Dictionaries describe correspondence as a communication by exchange of letters, the letters themselves, or any instance of similarity, analogy or agreement. Wikipedia describes it as “non-concurrent, remote communication between people, including letters, email, newsgroups, internet forums, [and] blogs.” Sigh. As a lifelong sender, receiver and lover of letters, I fully understand that this most imperiled of outdated activities involves two people writing at different times in different places, but those words “non-concurrent” and “remote” make corresponding sound about as deeply enriching a process as paying your bills online. That said, I daily contribute my share to the debris of words floating through cyberspace. I suppose any communication nowadays is better than none at all. Furthermore, I am not here to bury technology but to praise all things still done by hand.
The handwritten letter is a lost art. That suits me fine, as the only remaining practitioners are serious about what they do and damn good at it. This morning I have two letters on my desk in need of a reply. One is from Brazil, one from South Dakota. Both arrived with what modern parlance and habits would render as “attachments,” but in this case included miniature artworks made by my correspondents and sent with their letters as part of the package. Here are my words, they seemed to say, but here as well is something tangible made by my hands for you to hold in yours, made specifically for the occasion of this letter. And it struck me that having these little unexpected unsolicited objects tumble out of the unfolded sheets, as if tearing open an envelope and finding the sheets themselves were not delight enough, did indeed make the letter an occasion of sorts, an event even.
Finding a letter in my mailbox – or, oh indescribable joy, a package! – is one of those things that can still cause me to squeal and clap my hands like a child. One of those things I know will be so deliciously fun, I play cat and mouse with it, attempt delayed gratification, and eventually allow myself to be overcome by my own curiosity and appetite. But once I sit down with a letter – often choosing a special time and place to do so, as if to do honor to the experience with my full and best attention, I enter into a conversation with its sender that feels anything but remote or non-concurrent. In fact, as I read their words written in their own hand, I am transported right back to the moment and setting of its composition. I find myself thinking along with the writer as they set down their thoughts, enjoying the journey of their words as they fill the page not knowing what will happen next. And in the case of these two letter writers to whom I owe replies, I have never heard them actually speak, but I can honestly say I have now heard their voices, their inner voices, the ones they use only with themselves. And I can sense them as physical beings also. Perhaps I am overly impressed by simple realities that others have long since accepted and become insensate to, but it still blows my mind to think that I am here in another time zone, in another country even, holding in my hands something touched by someone so far away. That a letter can be dropped into one slot and appear via another slot connecting people who have never met face to face. It feels as if I am shaking hands with them across the miles, with the letter as our intermediary. It feels like a small miracle every time.
Miracle in a Mailbox
When I read a beautifully and thoughtfully crafted letter, I think of the great history of letterwriting, once the only way to connect people over long distances, once as much a vital information resource as a social exercise. Soldiers at war had only the occasional letter from home to know there still was a home. Great thinkers countries apart formed intellectual friendships through correspondence and provided what we now cherish as highly personal accounts of the times and places in which they lived. Letters of introduction, letters of safe conduct, even postcards and thank you notes - correspondence is a necessary part of the preserved literature and history of all cultures. It may not reveal all that was going on, but it does show how people were thinking and feeling, often in ways not available outside such a private medium. Implicit in the creation of a letter is the intention not just to convey something but preserve it, to set it down in such a way as to make it worth holding onto, going back to, for years to come.
For me, replying to a beautifully and thoughtfully crafted letter requires me to meet the correspondent on common ground, and give as good as I got. I try to send the sort of letter I myself would love to receive, and almost hate to leave my hands. Choice of paper and ink and what little unexpected and unsolicited items will be tucked inside to surprise and delight the recipient is just as important as the content, over which I have far less control. As I follow the journey that the expression of my thoughts takes down the page, I imagine that the next time this way is traveled there will be two travelers on the journey together, making everything familiar by being shared, and everything new with their different perspectives and experience. And on that day although I’m alone, I’ll feel someone take my hand.