I’ve long championed the art of the letter. I have boxes of stationery and stacks of postcards, being incapable of exiting a museum via anything except the gift shop, picking up a few on the way. I actually order stamps from Royal Mail, because that’s the only way to get the non-boring type – most recently, a large consignment of James Bond commemorative stamps. (And let’s face it, this is alas the closest I’m ever going to get to Daniel Craig.)
But unquestionably the most important hour of my day right now is first thing in the morning – not reading newspapers, not listening to the news (about which I can do nothing), not even meditating, but sitting in bed writing cards and letters. Because they seem to make all the difference to people’s days – and anything that I can do to brighten the lives of people I love or even just like a lot right now is what I want to spend my time on, in lockdown.
It began with dropping a little handwritten card to a couple of neighbours who I thought might need comfort, in enforced isolation. And then a friend who’s had some health challenges and definitely seemed in need of cheering up, from her Facebook posts. And then the floodgates opened. What harm would it do, I wondered, to write to all my nearest and dearest and actually tell them – in a card or a letter – how special they are? Answer: no harm. On the contrary, its been amazing. And, like some kind of chain letter, many of them have used it as a trigger, taken up letter-writing and are using their time to jot a note to other people.
Because as I mentioned in my ‘Small Pleasures’ editorial for Gill recently, the appearance of a postman is really quite thrilling right now. We all feel cut off. Nobody loves not being able to reach out and hug people (well, nobody but an actual sociopath) – so I’ve basically decided to put those hugs in an envelope, stick a stamp on, seal it with a kiss, and pop it through the wonderful, battered old postbox on our street.
It all feels a bit melodramatic and highly unfamiliar, sometimes, telling people the things you think but don’t usually say: ‘I just wanted to let you know how I’ve always admired X, Y or Z about you.’ ‘I love having you as my friend because – dot, dot, dot.’ Americans are so much better at this than the Brits; these are the sort of things we only generally say to people in extremis – when someone’s very ill (us or them), and we somehow find a way to overcome our British stiff upper lip-ishness, and tell it like it is. Well, this is an altogether, global in extremis situation – and the gift it has given us (because there has to be a silver lining to this cloud SOMEWHERE) is that its put everything into sharp focus. Made us appreciate what we have, while we have it. In particular, people.
Zoom calls can be fun. (I’ve got a group of cousins I check in with each Sunday, and a couple of girlfriends who I have a virtual tea party with on Saturday afternoons.) E-mails from friends are OK, but actually still feel a bit too like work. Receiving silly videos on WhatsApp certainly makes me snort my tea out of my nose, at times. But is there anything lovelier than someone’s handwriting? I sometimes come across letters and postcards my late parents wrote to me, maybe four decades ago, slipped into a book or a box – and a glimpse of their handwriting is unbelievably moving. No typeface can do that.
So I am working my way through those stacks of museum postcards that I’ve accumulated, over the years – a handful at a time, each morning. Some of my cards go through neighbours’ doors, like the eighty-something widower poet who lives down the road, with a poorly cancer patient daughter just a few hundred yards away who he can’t visit. He gets a card from me every couple of days, and his e-mails back are wonderful and smile-making (and sometimes, in French, because he’s a linguist). And there’s the old lady I know, who would formerly be seen bustling around all day long, working off large amounts of what is clearly nervous energy, and who is presumably now pacing her hallway, waiting for her confinement to be over. (I do appreciate how lucky I am to live in a community where I know my neighbours, incidentally – but hopefully those bonds are being forged now even in large cities, as we realise how interconnected we really are.)
I certainly don’t do it because I want letters and cards back – though its been completely thrilling to get some ‘replies’, as well as some unsolicited snail mail. (I shan’t throw a single one away, but have tucked them inside recipe and gardening books, and in years to come I’ll come across them and remember the extraordinary time the world changed forever – for the better, one can only hope.) I do it because life is short, and precious, and most of us are only just waking up to how short and how precious – and that it’s definitely too short not to tell people we love them and are thinking of them.
So: I really can’t do anything about the current global corona-situation. (Other than look after my own health, stay home, socially distance when I’m going out for essential supplies or daily exercise, and wash my hands endlessly.)
But I can do something that might just make someone’s day, as they open an envelope or find a postcard of a Dante Gabriel Rosetti beauty or a Hockney sketch, sitting on the doormat.
And might I invite you to do the same…?