I’m a child of the ’80s. Email didn’t come into my life until midway through university, and it needed to build momentum before the centuries-old tradition of letter writing began to fall by the wayside. When I was thirteen, I wrote to my first pen pal, another thirteen-year-old in Brisbane, Australia. From there, my letter writing quickly expanded. I came to have friends in places like Argentina, China, Egypt, Estonia, and Thailand. The postman delivered letters to me with exotic stamps, in penmanship much nicer than anything I could produce, and with details of lives lived far from me. This was before “the global village”, before information sharing was so easy and you could “friend” someone you met in passing at a party with little thought or effort and no commitment for the future. As with anyone you meet, some of us clicked more than others and our letter writing burgeoned from the obvious and polite questions, like “how is school?”, to real discussions of culture, events, and beliefs. I learned how Thais celebrate the new year, discussed the fall of the Berlin Wall with a girl in Germany, and exchanged candy with a friend in Japan. (They’ve got some good stuff.) My letter-writing friends opened up the world to me in a very personal way. “What’s happening in Poland” as the Cold War ended meant “what’s happening to my friend Krysztof.” It made politics relevant and the world accessible in a way I couldn’t otherwise reach as a young girl in a very homogenous American suburb. And it was fun.
Today I’m still in touch with several of my old pen friends and have met a few in person. On my first trip overseas, I met in person my good friend in the Netherlands and she showed me around her home country. Before the trip, we discussed (via MS-DOS-styled email) how we’d handle things if we didn’t get along as well in person as we did on paper. On another trip, I met a friend who drove with her husband and young sons to the town I was visiting to meet me for dinner. When I, with my American sense of geography, asked if it was too far for her to come, she set me straight: “Nancy, nowhere in Slovenia is far.” When I began writing letters at age thirteen, I didn’t look into the future to see the impact that my overseas friendships would have on my life. I didn’t realize that these would become some of the most enduring friendships I would have, that they were the first step in me exploring my interests in other peoples, languages, and cultures. I just wanted to find out if traffic lights used the same colors in other countries. (They do.) And I loved the anticipation of waiting for a reply. Would it come swiftly? What news would it contains? The mailman and I became pretty well acquainted, and we shared disappointment when a long-awaited letter from India arrived with the envelope torn on three sides, the contents lost.
That anticipation, enjoyment, and surprise is largely gone now. Email is the vehicle of twenty-first century correspondence. That’s been great for more regular communication. I email my friend from the Netherlands nearly every day. We can share so much more of the ups and downs of life for being in frequent contact. But the anticipation of an email reply is not the same as opening the mailbox and pulling out a letter. Typed words on a screen are not nearly as intimate as handwritten words. And emails are a lot harder to pass down to future generations. I still have many of the letters I exchanged in my youth, and many of the gifts that were sent with them. Today, though, we’re more likely to keep in touch on Facebook or via email than by putting pen to paper, and sometimes I feel we’ve lost something for that.
This has been brought home to me over the past year, when I began writing letters to an elderly cousin whose address I uncovered online while doing genealogy research. (The Internet: both helpful and creepy.) There’s a joy in receiving and reading her letters, and amazement when she enclosed a letter that my grandmother had written to her, telling of her joy in her grandchildren. I’m not giving up email, but I intend to revive my letter writing. It won’t be nearly the same as in the past. Today is what it is, and before I write my cousin, I type out what I’m going to say first. But I believe in the value of letter writing, in the unique sharing of self that comes from pen on paper, and I don’t want to lose it.