Recently a friend of mine went to prison, and I’ve refound the centuries old art of letter-writing. There’s something personal in a letter, in the stroke of the pen, in the thoughtful way you write when you’re restricted by the slow motion of your hand. In letters, we can express ourselves in a way that’s alien to many modern people. We can be honest. We can speak our truth and have it be received to a degree of fidelity which no other form of written communication can replicate.
In our current epoch of isolation, letters offer us a way to reach out to people who we might not see for a very long time. Maybe we can call them, or text them, or write them an e-mail, but all of these media are encumbered by emotional distance, a certain clunkiness of communication that all digital media possess. Honest communication requires physicality. Talking over the phone, even when video-calling, is not the same as a face-to-face conversation. Likewise, textual communication is not the same as handwritten correspondence. There’s some obscure authenticity there that doesn’t transfer to the digital world.
The physicality of letters also serves as a kind of mental landmark for the recipient. When you receive a birthday card, for example, there’s a period of time when it becomes an object in your home. It’s too soon to throw it away, out of respect, or out of some strange obligation to the sender. These artifacts of past correspondence take a physical place in our homes, as well as in our hearts. In the case of letters, we might choose to hold onto them for a lifetime. There’s something very special about holding a written letter in your hands, knowing that someone you care about took the time to write it.
Many of us have plenty of free time, these days, and we have a greater need now than ever to reach out to the ones we love. I implore you, if you are presently feeling isolated from the people you care about, to sit down and write a letter. Maybe write to a family member you haven’t seen for awhile, or to someone who you can’t see because they’re high-risk for the virus. Maybe speak some truth you have inside of you that you’re not brave enough to speak in person. Letters are made for these kinds of intimate moments.
Writing a letter to someone is an expression of love that combines physicality, honesty, and an investment of time. When we receive a letter, we take a small piece of the sender into our homes. We view a small piece of their heart when we see the subtle way their hand flowed over the paper. We know that they were thinking about us, and that they dedicated some portion of their life to us in those minutes they spent writing. A letter delivers all of this subtext in and of itself.
After we die, the letters we wrote to our loved ones might be the only momento left of us. There are photos of course, but just as emails lack physicality, photos lack a sense of presence. You hold a letter in your hands and you know that somewhere, at some time, there was a real person there behind the pen.
A cynic might argue that letters can be ignored, can be thrown away without any deep emotional connection forming. Birthday cards can be thrown out like so much glittery garbage, and personal letters can be ignored just the same as an e-mail. Maybe this is true. Today I wrote a letter to a family member with whom I haven’t spoken much these past years. Maybe this person will not reply, will not much care, and my letter will just be an unremarkable occurrence that carries no weight in this person’s life. Even if all of this is true, the writing of the letter is a profound act in and of itself. I invest my thoughts and feelings into the page, and left in their place is a sense of truth and connection towards the person to whom I’m writing. A letter left unread but honestly written is never a waste of time.
P.S. Please send all your hatemail, in the form of hand-written letters captured by photograph, to firstname.lastname@example.org