With all the election week brouhaha, I got to thinking about the mail, and then recalling an essay I wrote here a few years ago about letter writing. Here’s a revised version of that essay that I aired for the Arts Express radio program. Click on the triangle or link to hear it as broadcast today on WBAI.org and Pacifica affiliates across the nation.
I have not written a real letter for over thirty years. A real letter—not a condolence card, a thank-you note, or an email.
I don’t think I’m alone in that. There are those of generations after mine who have never written a letter or received one. More, not been part of the whole process of letter writing. A letter is not just the object itself and its container— the envelopes, enclosures and clippings, circled pieces of newspapers, glitter, stickers, ink smudges, stationery—“-er-” like “pap-er,”—little 2×3 photos, scrawled identification on the back—but also the whole rhythm and trust of back and forth, the framing of communication in bursts of captured time, even as time passes.
And pass it does. Or did. Now, there is no time, for we can access anyone, anytime, instantly. We see the whole of the universe like a map before us, able to point our finger to any star. But then, time existed, meant something in human terms. Waiting, for example. We knew that even as we were writing that it wouldn’t be received for days, maybe weeks, and who knows when we could get the reply to our comments, our bits of news, our declarations, our entreaties, our losses? What to do, in the meantime, while waiting, was a real issue. How different our lives were. Now our communication is nearly all in almost-real time: over Skype, over text, over email. There is no anticipation anymore, what we see is what we get, albeit screen-mediated: if not now, then never.
The letter reminded us of this essential fact: there are gaps in our perception of the lives of the other. The hard thing in human relationship is to assimilate the fact of mutual change, how both of us are always changing, have changed.The continuity of modern communication lulls us into a false familiarity. But when waiting two weeks for a letter’s reply and two weeks for the reply to the reply, one can rightly wonder whether the person on the other end is still the same and knowable.
I was set thinking about this by a Denise Levertov poem, “Writing to Aaron,” which I read recently with a group of friends. In the poem, the narrator struggles to find a way to respond to a letter that she has taken too long to answer. The narrator understands that with each passing day, the gap between who we were and who we are is growing greater and greater. In those letter-writing days that awareness fostered in us a kind of responsibility, an obligation to answer in a timely manner. If you didn’t, then there was the double problem of not knowing how to explain your tardiness, and the fear that the person to whom you were responding may have changed beyond all recognition. And for the more literary of us there was still another fear: it was too easy for us to fall in love with our own writing, so at times we wrote to and for ourselves, rather than to and for the person whose name we put on the envelope.
Faced with this, the letter-writer must develop methods of how to talk about the gap, how to talk about all that has occurred in the time that has passed, and equally how to talk about what will happen until the next communication occurs.
Levertov’s narrator suggests several strategies. Her narrator considers just putting the dry facts of change up front, then rejects that plan as inadequate, the external facts don’t account for the internal ones:
“…Which beginning to begin with? ‘Since I saw you last,
the doctor has prescribed artificial tears, a renewable order…’ But that leaves out
the real ones.”
She also considers a chronological narrative, but too much time has passed, and that too would be inadequate, too much to tell in too little space:
“Or chronological narrative? ‘In the spring
of ’73,’…’That summer,’
‘By then it was fall…’
All or nothing—
and that would be nothing,”
So this too is inadequate. She finally thinks that perhaps she can only bridge the gap by calling upon a shared memory, hoping the recipient can fill in the rest.
“Maybe I’ll leave the whole story
for you to imagine,
telling you only, ‘A year ago
I said farewell to that poplar you will remember,
that gave us its open secret…”
After reading this poem, I started to imagine myself writing a letter. This act of imagination sent me to a place, a consciousness, in which I hadn’t been in a long time. I felt myself in an intimacy before I had even written down a word. I rebelled, I wanted to write an email. It requires so much less of one. A letter is an act of intimacy and truth, and I haven’t the emotion anymore for that. To see my own scrawl of a handwriting in ink, on paper? Too naked, too unseemly, at this age. I don’t even write down a shopping list anymore.
But what I can’t get away from is how excited my poetry friends, Connie, Evelyn, Teresa, and I got talking about letters, the thrill of pages double-sided leafed through again and again, folded and re-folded, stuck in pockets and books to take out on a windy bus-waiting day, or found years later, at the bottom of the untouched stuck drawer, the ink a witness to the truth of that moment, because I’m looking at your handwriting and I’m deciphering the distance and time that separates us but joins us, as if some part of your presence were truly here in this paper in this time, with these words, in this letter.
This is what we talked about Sunday, and I don’t know that I can bear to write one more letter.