. Each person’s hand is different: the gesture is charged with emotion, lending it a special charm.”
A letter requires that any mistakes or changes of mind be physically scratched out and replaced with new words. I feel as though letters are less abrupt than digital communications, as you’re following along the stream of consciousness that is your friend’s mind. Sometimes interesting things pop out that perhaps they hadn’t realized they were thinking – and certainly hadn’t realized they were going to write!
Instead of getting a bullet-pointed email, you get a diverging path through the thickets of your friends’ thoughts. I noticed that my book club friend has a particularly meandering approach to writing, while my Nature friend is more direct – more abrupt and objective. My book club friend will tell me about her hopes and fears. My Nature friend will tell me what she does every day at work. Different people, different priorities, different interactions and stories to share. But both are equally welcome and enjoyed.
The great thing about letters is that you have something tangible to hold, to return to when you want to read it again, to use as a bookmark, to remind you of the person who wrote it. Think about how, in museums, we’re fascinated by the letters and handwriting of famous people – not by their emails. It captures a moment in time in hard copy.
I recently sent out three cards. I didn’t hear back from two of the recipients, which was disappointing, but I realized I hadn’t written to them so that I’d get a response. I’d written to them because I wanted to take the time to show care and consideration. The third card generated one of the letters I mentioned above. One out of three isn’t bad!
We plan to send Christmas cards to all our friends and acquaintances this year, just because it’s such a rare thing to do these days. I want to acknowledge everyone who’s been part of my life throughout the year with a little hello (and no, I will *not* be writing the dreaded family Christmas letter). I’ve already started collecting addresses, as I don’t want to be scrambling to find them at the last minute. We’re also planning to make our own family card, to personalize it a bit more. It’s only July, but you have to start thinking about these things early!
If you have time, send someone a letter instead of an email. Share what you’re thinking and dreaming about, instead of merely asking someone to do something for you. Or maybe just send a short note to say: hey, I’m thinking about you. You’ll be surprised how good it will make you feel – not to mention how good the person you’re sending it to will feel!
NOTE: The featured image for this post is a photo of a letter written by Maggie Thatcher, taken by by Mike Darlow (CC BY 2.0).