Posted by: Banta | January 9, 2014

An Ode to Snail Mail

When was the last time you wrote a letter, by hand, to a friend or family member in another town or state, or across an ocean? Not an email or text, not a Facebook message or a Tweet, but a real hard copy letter folded into an envelope, stamped and mailed, without pressing a “Send” key on a screen?

Do you remember how it feels to find a hand-written note in the mail, addressed to you? The suspense as you open the envelope? The delight in reading news from someone who has reached out to you in this very personal way?

If you have children, do they know how to put pen (or crayon) to paper and write a simple letter? Can they say thank you in writing for a gift or a kindness? Would they know the importance of writing a note to someone who has suffered a loss?

What does it mean that we, as a culture, have drifted so far from the words we write with our own hand? In texts and tweets we convey messages in such truncated form they scarcely resemble language.We deliver Happy Birthday and Congrats and even condolence greetings in sound bites on Facebook and Twitter. We “Like” someone’s status or photo, article or video link, often without comment.

For all the gains we enjoy with our screens and our social media, I fear we have lost much more than we realize.The nuances of language, the intimacy of exchanging letters written in longhand, the tolerance for delayed gratification as we await a reply, the ritual of sitting with pen and paper and bringing a loved one to mind.

Our addiction to haste and urgency is palpable. Our impatience, a given. Chronic distraction and divided attention are now the norms in many of our social interactions, including the family dinner table (fast becoming obsolete). Heads bent over phone or notebook, thumbs going a mile a minute. Who can begin to measure what we have lost in our capacity to truly be present to one another?

Some years ago, just at the turn of the millenium, I received an unusual gift, a heavy tome entitled Letters of the Century: America 1900 – 1999 (Lisa Grunwald and Stephen J. Adler, Eds.). It opened a compelling window on the intimate histories of presidents and war heroes, immigrants and ordinary friends. The letters invited me into musty candlelit parlors, onto battlefields, into boardrooms and back rooms. Like excerpts of memoir in real time, the letters enlivened people long dead, describing in careful, often heartfelt detail, their daily lives, their struggles, their fears, their patriotism, their private longings.

Letters 4Letters 1

In my parents’ and grandparents’ day, books of collected letters were commonplace. People saved letters, love letters in particular, often tied up in ribbons and tucked away in a memory box for the next generation to discover. Where will we find collections of letters now? Strewn in the winds of cyberspace? Banished to the Trash icon on the screen?

For our “small but mighty family” of three, this will be the Year of the Letter. We have each taken up the challenge to hand write fifty two letters this year. For the Libras among us, that could mean one letter a week. For the Aries member of the family, it might look more like a muscle numbing scramble between Thanksgiving and Christmas. Regardless of the pace or pattern, I appreciate both the challenge and the invitation.

Letter writing is no less a spiritual practice than meditation or tai chi, centering prayer or yoga. Releasing attachment to results, come into the body. Focus on the breath. Bring your energy into the present moment. Set the intention to speak from the heart. The words will flow. Your writing muscles will remember.

 Letters 3

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