One reason to love a handwritten letter? My friend, Gina puts it best when she ways: “I’m very over the top about letters because the ones I have are the paper soldiers alongside me when I don’t have much fight.”
Stop and savour that thought for a moment because I bet there aren’t many emails which make you feel like that. Four centuries ago, John Donne wrote “more than kisses, letters mingle souls”. Donne was right. Words carefully chosen, written on paper are better than any present – probably because they are the ultimate present. A present which another friend decided to give to her entire family one Christmas when she was feeling hard up. And what she realised ever since has been her most gushed over gift.
There is something very special about a handwritten note and not only because its rarity heightens its appeal. They are considered yes, tangible certainly, but a letter says many more things. A letter says you matter to me, I thought of you, I want to share textures, colours, dreams and thoughts. Practically, it also says I took the time to queue up to buy a stamp, bothered to look for a nice card or appropriate note paper and remembered to actually stick it in the post box.
Letters capture a moment in time, a mood, a reflection – however fleeting- which can be treasured, recorded and in time, will be a way of re-living a connection. They give a sense of where…I am sitting in the garden, under the dappled shade of a tree; I can hear the children bath upstairs and will have to go to them soon. They also give support in difficult times, guidance for the future or are otherwise an opportunity to give someone something that they can turn to when in need of a squeeze.. to know that you are loved. A good letter is the next best thing to showing up at someone’s door.
Except how very few personal handwritten letters we receive today; how very sad. In our age of busyness we might not even recognise the writing of people or colleagues we know well, in a way that we would have taken for granted 15 years ago.
While my own mother has been able to impart first hand her natty Chinese pearls of wisdom, meted out at regular intervals, I never did know my father.He died in a car crash when I was 15 months and my sister was a newborn, barely 36 hours old. He had just returned from visiting them both in hospital. It was a cruel twist of fate for a couple who had spent many years trying to conceive and who had finally been blessed with two children. The enormity of his death didn’t really register until I had my own babies but I’ve often wondered what he thought: what would he have told me to believe in, forget about, or learn from. What were his hopes and dreams? His predictions for the future, his disappointments. And I suppose I will always wonder.
A friend has lists of topics from her father when he was diagnosed with terminal cancer and started to write to her about his life. Some are unfinished but she takes great pleasure in the ones he did fill in returning to them time after time at various stages of her life and always finding something new. Although she laughs that she is more interested in his choice of American literature than his sex life in his twenties. My unscientific vox pop amongst friends suggests that letters and photos are what we would grab first in the event of a fire. Not the limited Chanel 2.55 or the many many shoes we own or even books. Possibly because as I keep reminding my children, life is about people, not stuff. Letters travel through centuries like nothing else.
Four years ago for VH, I wrote the letter to my children that I would have liked to receive. So now they are in no doubt as to what their Chinese fish wife mother thinks about many, many things. I had initially sought out Smythson note books in which to write– both of which are still languishing in my bedside drawer. As it turns out, all I needed was a bit of paper. Caroline Kent’s exquisite stationery at Scribble & Daub is always an enormously galvanising factor in getting me to put pen to paper, less spenny is papier.com but some will argue that the ‘polish’ -beautiful stationery or neat handwriting – are both missing the point.
I love too, as Catherine Field in the New York Times puts it that “a good handwritten letter is a deliberate act of exposure, a form of vulnerability, because handwriting opens a window on the soul in a way that cyber communication can never do. You savour their arrival and later take care to place them in a box for safe keeping. “
For you can never take a letter back or simply delete it. The romantic in me likes that a letter arrives from the past and that there is a waiting, that sense of anticipation is also built into the mechanics. You wait for a letter to arrive. You wait for a reply. In the time it takes for the letter to reach its destination, anything might have happened…lives changed, lives lost, loves discovered.
A letter does more than inspire the reader who reads, it inspires the writer who writes it. Words somehow look better when you write them, but equally the act of writing them enables you to choose better words. Even an ordinary handwritten note is better than the best email, and a really good handwritten note on the right occasion is like a work of art.