The US Postal Service is in big trouble, on the verge of bankruptcy. They are closing processing centers and proposing a move from six days of mail delivery down to five. That’s sad news. Not that they’re downsizing, I’m all for one less day of junk mail and five pounds of catalogs. I’m sad about the reason behind the decision. No one writes letters anymore. When was the last time you actually sent or received a handwritten letter consisting of more than a paragraph, to or from a friend or relative? Scrawling “Happy Birthday” in a Hallmark card above your signature doesn’t count. It’s been years, right?
A trip to the mailbox used to be an enjoyable thing. Cream or white retangular envelopes with pointed flaps, addressed in blue ink, stamped and cancelled were found with great regularity. We’d announce something like, “There’s a letter here from Seattle!” across the front yard, waving it above our heads as we raced back up to the house. Sometimes the letter would be torn open even before stepping away from the curb. Perfumed love letters, scratched out notes from a pen pal, occasional “Dear John” letters, coveted letters from camp. Thoughtful letters. Gossipy letters. Silly letters. Sad Letters. Angry letters. Disappointing letters. They have all gone the way of the Dodo. The only letters that are sent any more are ones filled with anthrax.
The act of writing or reading a letter was something solitary, special, personal. I admit that I don’t write letters anymore either. Guilty as charged. It is way too easy to send a text message, fire off an email, update a status, or post a tweet. The language (and I use that term loosely), which is used to communicate such electronic missives has devolved into some sort of acronymic short hand, that has all the beauty of a spent bullet casing. Letter writing was an art and now it is a dead art.
I miss opening the little packets, their crinkling thickness hinting at the length of the letter nestled inside. One sheet? Two sheets? Three or more? I rarely get to look upon anyone’s looping hand, as unique to a particular friend as a thumbprint. There is no longer the shuffling of the creased pages, or leaning over to ask my wife, “what do you think that word is?” Letters were a civilized form of expression. Today, nothing civilized lands in my mailbox.
A letter is a writing exercise, a writing prompt. It’s an opportunity to compose a few thoughts without pressures, deadlines, rewrites, or edits. Its a way to express yourself to an audience of one (unless it somehow ends up on 60 Minutes). Let it flow from brain to page, fold it up, and slide it into the envelope. The mail man is your publisher, delivering your message to your intended audience.
In 1861, a letter was sent from Major Sullivan Ballou to his wife Sarah. It is a lyrical example of what letter writing was all about. Made famous in Ken Burns’ documentary The Civil War, I think it is one of the most beautiful and poetic expressions of patriotism, love and mortality I have read. Here is a portion of that letter:
Sarah, my love for you is deathless, it seems to bind me to you with mighty cables that nothing but Omnipotence could break; and yet my love of Country comes over me like a strong wind and bears me irresistibly on, with all these chains, to the battlefield.
The memories of the blissful moments I have spent with you come creeping over me, and I feel most gratified to God, and to you, that I have enjoyed them so long. And hard for me it is to give them up and burn to ashes the hopes of future years when, God willing, we might still have lived and loved together, and seen our sons grow up to honorable manhood around us. I have, I know, but few and small claims upon Divine Providence, but something whispers to me – perhaps it is the wafted prayer of my little Edgar – that I shall return to my loved ones unharmed. If I do not my dear Sarah, never forget how much I love you, and when my last breath escapes me on the battlefield, it will whisper your name.
Forgive my many faults, and the many pains I have caused you. How thoughtless and foolish I have often times been! How gladly would I wash out with my tears every little spot upon your happiness, and struggle with all the misfortune of this world, to shield you and my children from harm. But I cannot. I must watch you from the spirit land and hover near you, while you buffet the storms with your precious little freight, and wait with sad patience till we meet to part no more.
But, oh Sarah! If the dead can come back to this earth and flit unseen around those they loved, I shall always be near you; in the garish day and in the darkest night – amidst your happiest scenes and gloomiest hours – always, always; and if there be a soft breeze upon your cheek, it shall be my breath; or the cool air fans your throbbing temple, it shall be my spirit passing by.
Sarah, do not mourn me dead; think I am gone and wait for thee, for we shall meet again.
Now that’s a letter. Try putting that depth of expression into a 140 character Tweet. I think I’ll find a pen, a few sheets of paper, and write someone a letter.