Happy New Year! For those of you who have made your New Year’s resolutions and goals, I hope you are making progress. I have made a shortlist of miscellaneous things I would like to accomplish in 2016. Some of these things I should probably already be doing (e.g., flossing everyday) and others I think will be a nice challenge (e.g., working on language skills at duolingo.com everyday or learning how to play barre chords on the guitar). The resolution I am most excited about is my goal to write at least one letter each week.
As a little kid I had a love-hate relationship with letters. There were not many things that topped the sheer joy of receiving a handwritten letter from my grandma or an invitation to a birthday party. Both would be gems mixed in with the junk mail that adults seem to attract. However, I disliked writing all the addresses for the myriad of holiday cards my parents would send out once a year. To this day, I’m still not convinced that my parents know that many people.
It is interesting how this annual ritual of sending holiday card updates is perpetuated. Some of my parents’ friends send only a signature to a commercial sentiment. Others write long, detailed updates printed on stationery. Still others just send a family photo, or some use my family’s model of lots of photos in a collage with brief labels. None of the holiday cards are treasured like the shoebox of letters from friends and family members that I have saved under my bed since a young girl. These holiday updates are ephemeral, impersonal, displayed for a few weeks on the kitchen table before being recycled.
The people that my parents stay in touch with are from different periods in their lives: the family who lived down the street as they were growing up, high school buddies, college roommates, graduate school friends, work colleagues, former neighbors, and other acquaintances. It is also fascinating to me how my family pares down our list of recipients: if we haven’t received a holiday card from a family in three years, generally we stop including the silent recipient on next year’s list. But if we get a card, we always send one in return, even where the only contact with that family has been through this card sending ritual over decades, and even if we only get a signature on a pre-printed card in return. It seems that neither family can admit that the other is no longer an important connection. This insincere gesture to former acquaintances reminds me that I had to invite non-friends to my birthday parties because they had invited me to their parties, and it would be only polite to reciprocate.
I try to fit as many words as possible onto postcards and letters.
In my post-college limbo of not quite knowing what’s next, I can appreciate the desire to stay in touch with the familiar past as represented by my highschool and college connections. In this light, my parents’ holiday letters seem to be a physical acknowledgement that, at one point, the recipients and my parents shared a meaningful relationship. They are a friendly reminder that “I still recall our time together. But I have moved and this is what I am doing.” At one time the letters that sent long, detailed descriptions of the year’s activities talked of children’s accomplishments. Now they discuss grandchildren and retirement. The few that discuss life changes, blessings, and loss seem the most personal and intimate. Even so, those longer printed holiday letters are a mere curated snapshot of a life in a year.
Social media sites like Facebook or Snapchat take a similar role to these holiday greetings. Similar to the digitalization of photography, digital communication comes in copious amounts. The uniqueness of the individual conversation is lost due to the sheer quantity of connections we are bombarded with. The timeline postings of what I am doing now seem equally ephemeral–a very narrow and quickly dated glimpse of what I want to show. There’s an interesting tension between what we want others to know about ourselves and what the whole picture might be. In a post or a snap, I control what my friends and followers see. I am reticent to lay bare my deepest thoughts or to be truly intimate with the over 1500 facebook “friends” that I have. Actually this number of false friends makes my parents’ holiday card list look much more personal. How did that number of “friends” ever get so big when my friends who are currently relevant number more likely in the 50s?
In college I got into the habit of writing postcards to a couple friends from high school from the different places that I visited. I tried to keep up a very inconsistent pen pal relationship with four to six letters a semester, max. However, a postcard only allows for 50 – 100 words, again a snapshot, and it is visible to even the postal carrier, so one cannot become too personal. Usually they were just travel logs.
Now my New Year’s resolution calls for something more meaningful, something more intimate, something longer. The idea to write on a regular basis to my closest family and friends did not form until this Christmas when my mother opened her gift from her brother. Uncle Paul had found that my great-grandmother had saved all the letters my grandfather had written to his parents during World War II, detailing the daily life of a soldier. These letters were one to four pages each, still in their original envelopes, stored in several shoeboxes that had been forgotten in a cupboard of my grandmother’s home. Uncle Paul Xeroxed each, and combined them on a five-inch, three ring binder–quite a tome of work from a 19 – 22 year old who was seeing the world for the first time away from his childhood home. One of the things that struck me about my grandpa’s letters was the sheer quantity. He wrote a letter everyday for over three years. The content varied, but, in general, my grandpa worried over seventy years ago about things that I worry about today: what is for dinner, who he was going to dance with, keeping warm, acne, and finding someone to love. Reading them allowed me to see a person that I thought I knew in a different light. I felt close to him as if he were still alive and in his youth. I could imagine his surrounding and situations, as if I was reading a novel.
Thus, I decided that I needed to use letter writing to open up to others in the way that my grandfather had opened up to his parents about both the mundane and his deepest feelings. In a day and age where we seem to be constantly connected via phone calls, text messages, video calls, and emails, it seems like there is no place for a handwritten note. In some ways we have lost touch with the ability to thoughtfully communicate with one another. But I think that is one of the reasons that I want to make room for letter writing in my life. Embarking on an authentic letter writing campaign is partly about the tactile, human act of writing a letter, and partly about making a decision to be open to another human in a way that is often profoundly difficult. While I will have the ability to control what I convey to my intended audience, hopefully my letters will convey my personality in a way that technology can edit out. My mistakes will be preserved on the paper and emotions captured with the stylization of my penmanship.
A letter sparks a human connection that technology can’t encapsulate. It is something tangible that can be saved. One typically does not print out memorable emails to be treasured; rather emails are buried under hundreds of other emails, eventually forgotten and generally not revisited. In contrast, a written letter may be squirreled away to be rediscovered, providing both pleasure or anguish for those who reread moments captured in ink and paper. A letter is special in that the individual who shares an emotion no longer has the ability to curate the contents once it is sent to the recipient. Unlike social media, words and pictures once shared cannot be retroactively taken back.
An officemate pointed out that humanity is navigating a brave new world with the lack of letters. Whereas the digitalization of communication is new, letter writing is a millennial old custom with the earliest handwritten letter written somewhere around 500 B.C. And society responded to the need for this form of communication with elaborate methods of delivery: pigeons, ponies, boats, trains, and planes. While it may be important for my parents to write holiday cards once a year to maintain their numerous relationships, I want to use this historical art form to cultivate a different kind of relationship with family members, college friends, high school friends, and others miscellaneous acquaintances who I have met along the way. As graphic artist John Graham poetically noted “[l]etter writing is probably the most beautiful manifestation in human relations.”