I was saddened to hear recently that the U.S. Postal Service might be out of business next year — or at the very least, bankrupt. I don't know how to save such a teetering monolith, but I do know this: If the post office goes, so goes one of the last vestiges of civilized communication, and with it, one of our best chances for staying meaningfully connected to, and learning from and about, one another.
Letters interpret the past, exalt the present and inform the future. Where would romance be without Beethoven's impassioned cri de coeur, "My angel, my all, my very self …"? What contemporary president hasn't benefited (hopefully) from the wisdom imparted by Abraham Lincoln's collected letters?
And whether or not one is a writer, there's hardly a more instructive rite of passage from adolescence to adulthood than reading Rainier Maria Rilke's letters to a young military man who, in seeking advice on how to become a poet, was taught instead how to love and "live the questions" of life.
When I worked briefly in Paris, nothing gave me keener insights into myself, my country and the culture I was experiencing than to write weekly letters home to America. The very act of reminiscence through writing allowed a slow peeling back of layers of my personality, challenging long-held ideologies and biases, and laying the groundwork for the woman I would become.
Over the years, I've saved boxes of old love letters, birthday cards received and long-winded missives from friends and family, but I rarely receive letters anymore. There is one person who still writes to me occasionally: a World War II veteran who, using what appears to be an old-fashioned ribbon typewriter, taps out a letter to me after one of my columns appears in the paper, sharing his thoughts in return. He mails his letters in care of the editors, who then forward them to me, and I write him back, not hearing from him again until my next newspaper appearance. The entire process is endearing in a way that a quick and easy e-mail could never be.
While useful professionally, e-mail has become the bane of my personal life; e-correspondence with friends, while ever so rapid, is increasingly vapid; and my refusal to text or tweet is making an anachronism of me yet.
Even romance, which requires a bit of separation to reach exquisite heights, has taken a hit with our 24/7 access to each other. There's no time anymore for that delicious suspension of hours or days, or even weeks, between seeing or hearing from a new or prospective lover — no time to create longing in the heart and mind and body — because our ubiquitous, incessant use of cell phones, texting, Facebook, e-mail and tweeting keeps us overly connected, almost to the point of ennui.
Writing letters also cultivates the intellect, promoting generally civil discourse and allowing for the space and time to examine thoughts and emotions, all while encouraging the ability to think and write coherently and well, without relying on the backspace key, the cut-and-paste rearrangement of our words, or the reduction of wit to the drivel of "LOL."
If we lose our postal service, letter writing, already nearly a lost art, will be a lost cause. We'll lose something essential to our futures: an archive of loves gained and lost, travels made, trivial and profound observations of life quietly recorded in a lengthy letter or even hastily scribbled on the back of a postcard.
And with that, we stand to lose one of the most fascinating and intimate methods of gaining insights into one another and for learning from and about our past, present and future: the writing and sending and reading of usually welcome, often cherished, frequently smile-making and soul-stirring, old-fashioned letters, taken from one doorstep and delivered to another, sometimes thousands of miles away, but always — thanks to the USPS — delivered directly to our hearts.
With the holidays upon us, except for your time and the price of a stamp, the gift of a letter will cost you next to nothing to send and will be priceless to receive.
Mary Catherine Coolidge is freelance writer who lives in Sarasota.