A Lost Art

I have recently regained something I hadn’t known I’d lost.
When I was 11 and my family moved halfway across the country, I would spend hours sprawled on my bed, writing letters to the friends I’d left behind. Throughout high school, if I was staying at my grandparents’ for the summer or if other friends were gone, I wrote letters. On one of those occasions, I asked my grandpa for an envelope and a stamp. He said, “Sure, whatcha got?” and frowned the tiniest frown when I held out the letter to my very bestest friend ever, scrawl-covered, scraggly-edged paper torn from a spiral notebook. Grandpa mailed my letter for me without further comment. But when I got back to the house the next day, arrayed on my bed were three different boxes of pretty writing paper, matching envelopes, and an elegant pen. “A lady,” Grandpa said, “writes her correspondence on proper stationery.” I never forgot that. I still have the pen.
I never forgot it, but it got left behind. I drifted away from all of those friends. My letter writing was confined to one or two hastily written pages (on proper lined writing paper, you can be sure, Grandpa) tucked inside annual Christmas cards. With the advent of the computer that annual letter became a Dear Everybody newsletter, typed in a festive font and printed off on elf-decorated copy stock.
Eventually, during one of my many moves, I got tired of lugging around the various boxes of stationery and notecards I’d collected over the years, never used now, and donated them somewhere.
If I had to hand-write a letter now, all I’d have on hand is a spiral notebook.
Even more than stationery was lost; also lost was the art of writing the letter itself. Technology is wonderful, but it buries things, too. As I was getting ready to sign and send Christmas cards recently, I realized that I had nothing to say, not really, even in a short note on the blank side of the card itself. With Facebook and texting and blogging and Tweeting and other things I’ve never heard of, all the people we are connected to know what’s going on with us already. It might be that they know too much. Would I include in a letter that I enjoyed a raspberry tart at a French bakery yesterday? Possibly; it’s a snapshot of life some recipients might enjoy. But thanks to social media, everyone already knows it, and they probably saw a picture of it too.

On the other hand, how much would most of the people I connect with through social media really want to read a lengthy letter? Our lives are not what they were, walking to the mailbox, spying familiar handwriting while sorting through the envelopes, sitting on the porch to savor the news. All of this technology was supposed to have made our lives easier. It may have, but it’s made them busier too. Between emails and texts and faxes and junk mail and tweets and telemarketers and Facebook statuses and spam and all the other noise of modern life, who has time to sit and read a letter anymore? Or to write one?

It’s a lost art.

I might never have seen this but for the gift of recently establishing a correspondence with my birthmother. It has been a joy to connect with a stranger whose heartbeat I once shared. Writing a letter is one of the things she is very good at, and I have had the additional happiness of rediscovering what smiles are borne from both writing and receiving a good old-fashioned letter. Kathleen and I are not connected online; we are not as in-your-face as the rest of life is in the cypersphere. I smile and take my time with each letter, picking and choosing what parts of myself to share this time, finding the perfect words to paint a picture of myself and my life. Her words, on the hand, strike me as effortless, but she has always been rather mythical to me. Reading her words to me brings the same beauty slowly revealed, like the unfurling petals of a spring flower. Effortless or not, it means so much. Both the sending and receiving are things to take slowly and savor.

But that’s only one of the best parts. I’d forgotten the mundane pleasure of walking to the post office and choosing a postage stamp I like. I used to be picky about my stamps; they had to have a design I thought was attractive and meaningful. It was even better if I could find one that somehow matched the stationery I’d painstakingly picked out, because I certainly couldn’t write to the same person on the same letter paper twice. It’s like wearing the same dress to two proms – it is Simply Not Done. What with being able to do everything online, from paying bills to licensing my dog, I hadn’t bought a stamp since they cost a quarter. I think. It’s been quite some time. I’d forgotten the irrevocability of dropping the letter in the post box. I’d forgotten how I like picturing my letter shuffling and sliding among hundreds and thousands of others, from mail bin to sorting machine to transport bin to loading dock to sorting machine to postal carrier to the waiting hands of the one person on the planet it’s meant for. And in the back of my mind as I make my way through my days is the promise of a reply making its magical way back to me. The anticipation!

The silly things I fill my mind with.

But I’m not alone. Perhaps it’s even genetic. Kathleen tells me that letters are her favored form of communication, and she keeps the ones she receives tied in ribbon. The thought of someone keeping the me I share, safely tied inside a silky bow, almost makes me want to swoon.
I will keep her letters to me bound in ribbon too, as soon as I go pick some out. Nobody keeps ribbon on hand anymore, either.

Photo credit, in order of appearance:
Letters in Ribbon: Karen Cox, Flickr/ Creative Commons License
Fountain pen: Power of Words by Antonio Littorio, Creative Commons Attribution Share Alike Unported License

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Author: Deborah Lee

I like trees, dreaming, magic, books, paper, floating, dreaming, rhinos, rocks, stargazing, wine, dragonflies, trains, and silence to hear the world breathe.

6 thoughts on “A Lost Art”

  1. Deb, I have thousands of letters from our family to each other. They mostly ended up in Granny May's hands, and from her to my mother, and from Mother to me. I also was a letter writer. I left DC at the ate of 12 and wrote a copious correspondence to a few choice friends over the following ten years or so. One of the few things in life that I have never been able to forgive is when, during our separation, my second husband dumped hundreds of carefully preserved letters in the trash. I've been a professional writer most of my life, although I've successfully come to fiction only recently, and I don't think any of that would have happened if I hadn't started out by writing letters. Since the time I was 13, the sight of a blank piece of paper never frightened me. It inspired me. And I thank God for that. Did you know that each of Granny May's four children wrote her weekly for their entire lives? And that a good chunk of those letters still exist? We are a corresponding family!

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  2. Definitely a lost art – and such a shame. I have wonderful memories from my childhood of times when my family would gather together to hear my mom read a letter she'd just received from her sister (Dorothy) who lived far away or from my dad's sister (Bernice). Both of these women (my aunts) were great writers. They had an excellent sense of humor, so their letters were both funny and informative. They would be been great bloggers I think if there had been such a thing back then. 🙂 Social media has some great advantages, but it is truly a shame that letter writing has nearly become extinct because of it. I'm so very glad that you found Kathleen and are reconnecting and that you are once again truly enjoying correspondence via this lost art.

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  3. I loved letters from Aunt Bernice, and from Aunt Helen too. They would be ideal bloggers. We used to get together too, to listen while Mom read their letters out loud. A Shaw family tradition, apparently!

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