On Letters

As I find myself travelling, I find myself writing letters.

I’m blessed with an octogenarian penfriend, the glorious Jeanie of Guernsey. We have been writing to each other for more than 5 years now. Her postcards and letters, written in dainty calligraphy and replete with little illustrations and adorable spelling mistakes, make my heart sing and I have held on to every one.

I showed to my friend Richard a letter I had written to Jeanie, in my amateurish Celtic-style calligraphy.

“Letters are obsolete,” he informs me, grumpily. “It’s called snail mail for a reason. Just send an email.”

“But letters mean more,” I reply. “You spend time writing them and making them beautiful, and you write things you wouldn’t write in an email or a text message. They are private and special. And Jeanie doesn’t use email.”

Richard was not convinced, and began devising for me a better way to send a letter. Rather than depend on the Soviet postal system here in Kyrgyzstan – with an estimated delivery time to Western Europe of 4+ weeks – Richard recommends I photocopy the letter, email it to a friend in Guernsey, who can then print it and put it into an envelope and deliver it.

“She wouldn’t know the difference,” says Richard.

“It isn’t the actual letter I have written, though,” I tell him. “And it hasn’t travelled halfway across the earth. It doesn’t mean the same.”

Is this the case, really?

Or am I being an obstinate and romantic fool, refusing the utility of technology, which would guarantee the fast delivery of something that differs hardly at all from the original article?

I do not think so.

Letters are something you craft yourself. They take time and concentration and consideration, a different kind of consideration to that which you give an email or text message.

Unlike a keyboard, on which you can rattle out dozens of words a minute at a frenzied rate of thought, writing a letter requires you slow down. You think different thoughts at a different pace and write different things. I believe, more meaningful things.

Compared to the emails and text messages and voice notes I send, my letters tend to be intensely private and rather pathetic – in the original Greek sense of that word, meaning moving or stirring in an emotional sense.

My penfriend Jeanie says that, when her time comes, she will bequeath to me the letters I wrote her at university, so I can reread them in disbelief that I would confide and say such things to an old woman.

I write things in letters that would not occur to me to relate in another form, and, if I am to admit it, often things I would not dream of saying in person.

There is nothing in the digital sphere that can compete with the handwritten letter.

There is something intense and inward – almost diary-like, quite cathartic – about labouring over a letter to somebody with whom you have a connection, just not a physically present one.

Letters strengthen and reinforce feelings and connections from afar, and the further you are, the greater is that reinforcement.

Letters of love and letters of friendship are physical articles that can be kept and treasured in a way that emails and text messages and the like cannot. As these latter are inevitably lost in the deluge of other digital detritus within the impenetrable confine of a smartphone, physical letters can be displayed and can be kept, or even passed down to later generations.

I have a series of old, old letters from both sides of my family, which I will read in later life. For some reason – maybe another instance of pathetikos – there is a part of me that thinks it proper only to read them once their senders and recipients have passed onwards, the privacy of a letter making it inappropriate to do so when they are still knocking about on this plane of existence.

Letters are precious, private things. Things one would endeavour to save from a hypothetical fire, leaving the ‘valuables’ to melt and vanish in smoke like the meaningless ephemera they are, containing no spirit or love or time.

Or, tell me dear reader, am I wrong, and should I trade in the letter and get with the program?

Answers only by handwritten letter, please.

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