A Hundred Letters

September 3, 1999

Sir, more than kisses, letters mingle souls.
                           — John Donne, 1572-1631
                                English poet and preacher

They’re rare these days — a personal letter in a hand-addressed envelope with a genuine stick-it-on first class stamp. Most of the mail I pull out of the box at curbside each day consists of metered bills and bank statements and you-might-be-a-winner notices. There’s also the junk mail and the throw away shopper type newspapers, and the magazines we actually subscribe to (Teen People and the autumn Glimmer Train arrived today).

Most of the personal first-class mail we get consists of items we expect — social notices, party invitations, greeting cards. Lynn was invited to more than a dozen bar or bat mitzvahs this year, so that brought in a steady stream of foil-lined envelopes with the address wrought in elegant calligraphy, followed several weeks later by a lovely thank-you note in the new teenager’s own charming hand.

We stay in touch with friends and family now by phone and e-mail. In my mother’s youth, long distance was reserved for bad news (VERY bad news). The calls were expensive and fuzzy connections made the communication so difficult you didn’t want to linger on the line. Fiber optics and rate wars changed that, so now it’s not a big deal to dial up* a friend half way across the country and chat for half an hour.

Don’t get me wrong. I can still tie up the line like a teenager. And I love e-mail. I send reams of it (if, indeed, you could measure it that way) and I receive a lot. But it does tend to be casual and not very carefully composed, restricted to short bursts of breaking news (“i’ll be in town on thursday” or “I got an A on that paper you helped me with — thanks!”). And it’s, well, not very pretty.

I miss the depth and the heart that a genuine letter can carry. I miss the decorated letter sheets (although some of my most cherished missives have come on lined loose-leaf notebook paper), the feel of unfolding the little packet, the awareness that you are holding something the friend or beloved has recently touched.

And I miss communicating with some of the people I wouldn’t dream of phoning, people who were once part of my life, who gave me joy and encouragement, whose presence in my history is part of who I am. And I haven’t the moxie usually to say deeply-felt things to people I see every day.

So this year I’m writing letters, a hundred of them. Two a week, in longhand on pretty paper if practical, although there are some I have in mind that might go many pages, so I’ll allow myself the occasional keyboarded** version .

They’ll be “surprise” letters, letters that the recipient has no reason to expect. Thus condolence letters and thank-yous for a gift or an entertainment don’t count, but a note of praise to my daughter’s seventh grade social studies teacher for being an inspiration to her even though she hated the subject (ancient cultures) does. They’ll be love letters.

With luck, I’ll get some back.

(* I collect “fading phrases,” expressions that are ingrained in our language but are now more metaphorical terms than actual descriptions. I haven’t seen a dial phone in years, but nobody talks about “pressing the keys” to engage someone on the phone. ** “Keyboarded” is the term that has replaced the faded “typed.”)

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