By Stephen Doherty
January 16th, 2022
“I didn’t have time to write a short letter,
so, I wrote a long one instead.” -Mark Twain
I recall in college, spending countless hours penning letters to my girlfriend back home. A man once said that “letter writing is the only activity that combines solitude with good company.” So true. Alone in my dorm, with only my thoughts and a pen, I could explore every conceivable topic, emotion, and activity that I shared, or would share, with someone I loved. As I would transfer the contents of my heart to paper, I could see her face – smell her perfume – sense her touch – and it provided a level of intimacy to my writing that she would read and experience upon receipt.
The only thing that exceeded the joy of writing such communication was the anxious days spent anticipating her thoughts and feelings in the envelope that would follow in my mailbox. Letter in hand, I would seek out a quiet place to, not just read her replies – but to experience her thoughts and emotions in that moment. Somewhere in my collection of dusty mementos and treasures of days gone by – are these faded stacks of shared memories and emotions from long ago.
Unlike today’s instantaneous communications via email and text – past generations used pen and pencil the way we use video cameras today. You weren’t just delivering a message – you were telling a story of a moment in time. The “video” you provided would be in the form of the mental imagery drawn from how well you articulated your thoughts. The vivid imagery drawn from someone’s letter was less about communication and more about enveloping the recipient in the heart and mind of the author.
I recall an obituary I read from the 1940s. It was a page long and gave the reader the experience of knowing the deceased beyond just being informed of their passing. Letters were far better conveyors of moments than photos or video – because nothing can exceed the human mind’s ability to craft imagery around soulful prose. Even today, with all the advances in film and video production, we still often exit movies with the simple observation, “The book was better.”
The book was better because the imagery a good author can paint with words, far exceeds even the best technical film advancements. The most powerful forte of the human mind is the imagination’s ability to create and visualize beautiful filmography from the written word.
It makes me a little sad that today’s generations will never know the same excitement of the mailman’s arrival. It won’t be long before the bundles of faded letters in our memory chests are gone forever as “progress” replaces them with something far more expedient but lacking character and soul.
My regrets of a dying tradition are probably no different than the people who cherished riding in horse drawn carriages and cursed the arrival of the gas-powered engine. Time introduces new inventions and different sacred traditions will spring forth for the generations that follow.
That’s as it’s always been and probably as it should be – but to the last generation of a dying art, the thought of the loss of a letter in hand tugs at the heartstrings. Pen-to-paper was history’s means of allowing a regular and cathartic emptying of our heart and soul. I pray that whatever cultural or technological advancement replaces it – is worthy of the effort.
“To send a letter is a good way to go somewhere
without moving anything but your heart..” -Phyllis Thoroux