I used to write letters to a woman I was dating.
No, let me go back further.
The first time I was in love, I wrote love letters almost daily to a girl and she wrote me back. I still have a box of her letters. A collection I compiled in two years of correspondence. In some of my darker moments, those letters have held me together. They brought back the moment that I went to the town post office and opened up the mailbox. The scent of paper and wood, brass keys, and vanillin, which the post office still smells of today. To read those letters takes me back to being 17, 18, and just past 19, almost like a negative space of a memory, since what I can read is usually in response to what I had said.
A moment when someone was giddy to see me. Someone who valued me as only young lovers do.
Among the things spoken of in those letters were typical teenaged worries. Getting into college. Trying out for the basketball team, pondering what the future held. Expressions of affection and brief flirtations with passionate moments between two kids on the verge of adulthood. In those times, phone calls were expensive and the distance we had to travel to see each other in person was prohibitive. You could send a ten page letter for $0.29 and keep that conversation forever. Well, half of the conversation anyway. A summer romance turned into a nearly four year relationship, which eventually ran its course. The letters stopped long before that, especially since we lived only about an hour apart for the last few years. Somehow that three week romance in person set the groundwork and we continued to grow together through our letters.
I never wrote my ex-wife letters. We met in college. We saw each other all the time. And as it goes with bad marriages, I don’t think we ever really communicated well. I can attest that we lacked the intimacy that those letters provided in my past. Maybe one of us had a set impression on who they wanted the other to be. We didn’t grow together. We could only grow apart. Funny how that happens between two people. Actually it isn’t funny at all. It’s tragic. Telling.
So, after my divorce, I dusted off that romantic part of my heart that had either been unappreciated or unused. It’s hard to tell which. I dated a woman for a few years. But she stopped reading my letters, saying they were “too personal” as though she were reading my diary or something. The idea of something so personal made her cringe. And when things fell apart, which they sometimes do between people, I saw that my letters were not the same as that first love. Oftentimes, they were discussions on what was going wrong, which were never answered.
As you continue to grow, people come and go from your life. You meet, sometimes fall in love, and sometimes realize that you weren’t as compatible as you thought. The next relationship was better than the one before it, but a red flag was that the few letters I wrote to her, she only finished reading one or two. Over the years my handwriting has gotten bad. Arthritis and took much typing have turned an already difficult work of penmanship into something arcane and almost illegible. In the end, she couldn’t be bothered to finish reading them. And not to be one to keep track of affection–which I dislike–but I never got one back either.
Talk about throwing your heart to the wind.
I like writing letters because the words come together as a permanent stain of ink on paper. There is no deleting what was said at the moment. A hard drive can’t be dumped. You can carry it around with you all the time until the paper loses its scent and every word is etched into your memory, or you can keep it in a box that never needs updating or a subscription to keep. You have those words forever. Maybe your children or grandchildren have those words. The double edged sword is that a letter you write when you are sad also stays on the page forever, unlike a text which will just scroll away into obscurity. On those pages are heartache and tear stains.
I’ve had those too.
I used to work with an old rancher who corresponded with the likes of JFK and Johnny Unitas and many others. He told me the key to writing a letter was to just put the words down like you were having a conversation with someone sitting across the table from you. He wrote a letter of recommendation for me when I got my Eagle Scout award. He held true to his word. It was like he was just saying what he thought. The meaning was clear and concise. Sparse and ommitting anything unnecessary to weigh it down. I lost that letter in my divorce, but I can still see the way his words had found themselves on the page in my memory. He had such hopes for seventeen year old me, just starting out in life.
I don’t read the old letters anymore, because I have outgrown them like an old favorite sweatshirt or pair of boots. I’m in my forties now and ready to make new memories and have new adventures. Reading those letters to my old self feels a little too much like intruding on someone else’s life. I wish him the best, since he eventually grows up to be me. I’ll give him his privacy now.
Maybe I just keep too much old junk around the house.
But unlike typing something out or thumbing it through as a text in messenger, when you take the time to find a pen and paper and put words down, trying to write them as carefully as you can so that the person receiving them can read what you said, and doing it in such a way that your thoughts have to be linear enough to convey meaning–because there’s no cut and paste function in a spiral notebook–that carries weight. It has meaning. It’s about as close to a magic spell as any of us will get.
Or maybe I’m just an anachronism. I’d rather begin my message to someone I care about with “Dear…” than “Hey, you up?” And just maybe you’ll find that out of all the methods of expression that have fallen out of favor over the years in preference to instant gratification, there are just a few romantic souls out there who cannot wait to rip open that envelope and see what is waiting for them inside. And sometimes the scariest thing about getting a letter back is the anticipation of what the other person will say. Good or bad. There’s powerful magic in that too.