Monday, September 05, 2011

But what will become of the love letter?

Photo by Houbazure

The love letters sit in my memory box in rough chronological order. Some are typed. Most are handwritten. They have doodles, stickers, and scratched-out mistakes. I remember pulling them from the mailbox and running upstairs to read them so I could hear the person who wrote them as if he were in the room. It was romantic. Personal. Ageless. And though the love is past, the letters keep it alive, suspended in time.

However, this may not be the case for much longer. Two things have recently combined to make me reevaluate the state of the love letter – or any letter, for the matter. The first is the depressing news about the USPS budget gap and post office closures. Turns out that my ardent insistence on mailing birthday cards, hello notes, and the monthly rent check hasn’t been enough to keep our postal system afloat. Not like it could have made a difference. Snail mail is battling every online social platform under the sun, trying to fight instant flame with a slow burn. Can it even compete?

The other item is the book What There Is To Say We Have Said: The Correspondence of Eudora Welty and William Maxwell. These two 20th century authors and contemporaries enjoyed 50+ years of long-distance friendship, largely expressed through their energetic, funny, and loving letters. You read these words, never intended for publication, and you get their unvarnished personalities. As I work my way through the decades, I wonder, would they have put this much energy into emails?

Take these ponderings together, and I’m left with a big question: What ultimately defines the quality of correspondence – the medium, or the individuals? If we don’t have the attention spans, unlimited characters, or cultural expectations that permit or encourage meditative communication like letters, is it worth fighting to preserve them? Or are we better off letting our communications evolve to match the available technology?

I think I stand at the tipping point. I’m a Millennial who champions the sanctity of the handwritten note. I want the postal equivalent of the slow-food movement – a small but determined group of people who don’t want life to assume warp speed, but instead balance out society’s insistence on instantaneousness with slower, more thoughtful conversations.

If nothing else, consider this: I still have those love letters. Plus my favorite birthday and Christmas cards. And lots of other notes, jokes, and words of encouragement people have mailed me over the years. I also have these sorts of things saved in various email folders, but they rarely approach the same level of care and personality I consistently find in what’s been mailed to me.

I find an irrepressible power in pulling out these letters and opening the envelopes anew. I daydream about passing them down through the generations. I wonder if one day I’ll become famous, and then my biographers will thank their lucky stars they have all this extant correspondence to shed light into what I hoped for and believed.

Letters have a character count not of the 140 variety. I can’t bear the thought of losing that. Can you?

Prayer #179: Postscript

P.S. God – before I mail this out, just wanted to add that I think of You often. Thanks for answering (most of) my questions. Even though Your responses sometimes take a couple letters and a few days weeks years to get here, I still appreciate them. Good to know someone out there is thinking of me, too.

Ok, that’s it. 'Til next time!

Amen.

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