Share |

The Almost Lost Art of Letter Writing

Spiritual Smart Aleck

I was writing a letter this morning. Yes, a letter, with a pen, on paper.

Yes, children, before computers and cell phones we had to write letters, and mail them, then wait days or weeks for an answer.

We could telephone, also, but the long distance rates could be ruinous. I once made a 45-minute call to Australia for which I was charged $250. Ouch.

Now, of course, there are cell phones that can call anywhere in the country without an extra charge, and there is skype to call anywhere in the world. The main problem with calling Australia now is the time difference. My way of figuring it out is: in Sydney the time is six hours behind us, but it’s tomorrow. Works for me.

Before there was technology, people wrote letters; the people who were literate, that is. The illiterati were sitting around the hearth at the pub telling stories, singing songs, laughing and not bothering with any one more than ten miles away. Why should you care for anyone more than ten miles away? You’d never meet them. That’s Ohio for you.*

Writing letters was an art as well as a necessity. When we read letters from years ago we learn about life before our time, and we get to know people who are long dead.

Sometimes writers regretted writing an angry or otherwise thorny letter that changed their lives. A confession of love, for example, might turn out to be something to regret.

You weren’t supposed to read other people’s letters, because it was a form of eavesdropping. As with eavesdropping, you might find out something you really would have been happier not to know.

My letter writing began late in childhood. I grew up on a farm and it was lonesome. My best friends were the dog and cat, my goats, and the donkey. I taught the donkey to sit like a dog and shake hooves and that was fun, but I envied the kids I knew in school who went home to their suburban houses and got to play with each other every day.

If I asked my mother if I could go visit a friend, the answer was usually no. She’d say, “I’ve done enough driving today.” Sometimes she would talk about depreciation of the value of the car. My mother was a bookkeeper, so she knew all about things like depreciation and amortization.

There may be children who would say, “Oh, right, taking me over to Linda’s house would decrease the value of the car.” I was not one of those children, but it didn’t matter. In those days, my mother’s decision was final and there was no court of appeals.

During one summer vacation I began walking down to the end of the driveway every day to pick up the mail. The mail seemed to me like a portal to the wider and more interesting world. I began writing to people, mostly for the thrill of getting a letter in return.

First I wrote to my cousin Nancy, who lived in far off exotic San Leandro, then to kids from Hollister whom I met at 4-H camp. Later I wrote to a boy from Paso Robles whom I met at a Farm Bureau young people’s conference. At sixteen I thought he was The One. At seventeen I found out I was wrong.

I wrote to these citizens of the world during the long hot California summers, and then I would walk down the driveway to the mailbox and post my letters. Must have cost my mother a small fortune in postage stamps, but at least I wasn’t depreciating the value of our 1963 Dodge Dart.

I continued writing letters until the computer revolution and the internet came along. Suddenly it was possible to communicate with people far away in real, or almost real, time.

I loved it. I still love it. It stopped me and a lot of other people writing letters, though. Mostly.

There is still something cool about the feeling I have when I write to someone, and you know what? I feel as thrilled now when I get a letter as I did when I was twelve. That’s the power of a letter. I miss letters.

*This attempt at humor is based on what my husband Rick told me about his mother’s family in Ohio when he was growing up. No disrespect intended for current, living Ohioans.