Sunday, June 27, 2010


While cleaning out a closet last week, my mother came upon a cache of my old stuff. I went through a pile of it yesterday, and what stood out most were the letters - about 30 of them, all from the same period in my life.
There was a time when I would have a bundle of letters and postcards (plus copies of some of my own letters) as thick as a loaf of bread by the end of every year. (Now I'm lucky to have three letters per year!) Over maybe 15 years of corresponding with this one or that one, I had an average of five steady correspondents per year. Other people would write only when on vacation, and yet others would drop a line once in a blue moon (and usually, but not always, apologize profusely for the gap). With long-distance rates being so high then, it was the main way to keep in touch over the summer, or after someone moved away.
I have made every effort to save these letters. However, due to many moves, some of these bundles have gone astray. The pile my mother just found was from my teens and early twenties. So the majority of the letters came from classmates between Grade 8 and early university - a very turbulent and highly charged time in anyone's life, let alone that of a sensitive person such as myself or any of the people I tended to hang out with. I was inundated with nostalgia as I read those handwritten letters last night. It was mostly a pleasant experience: happy memories of good people, plus sadness over days gone by. Several things came to mind as I leafed through the pile.
  1. How often, and emotionally, even notoriously taciturn male friends wrote to me! Since some are still in my life to whatever extent is possible (?), I can compare, say, a young Michael or Paul with the middle-aged one. Sad to say, they are very much the same in some respects, but not in an emotionally revealing one. Perhaps life has taught them to be more closed and circumspect.
  2. How valuable a handwritten letter can be - and not just because even the simplest message from a friend says "I'm thinking of you and wish we could be talking in the same room instead." The paper is tangible - a sensual detail. The handwriting reveals character - and you don't have to be trained in graphology to find it useful. The words can also be compared or contrasted with the handwriting - e.g., a cheery letter scribbled in an erratic hand might suggest a friend is hiding anxiety or illness. 
  3. How electronic mail, great boon to keeping in touch across the globe that it is, has all but rendered letter writing obsolete. I feel sorry for the young people who have grown up with instant communication through electronic devices and have few if any records of these often banal but occasionally precious exchanges. And what they do have is printed out from a screen - not scribbled in one friend's fountain pen ink, or another's warm slant (with the drawings of fairies at the bottom of the page presaging her future career as an artist).
To all of you who wrote to me back then - Dale, Belinda, Claude, Paul, Michael, Sandy, Mary, Brad, Lucie, Marie-Hélène, Malcolm, Margaret - thank you for writing to me and doing so with feeling. I am not going to throw out your letters and postcards for a long time, if ever!
Everyone: buy some paper and stamps, and send someone special a short letter! Won't finding a reply in your mailbox be worth a hundred e-mails?
More than ever, it will show you mean to connect, not just pass on information.

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