This summer I’ve decided to sit at one of the tables here at Aerie, cover my iced tea from flies in the hot summer air, find the spot where the shade hits the table, place my pad down, and write letters. I’ll write about my garden, about the bay, about travel plans or family matters, depending upon who I’m writing. I won’t write about writing. I try not to write about anything negative, and I never have and never will write about politics in a letter.
Letters used to be the sole source of communication. Vincent van Gogh wrote more than two thousand pages of his thoughts to his brother Theo, a sister, as well as fellow artists. Thomas Jefferson and John Adams letters to each other famously expose the thoughts of our forefathers, and even as far back as the early Christian era we have Paul’s letters to the Corinthians.
I’m just planning to write some stuff about my garden and mail it in an envelope to my friends. I learn so much when I write letters. Simply by telling other people what I’m doing, I’m reminding myself how I spend my time. It also allows me to sit in nature, slow down, and take my world one word at a time. In an age that is spinning at Mach 6, writing is like sitting on a stagecoach, but that’s okay.
Remember those days when we would anticipate mail from a friend or a lover? It seems like a long time ago now, but I recall the satisfaction of dropping a thick envelope into a mailbox or opening mine to see that marvelous white rectangle of someone thinking about me. My sister found letters our dad wrote to his mother when he was eighteen. When I was in college my Great Uncle Charlie, who was in his early nineties at the time, wrote me letters and often included poems he wrote. This was a man who fought in France during World War One, and when I was in my late teens he was still writing letters and poems and dropping them in his local postal box. I don’t know what happened to those; I moved around so much. Also lost are letters from my childhood friends on the south shore of Long Island. During the first year or so after my exodus in the mid-seventies, we wrote religiously. I am back in touch with a few of those people from that time, but the one who wrote the most letters, the one I was closest to, died last December, and now I can’t express how much I wish I still had those epistles of what we were like then, our hopes, our plans, our fears, and our indescribable confidence which time has eroded along with our penmanship skills.
On summer vacation from college I wrote friends in other parts of the country, and even after college kept a close written communication going with a few people. One is a woman I’ve known since we were freshmen, and another is a priest who I remained very close to through the years. I still have some of those replies, and some I recently sent back so my friend can see what was on her mind forty years ago. A few years after college, I wrote probably a few hundred letters to someone in the air force. Here’s how far we have come since then: At that time I would have to address the envelope with her full name, followed by her full social security number—right there on the front of the envelope. I still remember it, actually.
I know the problems in resurrecting such an ancient art form: besides the “slowness” of letter writing, there is the “I don’t really know what to write about” aspect my mother used all the time when I was away at school. Then there’s the “I don’t have time” factor which is just a crock. Sitting down to do anything for ten minutes is not an Olympic feat. And can we please just stop with the “it’s just easier to email” laments. Yes, it is. Write anyway. My favorite avoidance mantra is “I think faster than I write and I can’t slow down to do it.” Geez if you don’t think faster than you write than you’re probably legally brain dead.
As Neil Diamond wrote, “Slow it down. Take your time and you’ll find that your time has new meaning.”
Writing letters helps me remember what is important in life, and it reminds me that since I spend the vast amount of my time doing things I don’t deem worthy of including in a letter, I should appreciate the small stuff through the day as much as the grand letter-worthy events. It slows me down, helps with my blood pressure, my stress, and sometimes I might sit back while writing a letter to listen to the wrens or the cardinals, or leave it all on the table and wade in the river a bit before returning to finish. Mostly though, it is instigating a physical presence in another’s life in a completely non-threatening way; it is my DNA sealed and sent to another state.
I wish I had written back and forth with my father or kept in written contact with some friends from Spain, from New England, from New York. I’d love to have heard from my grandparents, or to read a collection of letters from ancestors from another land. They are treasures; they are history, humanity, emotion and time, all in the strokes of a pen.