Wednesday, October 17, 2012

The Epistolary Blues

My parents are moving.

When I went to help them, I knew that house held most of our recent familial history, but I had forgotten how much of my own youth I abandoned there in shoe boxes and in plastic bags, pushed to the back of closets and shoved under furniture. Admittedly, I am not known for my fabulous sense of recall. But I had forgotten about all the letters, written to me by friends and family, who wanted to stay in touch, even when we were thousands of miles apart, and phone calls were too expensive.

There are hundreds of them. Small units of memory.

It’s funny to think about aspects of my own life as artifact, yet I could not help but view these papers, still nestled in their envelope homes, as remnants of a bygone era. My bygone era, when the sight of par avion thrilled me to my toenails. So romantic, no? And so sad...

We don’t write letters any more. Today, I dread checking the mail. My mailbox is nearly a mile away from my house, and usually, it’s limited to advertising junk and bills.

No letters.

I, unlike most of my students, can recall when email became the new thang. I think I remember some people predicting the loss of letter writing (and please forgive my faulty memory and my lack of motivation to do any research), but I’m pretty sure I remember other people saying that letter writing would remain and poliferate, but in an electronic form. I may have been one of those people.

Twenty years later, I think it’s safe to say that those who predicted the doom of the correspondent letter had the right of it. No one writes letters anymore. Unless they are form letters, business letters, political campaign letters, or advertisements that are pretending to be letters.


Yes, I’ll say it again. Lame. Which is funny, because I was never a fabulous letter writer, even when it was the done thing. Most of my long distance friends, I’m sure, will attest to this fact, but I miss the post box visits, and the hoping that something would be there waiting to be read. I miss the tearing of the envelope and the slow unravel of pages. I miss reading someone else’s hand and knowing them a bit better for that mess on the paper.

Letters brought me the sure and concrete knowledge that my father loved  and missed me when I was thousands of miles away. Many of the letters I saved were in his hand, and once I saw them, I remembered how they chronicled bits and pieces of his day, and how I straddled ten time zones towards home everytime I read them.

I also remember how I took them for granted.
Isn’t hindsight such an ass?

But now I have these relics, evidences of my youthful travels and the loved ones, who, in some measure, followed me wherever I went. The internet has made this even easier. I can keep up with my friends’ lives without exchanging a single word with them. Ever. Oh boy.

For this reason, email and internet social networking has lost its gleam for me. Yes, it is massively convenient. Yes, I can easily contact friends, who live twelve thousand miles away from me. Yes, my entire life has some sort of foothold within this morass of terabytes and codes. But in the long term I would save very little of it. I will not find these messages tucked away twenty years from now, because so much of this information has devolved into manufactured sound bites and conscious reality production. Watch us dance on our public newsfeed! Listen to me I have cool things to say! No. I mean it. I really do have cool things to say. But if you want to be real, you can backchannel, which is now a verb, because so much of our correspondence is now done in the electronic town square, so we need a new verb to describe an action for private interaction. Wow.

Back to the letters and why I was lousy at it: looking back, I realize I did not understand the performance of letter writing. Partially, because I had not yet been introduced to the idea of different writing for different occasions and/or different audiences (woo, shocker), but also because regular communication through snail mail was already on its way to becoming a rarified practice, so I didn’t really have many examples, and I love learning by example. I have thought a lot about this genre of performance, and I have since realized that the best letters might contain details of the outer life of the writer, but definitely chronicle the inner lives of the writer.

The best letters
are soundboard discussions
that ruthlessly tear apart
our self-narratives and gingerly
piece them back together.
The best letters ask questions
that expect answers,
maybe fifty years from now.
The best letters arrive
when we most need them.
The best letters ask
to be read out loud.
The best letters offer
brief suspensions
of electronic noise
and windows into silence.
The best letters
have yet to be written.
The best letters call us
into computerless minutes
ruled by ink and paper,
and don’t we all need a whopping dose of those?

So join me in a new dawn of snail mail mail and write me the best letter.

I promise.

I’ll write to you, if you write to me.

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