Saturday 10 September 2011 - Filed under Uncategorized
I love mail. Real mail, that is, the type made out of paper and delivered to your box by a uniformed, oath-sworn mail carrier. Even before I could explain why I loved mail, I loved it so much that in elementary school I volunteered for the job of collecting it from our box and sorting it for my mother’s review. This was a job of some responsibility at the time, since our mailbox was on the other side of our apartment complex and often involved a harrowing bike ride across several through-ways and parking lots. Along the way, I would recite to myself, “neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stops me from the swift completion of my appointed rounds!” I knew a lot of missionaries and had family in the military serving for years overseas without ready access to a phone, so that gave me practice at letter writing that a lot of modern kids don’t experience. I collected stamps. I even had a stamp collecting board game produced by the United States Postal Service. I was an odd child.
I was also a writer very early on, which I think is part of what made the mail so magical. I remember sitting and marveling at books as a kid, as the realization dawned on me that these words I was reading in The Secret Garden had been written by someone who had been dead for quite a long time, someone who had wanted to communicate with a reader but had probably never even imagined my existence. Nonetheless, I knew this person. Perhaps not well, but better than I knew most strangers living in my own time. I was having a conversation with them every time I picked up the book and read their words. Writing was a means to immortality, or maybe just time travel, but either way it was something mystical. It is more or less the first way humans devised to communicate with someone who was nowhere in sight, and letter writing formed the basis of ideas for everything from Christian religion to American government. Time and distance are no longer concrete values once writing enters into the equation. The mail makes that happen for those of us still living. Of course, so does the telephone, but the problem with spoken words is that once they are released, they’re gone. Letters can outlive those who wrote them. Some might say this is also a curse, since we don’t always want what we wrote down to survive that long. Indeed, this is why it was customary to burn the correspondence of a person after they died, and why we have so little of Jane Austen’s prolific letters (her sister Cassandra dutifully burned them after Jane’s death).
For the first twelve years of my life the Internet hadn’t been invented yet as far as I knew, but of course I fell in love with it as soon as I found it. Email and Usenet and even chat seemed like an improvement over the regular post, at least at first. It was faster and cheaper and easier to meet others online, even if only in a (sometimes beneficially) anonymous way. As I got older, however, I started to miss the gift of epistolary more and more. The Internet certainly wasn’t the same, and although I wasn’t sure if it was actually worse, I wasn’t sure it was better, either. Unfortunately, most of the people I knew weren’t interested in writing me letters even if I sent them my own, which takes a lot of the fun out of it. I didn’t know any more missionaries, and my family in the service could communicate easily enough over the Internet even while they were in Iraq and Afghanistan. I decided to seek out the same sort of new social connections I had learned to embrace online, but in the form of the older technology. I went looking for pen pals.
It might be a dying art (letter-writing has been on the way out for at least a couple hundreds years, as every new generation of writers has lamented), but there is still a subculture who embraces the open exchange of letters and postcards. Most of these exchanges operate under some degree of anonymity. In the interests of safety, it’s not necessarily a good idea to give out your mailing address to strangers all willy-nilly, so exchanges have been setup that will assign you a number to identify your correspondence and the mail is forwarded by the exchange who is the only one with your address unless you willfully choose to share it with your new correspondent(s). The Letter Exchange operates in this way. Postcrossing is different in that it focuses solely on postcards and provides real addresses, although you still get an ID# that enables a “round robin” type exchange where you receive a postcard from a different person than you sent your postcard to.
The Letter Exchange was started in the early 80′s, although its present incarnation has only been around since 2003, but they haven’t gone online yet except for their website where you can subscribe to their triannual newsletter. The newsletter includes a few articles along with the ads from writers requesting letters. Subscribers get a 20 word ad for free, but you don’t have to submit a listing, you can just answer the ads in the newsletter and see what arrives in response. Many of the ads explicitly promise a reply, most make a point to respond even if it doesn’t turn into a long-term correspondence. I recently purchased the Summer 2011 newsletter (they don’t expire; you could get back issues and answer ads from years ago and the exchange will faithfully forward your letters). I was quickly intrigued by so many of the listings that I started to wonder if I could find the time to answer them all. Here are some examples:
12359. Know thyself? Forget Socrates. Those with the most Facebook friends and Twitter followers are the luckiest people in the world.
12664. Hayek. Mises. Friedman. Sowell. Woods. DiLorenzo.
7887. I am a retired Christian missionary to 4 continents, and at the same time I am gay. I have tried many cures to cure my “gayness”, but none of them worked. So I have finally accepted myself as a gay Christian male. Your comments, please.
12604. BBC sitcoms.
10030. Any songwriters?
12181. Do you grow/cook with foods that are native to your area? Willing to share tips, failures, and successes?
11690. How can we defeat Planned Parenthood?
12150. Love words? Love politics– even though…? Liberal not “progressive”? Let’s write.
423D. Laptop or upright screen monitor and printer?
12644. There are millions of stories to tell, and I’d like to hear some of those stories.
12617. Atheist misses ritual and the mystical. Interests: ukeleles, skepticism, travel, sarcasm, politics, current events, religion, writing, crime procedurals, lists, letters.
8650. Cats, reading, sports, container gardening – would love to hear from other females with any/some of the same interests. Busy people preferred, as I’m not the world’s speediest correspondent.
11401. No frills living. Getting by on less. The best things in life are invisible.
What struck me about the listings is that each one could be a blog topic, or a Twitter conversation, or a new Facebook friend. I could write a “letter” in response to every one of these, post it on my blog, and (hopefully) get responses back in the comments. If it’s very interesting, a discussion might ensue. More likely is that I’d be shouting into the ether of the Internet and the only responses I’d get back would be spam. Alternatively, I could write my response on paper and mail it to the requesting party and be nearly guaranteed a lively exchange with someone who is actually interested. Granted, it would only be one person instead of open to the potential community of a blog or Twitter, but just as speed and less cost aren’t necessarily virtues, the quality of a few deeper relationships are often more desirable than a quantity of shallow ones. There, you see? I’ve practically written my response to #12359 already.
2011-09-10 » admin