Thursday, 10 January 2008

The thrill of getting a real letter

Two separate incidents prompted me to post this: 1) my friend Greg, who lives in Australia, sent me a Christmas card by snail mail, and included in it a long, handwritten letter (not photostatted – on real writing paper, written with a real pen) catching me up on what he’s done over the last few months; and 2) my friend Gillian, who lives in England, mentioned in a recent email that she’d got a handwritten note from a friend thanking her for a memorable dinner – ‘That was delightful’, Gillian said.

Now, far be it for me to extol the virtues of snail mail. I am utterly addicted to email, and I love nothing better than conducting electronic correspondences with my far-flung friends, which enable me instantaneous access to their lives, and often has the added benefit of quick screen pics of their kids, pets, holidays, houses, spouses.

But the reason Greg wrote me a letter (which I have carried around in my bag with me for days; it’s the first real letter I’ve received in about 10 years, and I keep opening it – the paper crackles so satisfyingly – and re-reading it) gave me pause for reflection. ‘I thought about emailing you,’ he wrote, ‘but it’s so sterile and immediate, and I think you deserve better than that.’


When I took Greg’s envelope out of my postbox and realised that there was something substantial in it, I felt the kind of kick I used to when my birthday rolled around and distant relatives would send birthday cards from exotic lands (and which usually contained a pound or a dollar, a huge status symbol for South African kids in those days). And when I opened Greg’s envelope and realised there was an actual letter in it – oh joy!

But then, when I read Greg’s reason for sending it, I felt guilty. Because for the past few years I haven’t even sent out Christmas cards – because what’s the point? Emailing is so much easier, and so instant. It’s done in a flash: tap a few keys, press and it’s done.

And there’s the rub: immediate it may be, but it is also sterile. And Greg is right: my friends do deserve more than that.

There was a time when, for years, I made my own Christmas cards. And remembering that made me feel even more guilty because my friend Donald, who lives in Scotland, still makes his own cards (helped, these days, by his young kids), and I suddenly realised that if a Christmas came and went and I hadn’t received a homemade card in the mail from Donald, I would be very much the poorer.

I immediately determined that next Christmas I would return to the kindlier, more appreciative habits of my past, and make my own cards and send them to my lovely friends.

And then I realised something awful: since I became connected to the wider world by email 10 years ago, my address book has changed. Once, it was a much-thumbed, much-valued volume, with the letters A to Z helpfully tabbed, and in it was contained all the postal addresses that were important to me. As friends moved house, moved city, moved country, I faithfully updated (on real paper, with a real pen, in real handwriting) their new address details, so I would always know where to send a letter.

Now, my ‘address book’ is electronic, and all I have is their ‘@’ details. So even if I wanted to send them a homemade Christmas card, I can’t: I no longer have the information I need.

It’s pointless to regret something as fantabulous as electronic communication: for me, it has freed me from the strictures of the city and the imprisonment of the office; it has enabled me to raise my kids as a fulltime mother and also earn the living I need to support us all.

But it just can’t be denied that something precious has been lost.

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angel said...

wow... you're so right!
i love getting letters too, and the year before last i was still sending christmas cards!
i think i may start collecting addresses again too- i also have no more postal details

meggie said...

I have letters in my Grandmother's beautiful handwriting, & I love to read them again. I also have letters I wrote to my mother, that she saved, & letters from her I saved. Now I cant read my own handwriting, let alone expect someone else to do so!