My college roommate wrote me that when her son was home for Christmas, he pulled a Herman Hesse book off their bookshelves and found a letter from me to her, written one summer more than three decades ago.
Her son had been telling her how much he loved college because he was having wonderful intellectual discussions with his buddies and roommate. And here was this letter, talking about just that: about me missing the discussions and conversations his mother and I had had during the year. As she put it: I think he was kinda shocked that his mother and her friends had the same vibrant lives when they were 19.
I can’t remember what those discussions were about (what I’d give for a recording). But I do remember us lying in our twin beds with the lights out, needing to sleep, but staying awake, talking and talking, and how much I loved that, loved having her to talk to, loved feeling that we were discussing big things, deep things – literature and philosophy and life itself.
I’m eager to know the content of the letter, but I also started thinking about that magical moment: opening a book, finding a letter. I love finding notes and letters in my own books. If I wrote them, they remind me of what I was doing at that point in my life, what I was thinking, who I was when I was reading that book. And letters or postcards from others are even better. You recognize the handwriting and are instantly transported.
I opened my mailbox this week to a card from a high school friend, and the handwriting on the envelope was as familiar to me as the sender’s face. It brought back images of notes on gray tablet paper passed in hallways, birthday cards left on car seats, loopy sentences inked across yearbook photographs.
Email, texts, tweets – they keep us in touch more often, perhaps. They can make us feel we’re part of a faraway friend’s daily life, small moments as well as large. My roommate’s note was emailed, in response to my own belated birthday email to her; if she’d waited to sit down and write it out, the moment might have been forgotten, left unshared. But the digital communications lack something tangible, emotional. We all know how nuance is lost in the digital realm; we’ve all suffered the consequences.
Handwriting brings emotional impact, the knowledge that someone thought about you, wrote it down, didn’t just hit “send,” but found a stamp or bought a stamp, found a mailbox or went to the post office. Exactly what I didn’t do, in time, for my roommate’s birthday – hence the email note, a comparatively weak gesture, but the most much of us can manage on some days.
Letters have palpable life woven in: a coffee stain, an ink smudge, an extra note on the back, a thought added after the letter was sealed. There can be doodles, drawings – original, handmade, artisanal emoticons. There’s the cancellation with the date, where it was sent from. There’s the stamp itself: in 1978 stamps were only 15 cents — is it possible I lived at a time when stamps were only 15 cents? All of this texture, this additional information, makes the letter an artifact in a way email can’t match.
I do save some emails. I copy and paste them into a digital journal, or leave them hanging around in my inbox forever, causing clutter and stress. And I have bundles of letters tied up with ribbons in my attic (also causing clutter and stress). I can’t let go of them, yet I don’t read them. Now I’m thinking that what I need to do is scatter them through my books, so that I can come across them serendipitously — or someone else can. I wish I had put them all in books, as I received them.
You can’t tuck a letter, or a ticket stub, or a postcard, into a Kindle.
I’m glad I wrote that letter. I’m glad my roommate tucked it in Hesse. I’m glad her son found it.
Does that mean I will write more letters now? I’d like to think so, but probably not. And that’s actually a digital gain for my friends: my handwriting is terrible.