After talking about condolence-letters as opposed to condolence-cards, I got to thinking about letters in general, and the near-dead art of letter-writing.
The first thing that crosses my mind is that writing a letter is an act of generosity. We rush around in our busy lives and find the best ways we can to be efficient – which often means “efficient communication”: text messages, e-mails, or a three-dollar card with either a funny photo or a graphic, accompanied by a polished and coordinated message inside saying that the harried correspondent cared enough to remember to put something into the USMail system for their co-correspondent to have and hold three days later – not bad, but also not original material either. (Don’t get me wrong, here. I like receiving cards. Precious few people even send cards anymore.)
That three-day-lag-thing also figures heavily into the formula. It was only thirty years ago that the now-archaic “long-distance telephone call” was so prohibitively expensive (as much as a dollar a minute!) that letter-writing was the standard and not the exception for personal communications. I had a friend with whom I was exchanging letters just a year or two ago once pay me what I believe may have been the supreme compliment on the subject: she told me how very much she appreciated that I wanted to write her – and pointed out that she recognized both the value (thinking before speaking) and the challenge (speaking and then having to wait for an answer on round-trip exchanges that took a minimum of six days) inherent in that process.
We all know and see that a letter is DIFFERENT … that it is not just the act of putting pen to stationery, but the decision to add time and effort to the equation: effort to exercise penmanship that humans revered when it was well-executed and cherished even when it wasn’t, and time to combine words and feelings into sentences and paragraphs and – dare we hope – theses … complete thoughts, and not necessarily just brief glib jottings … mayhaps, even, coherent complex compositions that herald! the King’s English – or mere ventings of the mind and soul that still demonstrate with absolute certainty that the writer was willing to LAY IT OUT THERE for their solo audience at the other end of the Postal Service.
The second thought I have is that I’m most in-sync with that last item listed above, the one about the soul. That handwritten message can be your spirit and substance poured out on paper for the recipient to see and read and reread at their will: a gift of self to that person, and so very much a gesture of trust in the reader that YOU WANT TO BELIEVE THEY DESERVE. People who “write” choose to compose sentiments and condolences and love-letters – not spiritless thoughts or neutral business information; we can convey those mudane things any number of other ways, any day.
I treasure the letters I’ve kept over the years, particularly the ones from people I don’t see any more or who have passed on. Those pieces of paper are inhabited by their writers’ essence and by the sentiments I felt for them, and allow me to recall those sentiments when I reread them. They are, very much in my mind, talismans – proxies for that person, and for what they once were.
Letter writing is the only device for combining solitude with good company. — Lord Byron