"As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies draw flame; / [ . . . ] Each mortal thing does one thing and the same: / Deals out that being indoors each one dwells; / Selves -- goes itself; 'myself' it speaks and spells, / Crying 'What I do is me; for that I came'." --Gerard Manley Hopkins

31 July 2006

On Writing Letters

My friend Cindy wrote me a letter recently – a real letter: handwritten and sent by U.S. mail.

There is something powerful in finding your name written by hand on an envelope in the mailbox, or waiting on your desk when you get home. As much as I love seeing Cindy’s name in my email inbox – it’s always good to hear from a friend, no matter what medium – it’s not the same as a letter I can hold and handle, open and slowly savor page by page, rustling the paper and enjoying the lovely, clear hand in which she writes.

I appreciate being able to stay in touch quickly with email; I like the pictures I get of kids and grandkids and friends’ kids. The medium has its place.

But I wonder if the very ease of it has drawbacks, too? A student once mentioned that email and the proliferation of diary weblogs like myspace and xanga have overburdened her with what feels like too much knowledge about too many people she doesn’t have time to reach out to and pray for in meaningful ways. She becomes discouraged at her apparent lack of compassion, but perhaps she was never meant to know so many burdens that others carry.

And I wonder if this medium contributes to the human tendency to laziness? “I’ll whip off a quick response and I’ve taken care of my obligation,” instead of taking the time for reflection that’s needed for any real depth. I’m often startled to find, in clearing out my email, that I’ve done just that: sent a quick reply and then never followed up with real concern. May God forgive me.

The art of letter-writing is rapidly dying. (And yes, I’m aware of the irony of the medium in which I am lamenting this.) I don’t write letters – I do well to get birthday cards to 23 family members somewhere near the right dates, and these are usually accompanied by, at most, short notes on the cards themselves. I have been (and will continue to be) guilty of the once-a-year (or so) “mass mailing” of a family update to friends I value but simply can’t seem to find time to write to individually.

I don’t believe the common saying, “you have time for what’s important to you.” Life consists of many urgent tasks that eat up time, there can be more important things than there is time to do, and some of us have little energy to begin with. Truly important things can be left undone because there honestly isn’t time for them. But still I think a world in which real letters come often in the mail is a richer one, and I mourn its loss, for all of us.

1 comment:

Cindy said...

Glad you enjoyed it. I think I was just as surprised at finding myself writing that letter as you probably were to find it in your mailbox.

Your thoughts on the complications of cyberspace communications (say that five times, fast!): Yes. I've noticed some of these, too, and been disturbed and burdened by them. You have, as usual, put them into words very aptly. This morning I journaled based on this blog entry, and as you'll see at Quotidian Light, am conducting an experiment in letter writing. Will be interesting to see what comes of it. You may have gotten me into trouble. :)

Love, as always,