Love Letters

It’s been said the world needs more love letters. Unfortunately there are so few letters of any kind being written anymore, for any reason.

Even greeting cards are being fire-saled to the older generations who have not shifted entirely to e-cards and electronic messages.

The only real advantage we have over previous generations is not our ability to send messages world-wide, however, but just how fast we are able to do it.

Hand-written letters also went around the world – they just took longer to reach their destination and had other reasons for failing in their journey than do our messages today.

When it comes to love letters, it is not the speed of delivery that matters. It is whether anyone takes the care and thought to write them at all.

Living as I do in the heart of the continent, my favorite illustration goes back to the early days of the Hudson’s Bay Company. Single men would come to work for the HBC, leaving their sweethearts behind in England. Yet they were in constant contact, if they chose it:

Every spring, as the ships arrived at York Factory on Hudson’s Bay to reap the winter’s harvest of furs, letters from England would arrive and there would be letters ready for the trip back. Every fall, when the ships returned with supplies for the winter trading, again, there would be letters. All across the continent, through to the Pacific coast, the HBC undertook to deliver the mail to its people — and held onto the letters that did not reach their destination as planned.

Those undelivered letters – simple, direct, thoughtful and from the heart – have survived for future generations to read and appreciate as examples of the many letters that did reach their destination and then vanished into history.

Our faster communication does not measure up well in comparison. It is touching to get a tweet for good luck or some hashtag #loving, but a read receipt to show the email arrived doesn’t carry the same emotional freight as a letter. No response at all just leaves us wondering if the electronic ship sank en route.

As someone who did the first part of graduate school on a manual typewriter and progressed to the wonders of an Osborne computer and then finally a Macintosh PowerBook at the end, I have watched the digital revolution unfold. Peering over the shoulder of my students and younger colleagues, I observed the rise of instant messaging and marveled at the intensity with which they engaged in it.

Yet looking more closely at what was being said, it reminded me of nothing like the love letters to England. So little was being said that a postcard communicated volumes in comparison.

As the medium shaped the message further, the language changed into short forms, a new lexicon of electronic gestures (“TTYL”) and then emoticons that meant even less thinking or typing for the communicators. Even obscenities (“OMG!”) became routinized into the vernacular of instantaneous chat, losing all of their emotional pungency.

So, we Twitter and tweet, MySpace has devolved into Facebook and the authors of the next social networking platform wish people would only BeBo (or whatever) more than they do. We can “like” something on the internet or recommend it to our “friends” without ever having to say why. The line between public and private is virtually gone.

Like the television-watchers who need a commercial break every eight to eleven minutes, readers absorb less and less at each sitting. Blogs are supposed to be short – 150 words – and even that is an eternity to those whose lives are constrained by the 120 characters in a tweet.

Encouraged to “be more brilliant” if we go over the Twitter limit, we are inclined toward stock phrases more than haiku.

The result, I am finding (as a teacher of writing, among other things), is a generation of younger people that seem to lack the words they need. I fear they have the medium but lack the message.

My heart ached for the “Occupy” protestors, because they were trying to express what really is wrong with the world. Beyond squatting in parks and waving vague placards, however, their protests were inarticulate — doomed to health code violations and irrelevance, but immortalized in bumper stickers.

Without the words to express what they think and feel, I am afraid the world will remain largely unchanged by anything they try to do.

There is a way to sidestep the problem.

The world needs more love letters. These don’t require a lot of words to communicate what needs to be said.

Appreciation, care, concern, compassion – by any other label or measure, it is still love. Passion. We are just unaccustomed to “loving” in a public place for fear the message will get waylaid or mistakenly relayed. We are loath to talk in these terms at all, for fear we will be seen as anti-intellectual, frivolous or shallow — even unbalanced.

Passion, therefore, is a dangerous word to use in the public sphere. If we are to choose toward a sustainable future, however, passion for the planet is essential. Passion for the planet also requires passion for people, especially for the well-being of strangers we have never met.

Yet it is impossible to have such passion in general if we are uncomfortable expressing passion to the people we do meet, who become part of our lives and thus who are part of the web of relations within which we encounter the universe.

Living in troubling times, we perhaps cannot behave with the wild abandonment of earlier generations and throw caution to the winds in all that we do. But we can throw passion to the winds. We must.

Write love letters – even electronic ones. Say what you feel and think and fling them into the world to the people you need to thank, the people whom you appreciate, the friends and acquaintances who need encouragement or support, and – hardest of all – to those kindred spirits you have come to love, to their surprise and to your own.

Each time we do this, the trajectory of the Earth story shifts an infinitesimal amount in the direction of a sustainable future.

We need to express how it feels to touch the Earth, but we first need to express how it feels to touch and to be touched by other people. To nourish our relationships, we need to do it directly, not through Facebook updates or Twitter feeds to all one’s friends and followers.

It’s a risky business, to say what you feel. After all, love letters are intended to be private, between two people, not out in public view where they can be seen and read by others. Yet while Hudson’s Bay Company employees and their sweethearts would have been shocked to know their thoughts and feelings would be read by so many strangers, I think they would have written just the same things even had they known.

We write out of who we are, out of what we feel, as best we know and as best we can, trusting that the person in our mind’s eye when we wrote the letter will hear and appreciate what we say. Others may eavesdrop, pry or otherwise invade the privacy of that relationship, but what is communicated doesn’t change the sentiment that is offered.

Take the chance. Risk sounding foolish. Write someone that letter you have been meaning to write. Use your own words and send it. Don’t wait for the eloquence of inspiration – the ship sails tomorrow for Hudson’s Bay and the opportunity today presents will be lost forever unless you seize it.

If the pattern of many years continues to hold, I will get a letter from my grandmother this month to mark my birthday. At 103 and nearly blind, she still writes. There is love in every wobbly, handwritten word. There will not likely be many more, and so each one is treasured.

She finds it hard to read and understand what I send back these days, however, and she will never scroll through what I have written here. We talk on the telephone, not nearly often enough, and I meant to call her today instead.

So, I will let you go. I need to make a phone call, and you have something to write….

*******

As I reviewed this post and debated whether it would ever see the light of day, to my surprise, I received a letter and a cd from a new friend in Australia. The words of encouragement, the thoughtfulness of the gesture and the gift, were timed to perfection – as is often the case with a gift from the heart.

Every day, we touch the people in our lives, even strangers in the street. For a sustainable world, we need to think of others more than ourselves, of what others need instead of only what we want.

It doesn’t take many words or require a speedy delivery. As long as it comes from the heart, whenever and however that letter arrives, it will change someone’s day for the better.

Every time we choose to do this, we are one step closer to a future in which all of Earth’s children can live.