Once, when I was a young lad of fifteen, I found myself sitting with my paternal grandmother in her living room. Somehow, I got to telling her that I loved writing and that I had dreams of becoming published.
“When we moved to California,” she said, “your grandpa would always write to his mother back in Pennsylvania. Before he sent them, I always asked to read them. Your grandpa wrote such beautiful letters. That’s probably where you and your dad get it from.”
About eighteen years later, I found myself back at her house. I was sitting at the kitchen table, running my hands through some of the stuff that had been laying around since she had passed ten months earlier. My hand grazed over a stack of what I initially thought was just random papers. My eyes widened. I flipped through them; they were letters! Each page was a window pane into my family’s past (or that’s my assumption–my mom told me to leave that stuff alone since whatever was in them wasn’t my business. Fair enough).
Coming from a time when I can send messages as fast as my internet connection will allow, that’s all letters have really been: a window pane to the past. Physical mail is far from dead, but it’s usually in the form of the electric bill you were hoping dear Mr. Edison wouldn’t remember to send you. There’s definitely a lot to say for how communication has advanced in the last few decades and has become ubiquitous. With many people either sheltering-in-place or unable to go home because they have been deemed essential workers, the internet and its many options for communication has become a lifeline. It has become the only way some people can continue to work, and therefore, put food on the table. Text messaging and video chats have become invisible ties that keep families and friends together while apart. We are very fortunate to be living in a time when we can still hear each others’ voices and see each others’ faces without ever leaving our homes.
So, you must be very puzzled as to why I just spent the last two days writing letters and physically mailing them out. What argument could be made for the physical letter? Why waste all of that time, paper, envelopes, and stamps when you can just open an app? Why risk my health for a drive to the post office? Why ask others to do the same?
What does the physical letter do that an electronic one can’t?
There are no words to adequately describe how lucky I am compared to most. I am not wanting for food, shelter, safety, or entertainment. I’ve been granted the unprecedented opportunity to be home with my parents, learn and cook recipes I’ve only vicariously enjoyed, and–oh, praise the Lord that has just left the tomb–focus on my writing with boundless energy. I am grateful for this time to enjoy peacefulness.
But there has been an underlying river of depression that sometimes breaches its banks. While I am not fighting for my life, I am fighting tears that sometimes flood my eyes at random points of the day. Why, you ask, if I am granted all of these things that are luxuries to many at this time?
It’s the physical isolation. It’s the thought of that one doctor coming home and pulling away from his own child–in tears–for fear that he is contaminated. It’s people dying alone in their hospital beds because it’s too dangerous to let their loved ones near. It’s not being able to comfort my friends and family who are all considered essential–and worrying about their safety. Hugs and kisses are now weapons. The greatest act of love is to remain apart. For our safety–and for the future of humanity–we have to remain apart.
We are social creatures, and connection is vital to our survival. And while the internet has done so much to keep us together, it does not answer the need for physical touch. E-mails are no replacement for holding hands. Text messages cannot replace hugs. Profile pictures won’t erase the need for kisses. And while those things must remain on hold, we must find a safe way to at least placate–if not meet–the need for physical affection.
Enter, the paper letter.
Granted, while there is a risk for contamination*, the physical letter can help ease the need for physical contact. While it’s not the same thing as physical touch, it is a tangible extension of a loved one, and–if they allow themselves–an extension of their hearts. Due to the fact that it doesn’t move anywhere near as fast as the internet, writing a physical letter is going to force you to slow down and make use of your resources. It gives you a chance to stop and think about what you are going to tell your recipient. If you’re handwriting a letter, you are committing to your every word. The money you pay for postage is an investment in whatever message you are sending. Unlike electronic forms of communication–which leads to the temptation to give into impatience and send messages that maybe you should think through first–your conscience is given the time and space to speak. Many older folks do not own–much less know how to use–computers, and at this time, letters may be one–if not their only–connection to the outside world. People were stressed out going to their physical mailbox before this; the way one of my childhood friends put it to me was, “It would be nice to open something other than a bill”. What I think is most important–the whole reason–is giving someone the knowledge that you cared enough to reach out to them. That they are so important to you that the time and energy you spent writing that letter is an investment in your relationship. The envelope is a just a wrapping for a gift: the gift of your thoughts and thoughtfulness.
My favorite bald weirdo wrote in his introduction to his poetry that, “There is no electronic version…I want to be held, pages turned”. Since we can’t hug each other for real, we can hug each other in paper form. We will hold each others’ letters with the hope that someday, we’ll hold each others’ hands. We will read each others’ thoughts–and that will give us the time to find the courage to say it with our voices. We can use this time to say the things we mean and mean what we say. Letters were once a window to the past. Today, they can help us look forward to the future.
Reach out to a loved one you haven’t spoken to in a long time. Befriend the lonely. Confess your love.
Just say what you need to say.
Because this is what love in a time of COVID-19 looks like.
Write back soon.
Just a quick tutorial from one of my other favorite bald weirdos**:
*Please exercise all caution when sending letters or giving anything to anybody. Wash your hands often (please watch the above video for detailed instructions), use hand sanitizer in the absence of soap or if you touch anything, wear gloves (change gloves when contaminated) and masks, cough or sneeze into your shoulder instead of your hands, remain six feet away from other people at all times, do not go out if you can avoid it, and if you must go out, complete only what is necessary and return home.
**I don’t know what it is with me and bald weirdos. Maybe their funny bones grow stronger with every hair follicle they lose.