The Power of Handwritten Letters

letters writing by hand are better than all other long-distance communication in the land

The beauty of Ivan Illich’s concept of rests is its intent on revitalizing aspects of a more graceful past. Anything considered “progress” should weigh itself against such beauty. After all, rests reflect those aspects of life that worked well for all.

One rest I’ve explored lately is the simple and long-standing tradition of letter writing—more specifically, the writing of letters by hand.

Think back to a time—if you’re lucky, this might have been yesterday— when you opened the mailbox and out spilled an envelope with someone’s—familiar or not—handwriting. Not a bill, nor  a political campaign pamphlet, nor an advertisement for the latest deal on Coke, but an imperfectly unique and wondrous letter. Who sent this to me? you wonder with a child’s excited curiosity.  At any age, it’s just about impossible to suppress the urge to open these letters right on the spot.

It’s with this verve, this energy that I’ve re-engaged with the inherent joy of writing and receiving handwritten letters. I could be cast as a “romantic”—and so what if I am?—yet this isn’t about “turning back.” It’s actually about “turning toward conversing.” Handwritten letters offer a time-honored way to “talk” or “converse” with each other rather than to “communicate”, which is what device-mediated interaction lends us.

If you want to “communicate”, feel free to send me a text, email, or chat through my idevice. Want to talk through writing? Send me a handwritten letter, and I’ll cheerfully reciprocate in kind.

When I write a letter to you—as in write using my hand, wrist, and arm—my body helps me “edit” my stream of thought. The page reflects my style of penmanship, much like the plaza displays my gait. My handwriting distinguishes me. The best I can do to personalize an email is to employ ghastly exclamation points, “emojis”, or trite sign offs—what the hell does “Best,” actually mean?

Sitting down to write, I become an eccentric. This means that I sit and think. Imagine that! Thinking? Today? Though not evident in this blog, I deliberate what I really want to say and how I’ll say it. I hold in mind the person I’m writing to and how long it’s been since we last “talked” rather than “communicated.” I reflect on what the person means to me and has meant to me.

I find that ideas flow more readily when handwriting, they more closely resemble my thoughts. Using the computer I produce a patch quilt of ideas, which later I must sew together through the rigor of editing.

I write while the civilization project buzzes and stampedes around me. No plane to catch, no place I need to be, no errands to run, I’m writing a letter here! Each day as our tech-obsessed culture moves a pace faster, writing letters slows me down, focusing my attention on the savoring of insight and the flow of pen.

Letters offer a more permanent satisfaction. My handwritten letters and the letters I receive tender renewed sources of surprise and joy. They evoke a special kind of exuberance—one with a building glow, rather than the quick flash we get from social media.

I recently revisited a letter a Spanish friend shared with me when we were in high school together. His rarified style of humor and gift for storytelling cast me back to the time and our quasi-debauched escapades. Revisiting his letter wasn’t about nostalgia. It offered me a moment of meditation on a shared past from the (hopefully) matured distance of two decades.

It was and is through letter writing to friends near and far that we can deepen our bonds of affiliation. My friend Dave and I live precisely 1.4 miles—as the bike rolls—away from each other. Nonetheless, we send letters back and forth based on flights of fancy, stumbled-upon insights, and remindings. Another friend, Jeff and I have shared philosophical-tinged letters for about three years now. Our letters travel nearly 2,700 miles from sender to receiver.

No matter the distance they travel, handwritten letters renew our focus on our lived experience. Letters demand thoughtfulness. And as such,  they draw our attention to those elements that make live worth living. Nature. Friendships. Kinships. Letters are the stuff of life, messy, singular and wonderful.

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