I got three letters this week. Real, three-dimensional things, on paper and everything. It was thrilling. There amongst the bills and dull life admin were things worth opening and taking time over.
Letter-writing is something special – it’s a lost art and we’re the sadder without it. Pen pals aren’t really a thing anymore, we send emails or WhatsApp messages or texts. Of course, we could blame technology for taking over and making us set down our pens, but it seems likely that most lost arts are prone to neglect as the years pass by.
Also likely, I hope, is that the ebbs and flows of their fortune will soon bring them to our notice once more. Lockdown life has reminded us of small joys and the importance of taking time to reflect and think of others – all involved in the process of letter-writing. Sharing an epistle is joyful – for the sender and recipient alike.
And there’s lots to like. Snail mail, as the name suggests, is slow and thoughtful. Personal handwriting is intimate in a way that screen typing can never be. A letter can’t be deleted, instead, it can be treasured and wrapped up in a ribbon to peruse over and over again (I have hundreds of letters that Chris and I wrote to each other in the nineties when we were at different colleges, massively embarrassing to read now but also somehow meaningful and emotional). Even the walk to the postbox is an opportunity to get outside, listen to the birds, feel the wind in your hair. Then the wait to hear back which feels precious in our instant-gratification world. It’s a centuries-old tradition and tapping into it feels as if we’re following ancestral footsteps (even if it’s with a Bic biro rather than quill and ink).
I once spent well over two hours dipping one of those quill pens over and over in order to produce two small pages of a letter to my friend Gillian, the wax seal on the envelope finishing the job. I was Jane Austen for an afternoon – what could be better? The ink-stained hands were a trophy.
Those dripping wax seals. A scroll unfurled. Ink blotches on animal skin parchment. Japanese calligraphy. A crisp, empty sheet. Silver letter openers that slice pleasingly along the edge of an envelope. That moment of recognition when the date stamp or handwriting tells you about the author and what lies within.