Last week, my friend Alex told everyone that our friend Emily was a !#&* bitch because she had failed to respond to three texts he sent her over two days. It was a joke, a party spiel, but he was upset — the complaint was not fundamentally unreasonable.
As college students in the 21st century, we’re acutely aware of each others’ existences on the superficial level of who’s having dinner with what acquaintance in what dining hall and in which library your friends are studying on a given night. Reports of their days are sound bytes; funny stories turned into exaggerated shticks.
Rest assured, I’m on no high ground here: the number of friends who have requested to be taken off my personal panlist is pushing the single digits, and I’ve sent mass emails so massive that I’ve bcc’ed the list out of embarrassment. I often send emails with empty content, subject line: “booktrader till 1” and “no bagel brunch in Pierson this Sunday.”
Less frequently, I send love letters to my gay guy friends and my girl friends (in other words, to all my friends) via my @mac.com email address they just can’t take seriously. Thank you notes, birthday letters, quotes from brainyquote.com — I love emails and I send a lot of them. I’m a fast typist, a quick, once-through skimmer, and a no-regrets-just-love immediate sender.
I find myself in the sent mailbox reading the email I just created. Once sent, the email turns into its own being off in the world. “You’re mine,” I want to tell it. “I created you, after all.” So I reread, holding on like a mother would hold her 16-year-old child, trying to get back the part of her own life she’s given away, drawing out desperately.
But it wasn’t always like this.
Unless you compulsively keep carbon copies of your handwritten letters, they go off into the world, no metaphorical strings attached. The hasty thank-you note you scribbled off to your grandmother could end up as the wall decoration above her desk, the one she admires everyday; the love letter you squeezed out of your heart could be an annoyance that the recipient skims and throws away immediately. You give away (really give away) this piece of yourself from the moment it’s preserved in handwriting. Efficiency trade-off at play, the obvious benefit of slowing down feelings is the vaguely quixotic notion that exchanging letters is like trading pieces of self.
Students in “U.S. Lesbian and Gay History” read letters of 19th-century women engaged in “romanticized friendships” — long-winded, flowery prose that have made scholars rethink sexuality. Frances Willard and her special friend Mary, among many such women, created lingual space for their relationships with words that we’d never think to use in digital. That language would be too direct, too real, too earnest for today’s ironic generation. We’d be forced to think about how we feel about our friends beyond “Oh, Jane? She rocks! I’m obsessed with her!”
According to a survey released on Monday, the average household receives one personal letter every two weeks. Frances and Mary sent letters via carriage, and they wrote every few days. Alex and Emily send fragments of letters via text and every few days is (evidently) not enough.
Emily, write him a letter. Alex, write her back. Write a letter to your favorite high school teacher. Write one to the oldest living member of your extended family this Thanksgiving. Write a letter to yourself — everybody loves a time capsule.
Those long letters written for so much of history leave behind gems like “unable are the loved to die, for love is immortality,” as Emily Dickinson wrote to her sister. The last email I wrote to my sister contained lyrics to our favorite Kanye song in all caps.
*Note from the editor: this piece was delivered to the News handwritten.