In Defence of the Letter
The Art of Putting Actual Pen to Paper
Can you remember ...A letter you wish you had received? ...A letter you wish you had not received? ...A letter you wish you had sent? ...A letter you wish you had not sent?
Whenever I begin a workshop with these questions the answers are invariably poignant. Sometimes the most moving disclosures are about the person’s sense of inadequacy in writing a letter that will be received without judgment. The very thought of putting pen to paper brings them to a halt. Others work with painful letters received, problematic letters contemplated, treasured letters from significant people, impulses to write that loving letter that were passed by, regrets for letters never sent, or sent in haste, receiving no reply. We can all see these letters in our collective mind’s eye as they are described to us. The scenes are set.
Despite my advanced age, I live in gratitude for email and with pleasure in facebook, although I have yet to tweet. In the floods of email, facebook, text and twitter, the age-old carrier bag filled with handwritten letters is carried away on the turbulence in danger of going under. Or perhaps not. Perhaps people will recognize something missing in the ephemeral life of the email between Open and Delete and the message texted between subway stops.
I write in defense of the handwritten letter. Like a book on a shelf, a letter has an existence in our mind when it is resting somewhere in a box among our belongings. In my periodic bouts of cleaning out cupboards I come upon a black Chinese enamel box that contains the letters that my teenage boyfriend sent to me from the camp where he was working. There is nothing in the content that is poetic or dramatic, except for the “love, Ian” at the end that made my heart stop. I have been married to this man for 58 years and I still look forward to the last two words! I read them again, and picture him in his guide’s tent writing away between canoe trips as I was travelling with my parents, eager for the next hotel where there would be another letter. The gap was as important as the moment of holding the envelope. This is a totally different experience from texting six times a day to say, to ask, to tell, to enquire, to picture, to answer every question before it is even formed. Two ships tied together by countless lines.
Letters are sent from two vessels sailing freely, contact unpredictable in the changing seascape that each encounters, telling of the voyages, looking forward to sharing our stories fully when we drop anchor together. Communicating by letter brings two significant gifts. The written page carries the imprint of the other’s pen and it can be read and reread with a physical presence. It remains as a marker, a testament to a moment in time. Saved, it joins others to weave the tapestry of our lives and relationships over weeks, months, years, decades. It brings new life each time it is read as we are different people in the time that has elapsed, and so, like the parables, the letters meet us in new perspective.
The second gift of letters is the space they give us between them. We don’t click reply and start typing on the same page when we receive a letter. Because it takes time and space to write a response, we are able to acknowledge our reaction to a letter, and to formulate the questions that it poses for us. Meaning can grow as days pass before the reply.
And then we sit and we write our thoughts, wonderings, reflections and life images on a particular kind of paper. We are deeply in the company of the other in our stillness with the freedom to stay with our feelings, and, sometimes even express them in a burst of courage. We fold it, write the person’s name and address and choose the stamp, another surprise gift for the receiver. We walk to the post box and hear the plunk as it drops, something of ourselves sent out to be delivered in due time. And then we settle in to wait. The space between letters is not empty. It is an exercise in waiting, a highly significant life skill. It entails being able to live with the questions unanswered, powerless to control the outcome. It calls on us to hold what we have been given, to savour the relationship without having it reinforced as often as we might wish.
There is room for wondering, imagining, fearing, hoping, remembering, being with oneself in midstream. Or it may be truly resting in the love and connection that a settled relationship can convey in a few words. To know that I am remembered, valued, seen as I am. I receive wonderful carefully chosen postcards from my friends in Switzerland, the picture as much part of the message as the writing that flows all over the reverse side. They suggest music, books, ideas that have moved them and our lives keep up with one another as if we met often.
For a recent birthday I had about twenty women for lunch in which we shared a bowl of soup and our accounts of lessons learned. It was a lovely affair and many emailed me to thank me. Others called me and we had fine conversations about what we took from the day. One person wrote words full of kindness and acknowledgment about what our friendship means to us. Her handwritten card sits in one my most beloved cookbooks where I meet it with delight.
Writing this article takes me back to my love of writing letters. When each of my grandchildren was conceived I bought a journal and wrote letters to them for the first several years of their lives, assuring them of their welcome in the heart of our family. I need to take the time to write another letter, these many years later, to each one to celebrate the young adults they have become.
Some of my most favourite letters are ‘just because’ letters. I’m writing just because I am wearing the apron you gave me, listening to the music you love. I invite you to join me, to take time, find stillness and write to the people we cherish. Just because of an article in Tonic.
Elizabeth White, M.Ed., T.E.P. is a psychodramatist in independent practice, author of Still Life: A Therapist's Response to the Challenge of Change. lizwhiteinaction.com