The Lost Art of Letter Writing
Remember the days when you used to look forward to postman coming?
Do you remember when you used to wait for the postman to come?
Letters I used to write
I used to have a pen-pal in India and I loved it when the letter with the exotic stamps dropped through my letter box. We started writing when I was 11 and she used to send me pictures, leaves, the occasional photo, cards and once, a whole packet of henna with a stencil to help me make patters on my hand.
Then there was my friend in who moved to Denmark who used to fill his letters with reflections on his life, lyrics from his favorite songs and quotes from books and poems which meant a lot to him.
I wrote to another friend when he was in Jamaica, keeping him up to date for 7 years with the gossip from the place he had left behind.
Then when I went travelling, I would stand in long queues in crowded, sweltering post offices around the world to collect my post restante; the letters that people had posted on ahead to me which were waiting for me to collect them in the days before email and Skype. I loved those letters, little life lines from home.
Then technology intervened. I'm in touch with my pen-pal from India nearly 40 years later on Facebook. I phone my friend in Denmark using my roaming minutes and when I go on holiday now I email or Skype people.
But it's not the same.
The art of writing by hand
Writing a letter by hand, with a pen (or I love to write in pencil) means we slow down. We can feel our hands move across the paper. The paper matters. I like the weight and feel of good quality paper but am just as likely to use post-cards to stay in touch. I write letters curled up, comfy. No need for tables or desks or extension leads; just me and my thoughts.
I associate typing with work, with study, with formal letters and application forms. I associate writing by hand with my younger self, the self that got a writing bump on one finger from all the note taking at school and all the doodling at home. I think more freely, I muse, I ponder. My typed work is more linear. more of a main road whilst my hand written letters are more of an off-track meander.
Writing by hand means we can add in squiggles and arrows, we can add in hearts and bubbles. We can change colour pens, gel or glitter or stickers. I have a friend who always adds in tiny petals or feathers with her letters. We can show more of who we are with our handwriting; as unique as our finger tips.
When a much loved colleague died last year I decided I would print off all the emails he had written me as there were gems of wisdom in them. Have I done that? No. All those loving texts for friends and family have disappeared when I have changed phones but I keep the scrawled notes of affection on bits of scrap paper in my bedside drawer.
I have always written to an old teacher who later became my boss and I still do. I keep his letters. I keep all my letters in a very trunk in the cellar.
Because letters can be re-read. They can be held, smelled, kept in my purse or my bedside cabinet to be revisited when needed.
Getting a letter through the post means someone took the time to write the letter, find an envelope, buy a stamp and get it to a letter box. They had to go out of their way to send me that letter; the spent some of their precious time on me.
Letters and our self
This birthday was a big one for me; 50. My dad handed me 3 folders, all of which contained the letters I have written him over the years - it was a one of the most touching gifts I have received. Not only had he kept the letters for all this time, but he had also painstakingly laminated and filed each one.
Handing those letters back to me was like giving me bits of my self back. They are the reminders of the parts of myself I used to be and have forgotten about or lost touch with. They are the records of the minutiae of my life but also the major themes which re-occur, the patterns of thinking and they things I focused on. They remind me of the people I no longer have in my life and I am pleased to see those friends who are still present. My tone, my style, my handwriting changes over the years and yet there is something that I recognize of myself in all of them.
I am so grateful to see my self again but also to see my relationship with my dad as it changed and adapted to my ages and stages.
These letters show me that even when our relationship got stuck or more distant or when I thought I was too busy to get in touch, these letters were the silent threads holding us together, silken yet robust, fragile and yet timeless.
Forwarding me all my emails just would not have been the same.
Letters to write
So who would you like to write to? Who are your Facebook or email friends who you would love to sit and write a more leisurely and contemplative letter to?
I once asked a class of 15 year old students to write a letter to their 30 year old future selves and then seal it to be opened on their 30th birthday. I did one at the same time and opened it when i was 45..it was fascinating. Try it.
I wrote a letter to my mum appreciating all she had done for us and telling her to now focus on herself and enjoy her life. I found it in her bedside drawer when she died, I was so relieved that I had written it. Who would you like to appreciate?
I have also written asking for forgiveness. I acknowledged my lack of grace and courage and asked for forgiveness. I never got a reply but felt better for having written it.
I wrote a letter to a man who hurt me. I wrote down all my resentments, my rage, my sadness, my sense of betrayal. I kept it. I found it later and read it and was pleased to note how the things that had caused me so much pain no longer did; I burned the letter.
I got together with my first boyfriend by writing a note to him and putting it on his books in the library where we were both studying.
Help us articulate what we can't quite get straight
Are acts of creation as well as records of our lives
Are acts of love, acts of trust, acts of mercy and of faith.
Letters are our way of imprinting parts of our self into the world which may well last long after we have gone.