“To send a letter is a good way to go somewhere, without moving anything but your heart.”
Phyllis Grissim-Theroux –
The other day I waited in my parked car outside the post office in a nearby village waiting for it to open. Adjacent to me was a truck loading mail. Just as the truck driver finished his day’s pick-up, a woman rushed out of the building and handed him a letter that had been forgotten. He tucked it under his arm. The woman returned inside passing another postal worker on his way out carrying a clip board. He handed it to the truck driver to sign. They exchanged a few words and shook hands.The truck driver absentmindedly handed the letter to the postal worked who took it back inside. This scene reminded me of French director, Jacques Tati’s comedic film, Jour de Fête, an astute trench de vie in a postman’s rural village in post-WWII France.
I am a romantic at heart. I like writing and receiving letters and cards. To me handwritten correspondence is a more deliberate, meaningful way to communicate. There’s an inherent intimacy, a bridge between two people; the world stops at the mailbox, then starts again, and in-between people share secrets, dreams, fears, regrets, encouragement, advice, longing, and love. Each handwritten letter is like a Rosetta Stone, giving the reader a glimpse into the contours of our lives.
The digital age has improved our lives in many ways. There’s an amazing amount of information instantly available to us, but it has come at a cost. Centuries from now, archeologists will try to imagine how we lived, but the bulk of our correspondence will have been deleted. We can call our loved ones from across oceans, using WhatsApp, FaceTime, Skype and Zoom. We can email, text, tweet, and communicate, sometimes using no words at all with a simple emoji on a tiny touch screen keyboard, but when we do this we overlook the beauty of our language.
The other day I went through a small ribboned box of memorabilia from my grandmother’s life. Her old letters are treasures, their pages worn thin, their ink faded. They paint a picture with every word. She lived during a time when letters were a necessity, and waiting for the mail was a large part of ordinary life. She waited weeks, sometimes even months for the postman to arrive. Her news and greetings to family and friends, and her insightful counsel to me were vivid reminders of the richness of her life. Being able to reread a letter someone who is gone sent you, hearing their voice in the words again, and imagining how they’d speak each sentence is like traveling through time and experiencing something mystical.
While technology is helping us live longer and healthier lives, it can create structural changes in the brain. Researchers in France discovered that frequent media multitasking may contribute to diminished gray matter in the anterior cingulate cortex, an area of the brain that controls attention. Everyone seems to be walking around mindlessly staring at their phones, living in an abstract world that’s increasingly artificial, forgoing the rich, multi-faceted, and unpredictable world around us.
What if we lose our connection to reality altogether? AI, robotics, genetic modification, the Metaverse, deep-fakes, already exist. A chatbot can summarize lengthy documents, draft essays, and write poems, It’s an easy leap to imagine that humans and machines will eventually merge to create truly augmented trans-humans, changing our understanding of what it means to be an “advanced” species.
A handwritten letter can convey what technology can’t, from the choice of paper to the type of card, the ink color of the pen, the postage used on the envelope, and even the elegance or inscrutability of one’s handwriting. When we write and receive letters we actually create a sense of escape and quiet reflection, making it possible to be alone with our thoughts for a while. There’s an element of a much deeper, intangible connection when sharing a handwritten letter; the choice to write it, the time it takes, and the message inside create a shared experience that is intimate and profound. Despite the digital world giving us the opportunity to connect with people we otherwise could not, many of us feel lonely and isolated. Getting an actual handwritten letter tells us that we are loved, remembered, acknowledged, valued and missed.
We always have a choice as to how to engage, how to communicate and how to honor each other.