A brief revival of a strong memory
February 3, 2012
In this time of keyboards and ever-present telephones, most of us can't remember the last time we picked up a pen, found a piece of stationery and composed a letter.
Now, sending or receiving a letter is rare; unless you're a kid applying to college or have a significant birthday, most of the mail is unexamined, forgettable and destined for the recycling bin. According to this article, the U.S. Postal Service said in 2004 that personal correspondence had dropped by a third in the past 25 years.
It wasn't long ago that letters were a big part of everyone's lives.
Imagine American history without the letters exchanged by John and Abigail Adams. The collection of their correspondence details the strains of a relationship during wartime and the hopes they both held for independence.
Or the letters of Abraham Lincoln, like this one to Horace Greeley in which he pledges to stay true to his convictions that every man should be free.
Of course the seasonal favorite is one written by eight-year-old Virginia O'Hanlon to the editor of the New York Sun, asking if Santa Claus is real.
The National Postal Museum outlines many of the less-known lives lived in important periods of American life through letters, including from women transitioning from traditional roles on farms to lives in cities.
A true letter is a moment of personal reflection, a more formal and thought-provoking gift of one's time than a brief email or text message jotted quickly on a keyboard or smart phone. Imagine if all of those Valentines exchanged this month had to be composed originally and hand-written: the occasion would disappear entirely.
There is a group attempting to revive the art of letter writing. It's an online effort, of course. Like November's NaNoRiMo book writing exercise, participants will author a letter a day.
Even though it's a short month, the thought of it is exhausting in this time of lightning-fast correspondence. But just imagine – remember – what it's like to receive a letter, to find a quiet moment away from the busyness of your daily routine, to break the seal and feel the stationery that was last touched by a friend or long-lost cousin. You'll follow the lines of the cursive or chuckle at the misspellings, consider the sentiment and conjure your own images from the descriptions it holds. Then replace it in its envelope, reclose the flap and put it aside, allowing the noise and commotion of your life to resume.