Tuesday, January 26, 2010


I spent a chunk of time the other day tidying up my e-mail inbox. The job’s not finished, not nearly. I've just made a little progress, down from over 4000 messages (pretty disgraceful, I admit!) to under 3600. I deleted some, and the others I filed in various categories: friendshome (Toronto and area), friendsaway (everywhere else), moneystuff, etc. As I scrolled laboriously backwards through my inbox, I got flashes and reminders of the events and expectations of the last six months. I didn’t stop to read any of the mail I was deleting or filing, but instead just allowed the re lines to remind me.

I watched the inbox number drop in ones and threes and more as I checked off mail to be filed elsewhere, and hurried on, trying to get below 3800, then down to 3700, etc... It was satisfying in a mindless vacuum-under-the-rug kind of way. But more than that, it was a reminder of how different letter-writing is in this e-mail era.

(And perhaps because I am in Thailand, far from home base, I have more time to think about distance and letters, and more yearnings for good connections, heartfelt "hands across the sea" kinds of connections with friends and family.)

I write a lot more e-letters than I ever did snail-mail letters, and I receive a lot more. They are all there, filed or not, retrievable by a simple word-search. I feel in some muddled way that they’re saved for whenever I might want or need them. I love the idea that I can retrieve them, and somehow it makes me feel protected against loss.

In a cupboard at home I have letters of quite a different kind. There’s a stack of them, letters I wrote home when I was seventeen and living in France for a year. My parents saved them and put them aside. They’re so real, with their flimsy crinkly paper and my hard-to-read handwriting, with stamps from France, and the feel of a distinctive time and place.

My emails, on the other hand, though they’re easy to read, have no stamp of personalitiy, no distinctiveness apart from their word content. There’s a lack of tangibility too. That’s a real loss.

I love the concrete, the feel and smell of things and people and places. Images on a screen are so sterile and one-dimensional compared to paper and handwriting. They’re easier to read but harder to feel, I guess is one way of expressing what I’m trying to say. It’s almost as if, in touching and unfolding a letter, we’re reading it with our hands.

A letter is not a simple thing: There’s the object itself, with its specific paper quality and distinctive handwriting, individual and personal, and there’s the actual content of the writing, telling news or giving us facts. Both the object and the contents touch us and make us feel emotions, they both connect the reader to the writer. When we shift to e-letters, we get to keep and store forever the factual content, but we lose access to the tangible sense of place and time, and we lose the direct physical connection a letter gives us. On top of that, we no longer get the delightful sensation of recognising with a leap of the heart the hand-writing of a loved one on a stamped envelope addressed to us.

No I am not pining for an earlier era. I just trying to sort out there from here, if I can put it that way. I’m not trying to legislate for others, just trying to figure out what it means to have these feelings of loss about some aspects of the e-mail world. And if it doesn’t suit me, then I should do something about it, not whine!!

After all, if letters, real letters, are so precious and multi-dimensional to me, I am free to engage with the world that way. There’s nothing except my own inertia that stops me from writing letters in pen on paper, to friends far and near, and taking them to the mailbox at the end of the street.

What better sound than the soft slide of a freshly written letter as it heads off to its destination? The answer, of course, is, “the sound of a letter arriving...”

A FOOTNOTE: Once my Burmese visa comes through (I’m supposed to hear back in a couple of days), I hope to spend three weeks there, mostly in the Shan States. Since internet access, and especially access to blogspot, can be iffy in Burma, I may well not be posting here again until after February 21. By then Chinese New Year will have come. We’re entering the year of the Tiger, full of strength and power, at least so I like to think... (Can you tell that I’m a tiger?)

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