Tomorrow, U.S. postal rates will increase again. This time, there hasn’t been the traditional outcry, or it’s been at a lower volume. People probably don’t count their pennies, or two, as closely these days. The bigger reason, though, is that people don’t use postal services as often or as directly as they used to, and of course there is more competition. Need to talk to someone? Use some cell phone minutes or Skype. Need to write? Send an e-mail. Need to get something? Buy it online and have it shipped to yourself or to someone else. Need to pay a bill? Pay online. At this point, I suppose that most of what goes through the U.S. Postal Service is “direct” mail (advertising), magazines, some business-related mail, and parcels from retailers and sellers on ebay and other services.
I don’t imagine there are very many people left who would put five personal letters into the mail, as I just did — all to people for whom I have phone numbers and e-mail addresses.
Why do I write? I like to — I like the feel of pen or pencil on paper, the kind of tactile sensation that our virtual reality society doesn’t seem to value. I can write almost anywhere — at the lake front, at a restaurant or café, or in a public garden as I am doing now. All I need is a notebook or paper and a pencil case. I don’t need a computer, computer case, battery, power supply, or a place with the right kind of lighting for an LCD — just a few ounces of the tools of the craft.
Those aren’t the most important reasons, of course. A handwritten letter is more personal. Some of my personality comes out in not only the choice of words and phrases (and topics), but in their shapes and sizes. Times New Roman is Times New Roman no matter who types it; my handwriting is my own.
The people I write to can read (or not read) my letters at their leisure, wherever and whenever they want — at the park, a restaurant, or café, or in a public garden. Or even in the bathroom. They don’t need to have equipment or a connection or a spot shielded from bright lighting.
I don’t expect anyone to respond to my letters in the same format; the time for letter writing seems to be past. When I was a child, one of the highlights of a summer day was the sound of the U.S. Postal Service Jeep pulling up to the mailbox outside the kitchen window. It would be a happy day if there were a letter from a pen pal or a postcard (addressed to me!) from Aunt Marietta, posted from one of her exotic destinations like Mexico or Switzerland. Even catalogs could be exciting, even though we knew we were never going to get to order from them.
At my apartment building, most of us check our mail when we get home from work or school, and most of us throw most of what we receive straight into the convenient trash can. Once in a while, someone will have a flash of joy by the mailbox area like that we felt when we were children. Last week, a man told me, “I got a letter! I don’t know when the last time I got a letter was! A LETTER!” He waved it half with joy, half with disbelief.
Writers and other thinkers have always communicated through letters. Thomas Jefferson wrote reams of correspondence, probably knowing that he would be communicating not only with the recipient but with the generations of Americans to come. His letters are as much a part of his legacy as his more formal writings. All of the Brontë sisters wrote letters that provide interesting insights into both their works and the family relationships and alliances that lay behind them. For a person in Anne Brontë’s position, supporting herself as a governess, writing letters was a costly necessity; she used some of the little money and free time she had to write them. Her letters, and those of her siblings, preserve her attitudes toward her position, her employers, and her society, and hint at her emotions.
Today, Anne would have sent e-mails to her family and friends. One wonders what they would have said — if they would have been quick reassurances that all was well, even if they weren’t, or if they would have been the more detailed descriptions that provide such insight into the Brontë family and a governess’s life. The accessibility and instantaneousness of e-mail might hinder the very depth of thought and feeling that went into the letters written by Jefferson, the Brontës, Hardy, and so many others. It’s easy to shoot off a quick e-mail that reveals little, but hard to write a letter about what is really on your mind.
I write so many letters that I’m sure they are not particularly special to their recipients. Any deep thoughts I may have are locked in the basement of my psyche, as I have been told. I tend to babble about the mundane, which is safe and doesn’t reveal much about me other than that I am like everyone else.
Except that I write letters. Lots of letters.