Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Putting Pen to Paper

I’m well aware, it is not necessary to put pen to paper in order to communicate with friends or loved ones. But not necessary does not mean not relevant and I can’t help but be a big fan of the old fashioned hand written letter or card.
Earlier this year when my mother died, I received many unexpected cards and letters which really did act as a salve on my grief. That these individuals had gone to the effort - physically put pen to paper, folded it, slipped it into an envelope, got a stamp and sent it - just meant so much more than a text message or email at such a time. It showed not only sensitivity to what I was going through, but a regard for the life of my mother. At such times words can seem inadequate, but gestures worth so much.  It certainly surprised me to receive such condolences from people like my ex- husband’s very elderly Grandmother and old high school friends. Their efforts were truly heartening to me.
As teenagers, my friends and I would write a letter to each other just when we had been apart for a few classes! We would pass the folded scrawled pages to each other in the corridors, reading frantically of each other’s (usually romantic!) intrigues before the next classes began.  My best friend and I went to different high schools but spent the morning and afternoons together on the country school bus -yet we still wrote to each other almost daily while apart. I still have some of those letters. They seem to have a power to conjure up my friend more than anything else.  Her light, fast, scrawly handwriting and her words, yes, of course. But it’s so much more. It’s the foolscap paper, the pen she favoured, the smudges that can transport me to the noisy school bus. Most of all, it is the blank outer layer of paper that makes her feel present.  Folded to be an envelope and scrunched around the letter. It’s as if her hands only just clenched it and stuffed it into her school dress pocket. As if her hand was a moment away and I could reach out and catch it and hold it in mine. After she died when we were 15, I just had to look at these blank bits of paper and it would break my heart, scraping the scab off my grief.
One high school friend and I have continued a correspondence and send each other pages and pages – big fat letters – a few times a year. It goes so far beyond an email or text (which we do as well). To see her hand writing, to have her sustained thoughts laid out for me, to have her describe things so extensively  and humorously and to follow the train of her thoughts as she leaps from insight to insight (she’s a perceptive one!).  It helps her to stay real to me and connected to me in a more meaningful way because in these letters we bear our hearts. I wouldn’t trade those few letters a year for a daily tweet or weekly email in a millions years!
Another good friend travels extensively and although I love the emailed photos and the itinerary updates, it is the postcards I treasure.  They are by far the best testament to our friendship. Here is the physical object, blessed with his handwritten marks, sent halfway across the world from him to me. For me. Can there be anything more exciting and connecting?

My suit case of old letters....

Then there are the great letter moments in some of the classic books! Who could forget the devastating outcome after the letter slipped mistakenly under the mat and never received in Thomas Hardy’s “Tess of the D’Urbervilles”? Or not burst with joy at the letter, secretly written in the presence of the intended recipient, by Captain Wentworth in Jane Austen’s “Persuasion”?  Ah was there ever a better letter scene than that? Goosebumps! Can you imagine any of these dramatic moments being transferred to an email bouncing back or replaced with an update of a facebook status?
When I was courting my husband, I would often leave cards and notes in his letter box, even though we could text and email as well and even though I  lived around the corner! My father wrote to my mother every day of their engagement – and if he had nothing to write he would draw a picture or write a poem. There is something revealing in your hand writing, something personal and generous in sharing words hand written, and something respectful in the effort to write and send a letter.
I know letter writing can be seen as obsolete and inefficient, I know that people can now tweet to numerous people at once, or post something on facebook that communicates to many, but the action of taking up the pen, and sharing thoughts with just one other, in your own hand,  I think is worth the time and effort.  So excuse me while I go and put pen to paper.
For the vintage post enthusiast -  the re-sew-cool vintage stamp brooch kit!


  1. Hi Julianne,
    What a beautiful post. I was very sad to read that you lost your mum this year but very heartened to read that it meant so much that people from all walks of your life went to the trouble to contact you with hand written thoughts. It's definitely something to keep in mind for those times when one feels otherwise overwhelmed and unable to help.
    On a much lighter but lovely note, your embroidered felt postage stamp is gorgeous, I love it!
    Keep well!

  2. It's interesting what you say about getting handwritten condolence cards. It made me think of when I got news from a friend that the father of her son had passed away, and it didn't feel right to me to answer via text (she specifically requested that people not call right away) but then she was surprised not to get a text back from me, so then I felt terrible not to have been in touch right away. It made me realise how much electronic communication has changed etiquettes, and I how I often find myself feeling confused about what I should do.

    I also adore handwritten notes, letters, cards and post cards. It also means that I can find a use for my stationary fetish purchases!

  3. Thanks Sandra and Melita. It is hard to know the etiquette about these things Melita. I received good text messages when Mum died too but I think the other good thing about the letters is that they arrived a few days later when things are really hitting you and to receive thoughts then is a lovely thing. It has reminded me that taking the trouble to send things really means something. It's the deed more than the words I think.

  4. What a beautiful post. I loved reading that. Your language and descriptions made me feel as if I was really there. It seems that handwriting letters is a bit of a dying art and maybe it's time to go back to it on some level. I think we live in an age when we want everything immediately and perhaps we need to take a step or two back and bring back this dying art. Thank you for sharing ... really lovely.