We wrote letters once

Writing letters was in my genes, I guess. I have hundreds of letters my dad wrote to his mom from ship and shore during World War 2. They’re on air mail stationary, as thin as Bible pages, filled in proper cursive with mostly mundane details about food, comrades, and the churches he visited on Sundays, good Christian boy that he was. Occasionally there’s a burst of excitement, like the tidal wave that hit Hawaii, leaving Dad the duty of bringing bodies to the morgue — the closest he came to the horrors of war.

I also have hundreds of letters from friends, a fact that would horrify them if they knew. I don’t know why I can’t throw them away, but it indicates a value greater than that of the emails I delete without thinking twice.

First it was my cousin Tom. We lived a mere hundred miles apart, but we only saw each other three or four times a year. Miles were greater then, and a long-distance call was unthinkable, so in between visits, we would write letters.

When I spent a year in Thailand as a fourth-grader, I received my own blue air-mail letters from Tom and Jon and Peter, handwritten letters that were weeks in transit and brought news from home that tasted like cool water in the Bangkok heat. Also that year, my mom typed up my poetry on multi-colored construction paper. We bound the book with yarn and sent it to her friend Phyllis. Years later, Phyllis gave it back to me, an artifact from childhood with the smell and touch of history.

This exchange went on for years, from childhood in the ‘70s through separation in our 20s for college and travel and career. Letters weren’t just the glue that held friendship together; they were the bricks and mortar that built it. Many summer morning I waited impatiently for the mail, hoping for a letter from Murph, or Chris, or Eric, or Kyle, or Pete.

I’m 52, and I don’t really have any friends anymore — not close ones like I once had, anyway. I’ve always assumed that life just does that to men in America. We get married and have kids, and our need for human warmth is met through family. Time between meetings grows longer, and it takes a little more beer to lubricate the social gears — a mixed blessing since the drinks also deaden the nerve endings that once shivered in community. Way back when, coffee was enough to get thoughts rattling and tumbling from mind to tongue, and a cigarette shed enough light to see the universe behind a friend’s eyes.

But maybe it’s not just booze and age that loosen the bricks of friendship framed in sober youth. Maybe it’s the illusory world that has replaced the physicality of those olden days.

There is something stubbornly real about a letter. Letters smell like perfume, pine, or cigarettes. I have letters stained with coffee, beer, and blood. No emoticon can match the feeling in a human scrawl. A letter is a magic hand that can reach across the ocean and touch you. I don’t know what an email is, but it’s less than that.

When email came around in the early 1990s, the letters ceased immediately, like an edict had come down from the cardinals of Silicon Valley. Letters became obsolete overnight. Why would you bother with paper and envelope and the elusive postage stamp, when you could rip off a sentence or two and push one deceptively simple button? No need to update the tattered address book, replace the typewriter ribbon, sharpen the pencil, or shout at the capricious printer. Just hit “send” and hear the comforting “ding” or “whoosh” of successful human interaction.

I’m telling you it was a deal with the devil, a fool’s bargain, trading depth for ease, deliberation for speed, and art for efficiency. And into the black hole of cyberspace disappeared something of our heart and soul, a physical connection with the people we loved.

The death of letters was a small, visible symptom of the infection of ones and zeroes — just a rash or an irritating sore. The deeper rot is the loss of connection with the real world. We are focused more than ever on the flashing lights on our laps, in our hands, or on our TV screens, and less than ever on the person beside us on the couch, or down the road, or missing us from afar.

The great religions of the world — Christianity, Islam, Alcoholics Anonymous — have one thing right: You have to go to meetings. Rubbing shoulders with your neighbors, hearing them speak, and tasting bread and wine or coffee and cigarettes teaches us that salvation is physical and that health requires a social life, not just a social network.

But religion misleads us when it teaches that the unseen is greater than the seen, setting us up to be fooled by illusion. Love God first, your neighbor second? Sorry, Jesus, but that’s bass-ackward (as Dad would put it).

What matters most is what we can see, hear, taste, touch, and feel. Less is more, when the less is real and the more is illusory. A letter is worth a thousand emails. “Heart and Soul” coaxed from an out-of-tune piano is more beautiful than Beethoven’s Ninth on the radio. What’s happening in Washington is less important than what’s going on at City Hall — no matter what the two-dimensional anchors tell you. The worst live theater, where you can see the beads of sweat on the actor’s forehead, is greater than any Best Picture nominee. One good photograph in a frame is worth a million average ones on a hard drive, as any grandmother can tell you.

The only real joy comes from the real world. A hand-thrown pot, a poem, or a well-made meal contains more magic than all of Google’s coal-fired servers. The pot holds more than water; it’s a vessel for beauty and commitment. Good food, prepared with love, represents generations of devotion. A poem, written by hand and read aloud, is a painting and song in one.

The same goes for letters. They are treasures hand-dug, wrapped, and presented for no reason but love. No matter what your bank account says, treasure can’t be found in a computer. If you can’t touch it, it can’t be gold.

Last night I refused to kick the dog off the bed. In the morning, I gave her a pat on the rump and went downstairs to make coffee. I read an old book and then went to the barn to let the horses out. I sat down in the hay, and the baby goats jumped on my back. Then I walked on a frozen river and saw the tracks where a mink ran and slid through the snow, unable to contain the joy of the real. There is a white pine whose trunk rests in midair because the ground has eroded beneath it. Horizontal roots hold fast to the bank.

Unlike some futurists, I wouldn’t trade three score and ten years in a body on earth for immortal consciousness in a laboratory jar.

I’m sorry I stopped writing letters. I promise to change.

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