Letter Writing in a Digital World

My daughter, writing me a letter.

The US postal service has decided to stop delivering mail on Saturday. Looks like time and money did what snow, rain, heat, and gloom of night could not. The reality is that over the past few decades the digital revolution has made the postal service seem like an increasingly archaic mode of correspondence. In the past few years alone the number of letters handled by the postal service has dropped by 30 billion pieces, about half where it was just a decade ago. The postal service lost over $15 billion dollars last year as more and more Americans corresponded via email, text message, twitter, and Facebook.

Sadly, future generations of Americans may never know the great pleasure of sending and receiving a handwritten letter. What was once and not so many years ago an artful expression of love and friendship is now viewed as an outmoded means of communication. Letter writing also implies a level of intimacy and friendship that is foreign to students living in the digital world. I once asked in class how it would be perceived if I were to send a student a handwritten letter wishing her good luck after graduation. The response was that such a gesture was inappropriate and bordered on stalking!

When I was in college, before the advent of cell-phones and email, letters were the primary way I communicated with my girlfriend (now my wife) who attended another university. There is something peaceful, introspective, and intellectual about sitting on a park bench while having a one-sided conversation with somebody who is present only in spirit. You have to conjure that person in your mind, hear their voice, imagine a response, and feel their presence while you write. I would often write letters that carried nine or ten sheets of paper and required two stamps for delivery. The whole process was therapy for a lonely soul, bringing both temporary peace and fortitude until we met again.

Receiving a letter from my wife was an equally soulful event. The letter had traveled a great physical distance to find me. There was a sense of human accomplishment in that delivery, unlike the sterile ping of email delivered through electronic pulses and routers. The handwritten letter was a physical connection between the recipient and the writer. The tactile sensation of the paper, the ink, the lettering, even the smell brought us closer together. I remember smelling the letters I would receive to see if I could pick up her scent or perfume. Sometimes, if I was lucky, there might be a lipstick kiss at the end. The letters could be held, reread, collected, and treasured. There was no delete button or auto-archive.

There are many great letter writers in history, but my favorite letters are those between Abigail and John Adams. For much of their lives they were separated by his commitments to the cause of American Independence. He was often gone for long stretches of time when he was serving in Philadelphia or abroad; spans of times that lasted months to several years. With no email or phones, letters became the primary means of communication between the two who sacrificed precious time together for the cause of American liberty. Aside from the content of these letters – which range from politics to intimate innuendo – the effort of producing these letters has always touched me. The time it took Abigail and John to sit at a desk, often thousands of miles away from each other, and write by hand such lengthy letters is an outward and visible sign of their love, commitment, and loneliness. Most of their letters begin with a familiar phrase – “My Dearest Friend” – and end with a cutesy but obscure endearment.

I don’t get a chance to write many long letters now. It simply seems to take too long, as if it’s something reserved only for a special occasion. I’ve written to former students after graduation or upon the news of a pending marriage or baby to tell them I’m proud of them. I’ve also written a few letters to students who have lost family members in tragic circumstances, hoping my words and the gift of a letter ease their suffering.

The last heartfelt letter I wrote was to my daughter, who went away to summer camp for the first time this past year.  She would be gone for  a week.  I wrote her to tell her how much I loved her and how proud I was of her.  I told her that her future happiness was largely a product of the choices she would make in life rather than circumstance.  And I told her that no matter what the future held for her, that I would always be her daddy and her room was always hers.  I sealed the letter, addressed it, kissed it (as is my tradition when sending a love letter), and dropped it in the mailbox.

Three days later, via text, I received a message back from Emilie: “Got ur letter.  Thx.  Luv u2 daddy.”

It’s a start.

4 responses

  1. I have enjoyed letter writing in the past, and my wife still communicates with her mom that way because of reasons similar to what you describe. Great post. It encourages me all the more to make use of the option to send letters while we still have it.
    -Ben

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