Tuesday, March 12, 2013

In praise of letters

Handwritten letters are one of my favorite things. Like hot tea and pearl earrings, they lend a tangible grace to an ordinary day. One of my first posts on this blog was a letter-writing challenge, and I have also ruminated on the importance of Christmas letters, or habits for enjoying a letter from a friend. However, I'm not sure I have spoken well enough or deeply enough about why letters can serve a friendship.

Yesterday and today have brought letters from three dear friends and faithful correspondents. Their letters were as different as one could imagine: Amanda used a fountain pen on her creamy textured stationery; Josh compacted a small dissertation onto six pages of notebook paper; and Kt's envelope contained both a Muppets notecard and several pages of vintage floral notepaper. Their words and news were just as varied, but each one made me sit up, catch my breath, cry, laugh.

Different as they are, why have they renewed my love for my friends in the midst of such a strange and hectic day?

Perhaps because letters imply trust. Some call words cheap, but as a writing teacher, I know that writing always costs us something. Students would not feel so self-conscious about writing if they did not sense that by writing, even on a mundane classroom exercise, they reveal themselves--their intelligence, or their values, or their uncertain voice. I only write letters to someone I am willing to trust with the intimate, evening-sun sort of questions that rise when I step away from my computer.

Certainly a letter can show care. Even the conventional epistolary courtesies  ("Dear friend....) are more intimate than our everyday, spoken greetings. Letters sustain a sort of distance--it is a piece of paper, after all, and not a face or hand--but that distance can give us the courage to speak with love.

Letters also let us hear the hidden voices of our friends: not necessarily the tones they take in a crowd, or face to face, or in class, or in whatever other context you may know them. For some, the relative privacy of a letter makes them more candid. For others, the commitment of putting words on a page makes them more circumspect and thoughtful. Letters can deepen and even challenge our knowledge of who a person is.

And of course, letters remind us why we loved our friends first, and renew our vision of them. This week, I have caught my breath to see how in everything--everything--Amanda's eyes and heart remain fixed on Christ. I have been delighted and impressed to see how Josh manages to pick a postage stamp, featuring American jazz musicians, that ties perfectly to his insightful comments on medieval exegesis. And I have remembered that Kt's whimsy springs from the same source as her deep, humbling compassion, so that when she writes "There are teeny, tiny sprouts in the garden that may eventually be lettuce," I burst into tears and then find myself laughing with hope all at once.

Friends should write one another letters. Even friends who live in the same city or the same house or the same room. Because you can know a person, you can have class with them or cook with them or even pray with them, but when they commit themselves to words and pen and paper, it is possible that some hidden grace of soul will emerge, and they will become more than you could have known or imagined.

1 comment:

  1. Handwritten letters are some of my favourite things too! They're like gifts to give AND receive. I love finding ways to be creative ... in paper and ink, tiny gifts, etc. Thank you so much for sharing the joy of handwritten letters here!