“Send me things in the mail. Wherever you go, I don’t care where you go, just send me something in the mail from where you are.” —Wallace Berman
I was away for six weeks this summer so on returning to town I faced thirty six days of accumulated mail to sort through, a bulky pile handed to me by my local post office guy, the one who knows me and always has a kind word. One of the secret pleasures of retrieving such delayed correspondence is imagining what might await you in that postal cache.
Maybe a love letter from a secret admirer? (OK—maybe not.) An unexpected thank you note…”Your kindness to my family meant so much.” A newspaper article sent by a church member…”I read this John and thought of you.” A recipe from Mom, along with a note in her familiar and comforting script...”Make sure the beans soak overnight…” A sharp critique of a newspaper column: “Dear Pastor John, I must take exception with what you wrote about gay marriage last month. Are you sure you’re a Christian?”
Real mail. Real. Hand addressed, created by a real person, not printed out by a machine or spewed out by a computer. Someone takes the time to put pen to paper, to buy a stamp, to lick an envelope and deposit it in a blue mail box.
Back to that collected correspondence…there was eleven bills…six insurance notices declaring that the company won’t pay…nine magazines…eight postcards about houses for sale I can’t afford…two postcards for rodent and bug removal (do they know something I don’t?)…one postcard from the dentist reminding me my teeth are plaque laden...sixty-two sales flyers…three out of date newspapers…ten pleading asks from the ACLU, my alma mater, and some school I gave $15 to twelve years ago…and thank God, finally, two, two pieces of real mail.
The human art of letter writing is now so rare, seemingly going the way of live travel agents, ink stained newspapers and network TV. These days our trip from the mailbox usually leads straight to the recycling bin as we dump most of the day’s mail. There are still impersonal notes about debts to be paid, or a book from Amazon but when’s the last time you received or sent out a letter or a postcard or a hand written note? The United States Post Office reports that the volume of first class mail it delivers-- missives like hand written invitations and personal holiday cards and heartfelt love notes--has dropped by 28 percent in just ten years. We Americans just don't send or receive real mail like we used to.
It’s not that we communicate less. We communicate more than ever before in history. We are over connected, buried under bytes of electronic “letters”. 2.2 billion world email users per day send out 144 billion emails every twenty-for hours—52,560,000,000,000 yearly. That’s 52 trillion.
So many that emails inevitably languish in the inbox. (I’m at 5,669 and counting.) Texts toll on the smartphone: answer me! Messages clog voicemail. Facebook status updates go unread. So much information. So little time to digest it all.
Me? Every once in a while I need to receive a real letter. A real postcard. A real birthday card, with a swirly signature and an “I love you” at the bottom. There is something tangible, so permanent about the written word mailed forth: into the box, then the truck, then the airplane, then the truck again, then into the letter carrier’s pouch, then into my box at the end of the driveway.
I’m rediscovering that ritual this summer as I send three or four postcards a week from my travels around the United States, to my ninety-nine year old grandfather back in Massachusetts. He can’t get out much because of his age, so our family’s now bringing the world to him through postcards from his children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren.
I get to actually write to him! Track down just the right postcard in a rural general store or a lonely highway truck stop or a tiny corner bookstore. Create a message with the essentials, the weather or sights or the food, the things of life. “It is wicked hot here…I had an ear of the sweetest corn last night…saw a great baseball game under the stars…”
There’s the adventure of finding a town post office or a road side mailbox. The sound of a creaking door, mouth wide open, then shut tight with a reassuring “clang”, a signal that love is on the way. That some one out here cares about some one there, you. I miss you. See you soon. I hope my mail ends up on his refrigerator or side table, that it reminds Grandpa that he is mine and I am his, all through a $1.25 postcard and a .33 cent postcard. No wi-fi, no keyboard, no cyberspace needed. Good deal.
So here’s to the letter, the postcard, and the note. A fading act of communication perhaps, but just today: I pray that when I walk to the mailbox I might discover within it the written word. No recycling bin necessary.