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Posts Tagged ‘correspondence’

What’s the most important letter you’ve ever received?

In antiques, art, beauty, behavior, blogging, books, culture, History, journalism, life on February 20, 2013 at 3:02 am

Letter?

You know, something written on paper, possibly even written carefully in ink by hand, folded into an envelope with a stamp on it…?

kim letter

This lovely object was a going-away card made by my friend Kim, a former colleague and close Toronto friend, when I moved to Montreal in September 1986.

For a generation or two, and possibly future generations, a letter on paper may soon be, if not already, some odd artifact of the ancient past, like cuneiform carved into stone or hieroglyphics painted on papryus.

For historians and writers and researchers of all sorts, letters are gold, a direct and unadulterated conduit into how someone, possibly someone we’ll never meet, maybe centuries dead, was thinking at a particular moment in time.

What did Chopin or Livingstone or Emerson think? Here’s a link to books with their letters.

Do you follow the phenomenal blog Brain Pickings? You must! Here’s her 2012 post on books of letters, with several lovely and moving excerpts.

Here is Friedrich Engels, writing on Nov. 12, 1875:

The whole Darwinian theory of the struggle for existence is simply the transference from society to animate nature of Hobbes’ theory of the war of every man against every man and the bourgeois economic theory of competition, along with the Malthusian theory of population. This feat having been accomplished – (as indicated under (1) I dispute its unqualified justification, especially where the Malthusian theory is concerned) – the same theories are next transferred back again from organic nature to history and their validity as eternal laws of human society declared to have been proved. The childishness of this procedure is obvious, it is not worth wasting words over.

Some of the most life-changing messages have come to me by mail, like the letter from Paris that arrived in my Toronto mailbox in June 1982. I had just turned 25, and became the year’s youngest fellow in an eight-month journalism fellowship that would base me in Paris with 28 others from 19 countries, from Togo to New Zealand to Japan to Brazil. We would travel alone to report stories all over Europe, (and fall in love, break hearts [sorry, Carlo!], and discover ourselves and the world in ways then impossible to imagine…

When I was 12, at summer camp, I wrote to Ray Bradbury, a writer whose work left me awestruck and envious, urging him (!) to not stop writing. I was in Northern Ontario and mailed my letter to his Manhattan publisher, Ballantine. Within a few weeks, I had a hand-written reply, on a blue custom postcard with his address and signature, from Los Angeles.

It was magical and improbable as finding a unicorn in the mailbox.

A writer, thousands of miles away in a foreign country, a man of tremendous accomplishment and repute, had bothered to make the time to write back to me, a young girl. Writers were real people! They had hearts, and postcards and pens and stamps. They care what we think!

This early success later emboldened me, and I wrote, in my early 20s, to the late John Cheever, another giant of American literature. My first was a fan letter, (to which he replied), about Falconer, an astonishing novel. But I wrote again, from a long trip through Europe alone, to ask him to explain an expression he has used in his earlier stories. He wrote back again.

(I now live a 10-minute drive from his home, his daughter reviewed my first book and I met his son at a local authors’ event. How odd, and unlikely.)

My mother, with whom I no longer have a relationship, lived most of her life very far away from me — in Peru or New Mexico or Mexico or England or British Columbia — but wrote me typewritten letters almost every week for many years. I have only a few of them now, and they have a poignancy that is almost unbearable in their chatty, loving desire to stay in touch with me, her only child.

I cherish a few personal letters in particular, two of them photographed here. One is from a former assistant minister at our church, which he wrote to me when my first book was published to thank me for sharing my talent. Another  — with no year’s date on it — is from a man whose vision and humor and affection changed my life, the late Philippe Viannay, who founded my fellowship (and a newspaper, and a home for boys and a sailing school and…)

I cherish the last line of his letter: “Thanks again for the way you played the game.” (More precisely, the spirit with which…) It was important to me, then as now, to be so appreciated by someone I so deeply admired.

letter

For all you Indigo Girls lovers, here’s one of my favorite songs: Burn All The Letters.

What letter has changed your life?

My baby, she wrote me a letter

In behavior, culture, design, domestic life, life, love, Style on March 11, 2012 at 12:06 am
English: Postal card mailed from Washington, D...

Image via Wikipedia

When was the last time you wrote — (yes, by hand, using a pen) — a letter or note on a piece of paper, let alone chose a lovely card or piece of quality stationery? Foolscap, notebook pages, the back of a receipt or a Post-It note do not count!

Did you put a stamp on it and mail it to someone: a business associate, a former professor or mentor, your sweetie or mom or nephew or former college room-mate?

When was the last time you received a card or letter and ripped open that paper envelope, wondering who had been so thoughtfully old-school to choose it, write it, buy a stamp, find your mailing address and, in time for an occasion, send it to you?

Here’s a recent op-ed in The Guardian making the same argument in favor of paper-based communication:

A letter is a letter no matter whether it lands on the doormat or pings into your electronic inbox.

Actually, though, there is a difference and it is one that worries historians like myself who spend their days combing the correspondence of ordinary people written 150 years ago. The protocols that govern letter-writing mean that even the simplest of communications come packed with extra bits of information that never make it into an email. “A … letter, should be loose, cover much ground, run swiftly, take risk of mortality and decay,” Saul Bellow once wrote – and while most peoples’ communications don’t quite match up to these exacting standards, they do strive to do more than simply arrange where to meet tonight, FYI, or chortle over last night’s debauch down the pub, WTF. Even the most listless letter-writer generally includes a bit about how they are physically and emotionally, a snapshot of their recent activities, a nod towards future holiday plans and a final comment on the state of the nation.

To a historian this stuff is gold dust. For buried away in the interstices of the most apparently banal note you will find all sorts of data, not just about how people lived, loved, ate and dressed a century ago, but – and this is the important bit – what they thought and felt about it all. Letters are a prompt to reflection and what cultural critics call “self-fashioning”. Put bluntly, we get to know who we are and what we think by writing about it to other people.

I recently had major surgery and cannot adequately describe the pleasure, comfort and moral support I got from the many cards and notes I received, whether slid beneath my apartment door by neighbors, sent from old pals in Canada or mailed by members of our church.

(I loved getting e-cards, too.)

But, years from now, when I sort through my papers — literally — these pretty, physical, time-specific memories will fill my hands: Valentine’s, birthdays, weddings, condolence, congratulations.

Here’s a link to 30 gorgeous modern thank-you notes, from one of my favorite daily blogs, Design Milk.

Especially at times of sorrow and stress, a thoughtful, personal note on lovely paper is an air-borne hug.

Here’s a great story from NBC Nightly News about why sending cards matters so much.

And a year-old blog devoted to saving the use of snail mail.

Writing a novel? Here’s a fascinating argument by one writer why writing letters is so beneficial to writers of fiction.

Mail one today!

What Will We Leave Behind?

In art, behavior, business, culture, design, domestic life, education, entertainment, History, journalism, life, Media, men, Technology, women on January 15, 2011 at 4:50 am
Michel de Montaigne.

Michel de Montaigne. Image via Wikipedia

Here’s a smart piece that addresses the issue, from The New York Times Magazine:

But increasingly we’re not leaving a record of life by culling and stowing away physical journals or shoeboxes of letters and photographs for heirs or the future. Instead, we are, collectively, busy producing fresh masses of life-affirming digital stuff: five billion images and counting on Flickr; hundreds of thousands of YouTube videos uploaded every day; oceans of content from 20 million bloggers and 500 million Facebook members; two billion tweets a month. Sites and services warehouse our musical and visual creations, personal data, shared opinions and taste declarations in the form of reviews and lists and ratings, even virtual scrapbook pages. Avatars left behind in World of Warcraft or Second Life can have financial or intellectual-property holdings in those alternate realities. We pile up digital possessions and expressions, and we tend to leave them piled up, like virtual hoarders. At some point, these hoards will intersect with the banal inevitability of human mortality. One estimate pegs the number of U.S. Facebook users who die annually at something like 375,000.

I think about this a lot, maybe because I write for a living as a journalist and non-fiction author. I like to think my work will live on for decades or more, stored as it is within the databases of the many newspapers and magazines I’ve written for since the 1970s. I’ve written many personal stories for publication in print: about getting married, getting divorced, returning to church, and know that millions of strangers who have read them, like those who read my blogs, “know” me as a result.

But I don’t have kids or even nephews or nieces, so I also know that all my beloved family photos, and those of my sweetie — my favorite image, being cuddled by his Mom as a baby — will end up as detritus or, maybe, in some flea market bin.

Same with my journals and notebooks, decades of insights and observations. Gone.

But I worry about the loss of all the paper artifacts so many of us now disdain and no longer use — letters sent through the mail and kept, whether love letters or documents — that make up our individual and collective histories.

On the morning of 9/11, one of the most poignant and terrifying artifacts were the burned shreds of paper that floated all the way into my sweetie’s Brooklyn backyard from the fallen Twin Towers: invoices, letterhead, faxes…

Think of all the men and women we’ve come to know only through their letters and journals over the centuries, even milennia, from Herodotus to Pepys, whose diary of daily life from 1660 to 1669 is considered one of of the world’s greatest. I love (geek that I am) Montaigne’s travel journal, from 1580.

One of my favorite songs, Virginia Woolf, by the Indigo Girls captures the profound connections we have with the long-dead through their writing:

They published your diary
And that’s how I got to know you
The key to the room of your own and a mind without end
And here’s a young girl
On a kind of a telephone line through time
And the voice at the other end comes like a long lost friend
So I know I’m all right
Life will come and life will go
Still I feel it’s all right
Cause I just got a letter to my soul
And when my whole life is on the tip of my tongue
Empty pages for the no longer young
The apathy of time laughs in my face
You say each life has it’s place

The hatches were battened
The thunderclouds rolled and the critics stormed
The battle surrounded the white flag of your youth
If you need to know that you weathered the storm
Of cruel mortality
A hundred years later I’m sitting here living proof

What will you leave behind?

Does it matter?

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