All who read this blog are of a generation who learnt cursive at school, progressing from an HB to, at least in my case, the chosen fountain pen. I also, to my teachers’ annoyance, insisted on writing for years in turquoise ink. I have atrocious handwriting – I blame this on having to write one hundred times, at age 6, “I will not forget my library book”!! But, I loved the whole process of writing words on a page, especially a letter. I loved choosing stationary and receiving it as a Christmas gift – moving from the Winnie the Pooh headers to pages with literary quotes or a safari scene! My best friend moved away at age 8 and that is when my letter writing career began… taking a big dip as a teen, but renewing its path when I left for university, as friends where scattered across the big cities of the UK.
Of course the most prolific of letter genres I sent or received in those young adult years, were “les lettres d’amour”, during the long college vacations, when partners were wrenched apart. Each word mattered. The wrong turn of phrase could so easily be misinterpreted by insecure young lovers! I remember wishing for some artistic flair to be able to illustrate these missives! I also remember the battered, old, yellow tin box in which I kept those re-read letters, whose secret place was heavily guarded. With huge regret now, I also remember various occasions over the years, when through tears, I would set alight a ribboned batch of tatty letters, in solemn declaration of cutting my soul free from the scribe! Ah, the drama of young love!
The next season took me across the continents with my work, still pre-computer. I know this will sound almost 19th century Dr Livingstone-I-Presume (did you know he was the first westerner to reach Lake Malawi?), but I can vividly remember the thrill of the week or month in Malawi, when a letter arrived. Of course, as postage could take one to two months, replies like ‘hope you got over your fever and diarrhea’ only served to increase the distance you felt from your beloved friends. Having lived and worked in some pretty isolated corners of our planet – letters were life-essential… I sometimes try and imagine how different all those experiences would have been with instant email? Long distance relationships became the norm for me! Just before moving to Malawi, I had met someone at a conference in the Netherlands, I was living in Germany at the time and then moved to South Africa for six months, before heading north to Mangochi on the tip of lake Malawi. They returned to their native Canada, preparing for a new project in the Xinjiang province of China. A year or so into the relationship we did meet up in Toronto, but monthly letters had not been sufficient to make up for the distance 🙁
I stopped sending postcards around the time I got my first mobile phone, ten years ago. I had rather enjoyed seeing how much I could fill into that tiny space, usually spilling over into the area reserved for the address. Don’t get me wrong, as someone who has friends on every single continent, I am super grateful for all forms of instant messaging, but I still miss letters! So let me leave you with a little challenge for the coming week. Even if it has been ten or even twenty years since you wrote your last personal letter, why not surprise a good friend with something handwritten this week? A deal?
P.S. Thanks to Myra, whose thoughts on my last post inspired this one!