K.S. ANTHONY: 03/01/2011 - 04/01/2011

14 March 2011

Scriptio Divina: the sacredness of mail

I just got back from checking the mail. Aside from some government census humbug and a DVD copy of Julie and Julia from Netflix, I also got the very rarest of pleasures: actual correspondence from friends, thus proving their high and noble birth beyond the slightest shadow of a doubt: not that I thought otherwise.

Letters and postcards from friends are even better than finding your family in Debrett's, which, face it, would be pretty cool. Letters and postcards from female friends are even better than finding anything in Debrett's because of the wonderful nature of feminine handwriting and the fact that I am, and have always been, a sucker for women.

Email is nice, but it is not magical. It's purely practical. It lacks any type of aesthetic; in fact email is entirely anaesthetic. It is numbing, dulling, and not terribly interesting to look at. Email is downright oppressive when it becomes convoluted with text-speak: when you become "u" and when your correspondent begins tearing apart what little is left of the language for the sake of efficiency. Email relays information. Letters relay much more.

Consider this:

When you write a letter, you invest it with something. Whether you know it or not, the practice of putting pen to paper has an elemental quality to it. You are writing with some of the oldest things known to our species. No, you didn't have to grind woodpulp and roll it into sheets and make ink from saliva and ashes from the fire, but the tools haven't changed very much. You use your hands to craft letters, using some of the very first mechanical skills you ever learned. Consider that the first act of creation for a child is usually drawing. There was no line on the wall...but, like Harold, you picked up the purple crayon and you created a line. All of that is now at play when you write a letter. Thousands of years of history and memory come together whenever you write something in ink on paper.

That's not all. There's also the question of word choice and the thoughts that preceded the actual writing of the letter. Anyone can simply type an email. Most people now spend more time in front of their computers than they do watching television. You're typing anyway: might as well tap out a quick email to so-and-so while you're googling cheeses of the world and listening to the soundtrack from last week's Gossip Girl.

You cannot multi-task and write a letter. To write a letter or a note, you have to pick up a pen and paper, sit down, and write. Emails can be unconscious. Letters can only be conscious. They require patience and effort.

I've gotten thousands of emails this year. I do not remember any of them. I can, however, remember lines from letters that I got twenty years ago. I feel a piece of paper that is almost as old as I am and remember what it was like to read it for the first time. I still have letters dating back twenty or more years; letters that the writers have undoubtedly forgotten but that I have carefully kept through dozens of moves. I remember the handwriting of friends who have died and there is something of them even in the thought of the strange word-touch that letters evoke in us.

I keep old letters because they represent a moment in time when someone thought of me, then sitting still and thinking of me, reached for a pen and a piece of paper and poured those thoughts into and onto something tangible; something tactile. After that, they folded up that piece of paper with those frozen thoughts--both written and unwritten, for there is always text and subtext--and placed it in an envelope. They wrote out the letters of my name and address on the envelope, put a stamp on it, and put it in a mailbox. Did they think of me as the letter made its way to my hands? I have always thought of those to whom I have written. I have always wondered if they thought of me as I thought of them; if somehow they could feel me writing to them. From the mailbox, the letter passed through cities and zip codes and arrived wherever I was. I opened it and, like magic, that moment unfroze and crystallized in my hands. You never read a letter just once. You read it a couple times when you get it. Then you may read it a few more times later. If you keep it, you may read it whenever you need some reassurance that you are worth thinking of. Letters can be our beacons when we feel tossed and turned in the storms of our lives, searching for a safe harbor. Don't let anyone tell you to extinguish those lights.

The ink never really dries on a letter. Those moments are always there, waiting to be reopened, waiting to be re-read.

So pick up a pen and write to whoever you are thinking of. They may need it later.