One of the best parts of my day is getting the mail. I know this is not the case for everyone. Bills come in the mail. Useless flyers from new dentists and Chinese restaurants in town also come in the mail. But every evening when I head out to my mailbox…
I hope there will be a letter.
There is little else that brings as much joy to my day as receiving a handwritten letter from my mom or a friend. In all the BBC period dramas that I obsessively watch, receiving a letter is a big deal. Women breathlessly flutter out of rooms so they can sit alone to read their letters. In love letters, a person’s character is determined by the quality of their penmanship. Answering the letters is even more of an ordeal, taking sometimes up to half the day depending on the amount of gossip held therein!
When I was growing up, letters were pretty much relegated to special occasions, like birthdays and Christmas, but it wasn’t until I went to college that the true impact of personal mail hit me. Getting mail inspired the envy of everyone in the campus post office who happened to see you, and if you were lucky enough to get a package, you’d also hope you were lucky enough not to get ambushed on the way back to your dorm. Physical mail was the connection to the people in the outside world who existed beyond the bubble of college life.
For the four and a half years that I was in college, my mom faithfully sent me a card every week. To this day, that is one of the most meaningful things she has ever done for me. Her little notes of encouragement saw me through some tough times. Every week, I knew I was going to get a card from mom, and it didn’t matter how short the note was or what graced the outside of the card. What mattered was that I knew without a doubt she was thinking of me. Someone out there in the big, huge, crazy world hadn’t forgotten about me. The act of purchasing a card, writing a note, buying a stamp, and mailing the letter spoke of care and love louder than any email I ever received.
“And none will hear the postman’s knock without a quickening of the heart. For who can bear to feel himself forgotten?” – W.H. Auden
After graduating and moving on with my life, I never forgot the impact of mom’s letters. I started stocking up on stationery and pretty note paper and writing letters to my girlfriends for no reason other than to say hi and I’m glad we’re friends. Every week in return I had a few letters from friends who wrote back and it brightened my days so much.
Whenever I traveled anywhere I’d keep a small address book in my purse (this was before smartphones), along with a supply of stamps, and send postcards to my girlfriends. All of a sudden I started getting postcards from all over the world! My fridge was covered with a mosaic of exotic pictures and familiar handwriting from my closest friends. In every circumstance we could have emailed each other and saved the trouble of mailing something in a foreign place, but that would have diminished the joy of touching a piece of paper from another part of the world where a friend was thinking of you.
I heard a story on NPR a few years ago about a man named Phillip Kunz who carried out a social experiment by sending 600 Christmas cards to people he had never met. He added a personal element to each one and sent them out into the void. The response was overwhelming. Suddenly he and his wife were flooded with mail from well-wishers who appreciated the Christmas card. All it took was one gesture, one act of thoughtfulness in the form of a letter. This experiment was originally intended to better understand the rule of reciprocation, but I believe it also demonstrated the power of a simple letter to affect someone’s life. The experiment was carried out in 1974, and to this day, Phillip still receives many Christmas cards from the original group he reached out to so many years ago.
Then, there is the matter of thank you letters. I will never forget all the times as a kid when my mother made me sit down at the dining room table and write thank you notes to anyone who’d ever sent me a check, a gift, or did something nice for me. I think she was trying to convey the importance of acknowledgement when another human being displays a kind and generous nature. We’ve all had those moments when we’ve sent a wedding gift only to never hear from the bride or groom that it was even received. Bummer.
It’s not about getting a huge ovation so you can stroke your ego about how awesomely kind you are, but it is nice to know that your friend appreciated the time and care you took to send a gift. There have been times when I’ve neglected to send a thank you note for a gift and felt like the biggest jerk, riddled with remorse, and paralyzed by laziness. I am not proud of these lapses in acknowledgement because the old fashioned part of me thinks it’s only polite to say thank you. I’ve sent thank you emails and texts for the simple immediacy of letting someone know how a gift they’ve sent has thrilled me, but part of me fights against this instant gratification of the digital age for the simple fact that it’s not as personal as a letter.
When I moved into my first house friends and family from around the country filled my mailbox with notes welcoming me to my new home. I don’t know why it had never occurred to me to send a card when someone buys a house, but I sure will in the future! I was blown away by the kindness and love that shined through those notes of celebration for this big step in my life.
I saved all those cards because I want to remember that time, to remember that my friends and family walked beside me encouragingly and sent their love even though they couldn’t be there. A congratulatory text is nice, but I won’t be pulling that out of the drawer in five years smiling from the memory of the joy it brought me when I received it.
Call me a sentimental fool, but I worry that the art of letter writing will be utterly lost, disappearing into the binary code of the future. Many schools no longer teach cursive handwriting, and children grow up learning how to use iPads and computers from infancy. Heck, my cats even enjoy the occasional iPad game. But something beautiful is vanishing. I can recognize who a letter is from by the handwriting on the envelope. Handwriting is part of our identity, and yet we have little need for it in the digital age, making a letter all the more special and personal.
Despite murmurings about its pending collapse, I hope the US Postal Service can hang in there and people will be able to send letters for many years to come. I also hope that more people are encouraged to resurrect this lost art of communicating with the handwritten word. There are so many reasons to write a letter to someone you care about, if only to know that it might bring a much-needed smile to their face.