This is about letters. The writing, receiving and reading of letters. This doesn’t happen much any more. Very rare. True, people send personal e-mails to one another, but those aren’t letters. The letters I’m referring to are written by hand. With a pen. Or even a pencil. Anything but with a computer.
Handwritten letters from friends and lovers provide a presence, almost as if the person had jumped out of the mailbox. Yes, mailbox, something else that eventually will probably go by the wayside.
Letters give something not even the actual person can standing before you. Because they’re written in that person’s handwriting. Which is as distinguishing as the way they walk. You can see into a person’s heart through their script. The way the words are created, formed, how they’re built, how the sentences are drawn, all this reveals something about that person no other way can.
Sometimes, when you receive a letter from a friend for the first time, you’re a bit thrown off. This is their handwriting? But…they’re not like that. Evidently, they are.
I was a big writer of letters. I sent many-paged letters, in fat envelopes, to friends and loved ones consistently through the years. Writing a long letter is a commitment. Especially if you throw yourself into it with gusto and sincerity. You can be exhausted after writing a letter like that. It’s a labor of love.
Why not just pick up the phone instead of writing a letter? Because you can’t express yourself in the same way on the telephone—as deeply, roundly, extravagantly, flowingly. A letter allows for wanderings, for waywardness, for sudden realizations, for small bursting epiphanies. It also allows for pauses in the writing, for reflection, for changes of mind, even for retractions. My letters often have words or lines crossed out. They can start to look like redacted reports from the FBI. I always re-read my letters before inserting and sealing, and sometimes I think: what? No! Cross it out. Try that on the phone.
Letter writing can be a kind of ramble, like a good walk. Sometimes I’m not certain where I’m going or where I’ll end up, just that I’m going. That’s part of the pleasure. The letter writing hand is the legs of the mind.
When I’m in the middle of writing a letter, sometimes my hand can’t keep up with my thoughts. Then my writing becomes a kind of frantic fury. My mind always wins, but my hand sometimes comes a close second, like one of those foot races where you need a camera to determine the winner. If I’m really going, I can even sweat from the excitement and effort, especially in summer. More than once I’ve seen a drop of my sweat plop into a letter I was writing and obliterate, or partially obliterate, an inky word. My hand in its energy can actually become slick with sweat, and that can be a potential loss of an entire line, especially since I’m left handed. (Try it and you’ll see.) Hazards of the game.
Getting a corpulent envelope in the mail from a good friend lifts my spirits high as a kite. There it is, waiting in the mailbox, this treasure. Who knows what thoughts, what confessions, worries, what gossip, accomplishments, bits of wisdom are inside? I can’t wait to open it.
Letters have assuaged my loneliness and homesickness when I was someplace far away and missing those I love and home. It’s almost as if the writer is there, breathing on the page. You can almost hear their voice. I’ve carried letters with me in my backpack for weeks, even months, traipsing through foreign lands. Letters have rescued me, consoled me, buoyed my declining spirits. What was a week where I felt so alone, so lost, so down, suddenly was turned around by a letter from a friend or family member. Holding a much-anticipated letter in my hand, seeing the familiar handwriting on the front, was so often a cure, an antidote to the aloneness. Reading it was a lifeline.
I remember, even now, so many years since, when I was a kid in boarding school, far away from home and family, so alone and lonely that it hurt, getting a weekly letter from my father, seeing his singular writing, and feeling warm and loved, cared for, remembered. Not alone. Thanks to that letter.
One of the distinct pleasures, among many, of letters is not just the reading of them but the re-reading. I keep letters. You can see the postmark from Deborah’s letter above. That’s just one from in our huge correspondence. We’ve exchanged letters for forty years. I have dozens of her letters I keep in a protected place. I love re-reading them. They never disappoint.
When you throw away—or, worse, burn—letters, there is something no-turning-back about that gesture. The end. You are tossing or burning a personality.
We have come to an era where people may never know what their friends’ handwriting even looks like, much less receiving a letter from them. Many will never even receive a letter. Maybe a Christmas card or a brief thank you note, if that. Do I write letters these days? No. I’m lamenting what I don’t do just as much as what others don’t do. I’m a passenger on that departing ship. I have a few friends who still write me handwritten letters, though. Thankfully. What a beautiful thing.
Richard: What a moving, wonderful nod to a time that may one day be gone, but one that has not yet left. And perhaps this piece could one day be a CNF book by Richard Goodman! :-)
I remember the moment email arrived. I had an active mail correspondence with probably over 25 people across the country and even in a couple of countries. We would communicate via stamps that you had to lick...maybe twice a month. But when we communicated, we communicated. And the holiday cards of all kinds and occasions.
Then, email arrived. And one by one, people "transitioned" online. Instead of thoughtful letters, I received daily emails that basically said nothing, the forwarding of jokes that were not even funny.
I have stayed in constant touch via stamps with two people whop actively write back: my high school English and French teacher AND an old friend...someone who has been a friend since we were 13.
I've used the pandemic to try and revive the tradition with some family members. They always email or text to say thanks for the letter. ugh. Anyway, there's a novel there...someplace. ;-)
Write on, my friend.
Beautiful piece, Richard. I love letters as well and have been holding on to boxes and boxes of them. They are the only reason why I have never given up using my fountain pen.
I spotted your heroic Ford focus in the background!