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Reading old letters and relearning how to write


a snippet from my 2006 annual letter

I’m tremendously lucky to have family and friends who humour me by writing letters. On several occasions, I’ve asked for letters as presents, and they’ve obliged: before my trip to Japan, before my trip to Canada, on various birthdays. Letters from my mom and dad sustained me through my bouts of homesickness, and letters from friends in far-off places have given me glimpses of other people’s lives.

I’ve kept almost all those letters in binders. I lugged that first small collection through Yokohama and Tokyo during my six-month internship there. Then back to the Philippines, then (bolstered with more letters and wishes from friends) tucked in one of the three suitcases that I brought to Canada, anxious and hopeful and ready to start my master’s degree. The long-distance relationship I was in grew, then dissipated. I kept the letters, although I didn’t look at them for a while. Through other relationships and friendships, more letters arrived.

I have many letters, but not all. I don’t have the ones from high school. I remember prolifically writing letters then, with a boyfriend who was also epistolarily-minded and who often slipped letters into my locker in addition to writing me e-mail. (We ran into Eudora’s per-message size limit, that’s how much we wrote.) I don’t have all the quickly-dashed-off greeting cards. I don’t have the letters I’ve sent. If I had thought about keeping a copy of my correspondence, it’s lost on forgotten hard disks, the way my private notes often become fragmented while my public blog survives.

It’s okay to have gaps in the record; I’m amazed that I have this history at all. My mom has a point when she urges me to print photos. The physical presence of an item nudges memory. A binder of letters can be rediscovered. A folder on a hard disk is easier to overlook. E-mail is not designed for printing, while a letter is written to stand by itself.

But a physical copy is limited to one place at a time. Whether the letters are in a binder in a basement cabinet or a box on a shelf above my desk, they’re still inaccessible unless I am there, unsearchable unless I flip through them. So I scanned in my collection over several hours during the New Year holidays – ringing in the new by celebrating the old, planning the way forward by remembering the path before.

Filed in Evernote, tagged by sender and by subject, these letters are reminders that people have taken time out of their day to share something. I’ve come a long way from home. I’ve gained much, but I’ve also lost some things along the way, and this might be one of those things I want to relearn. The rhythm of correspondence was broken for a while, and I’m curious: is it the shift towards Facebook, Twitter, and blogs? the cocooning effects of marriage? links made too tenuous by the dwindling of shared experiences? Or are these conversations that I can return to?

And other questions: Who was I that my friends took the time to write to me? What can I write to other people? What kind of a good friend was I then, and how do I build that again with those friends and with new ones?

I’m not precisely certain. I do know this: I remember in public because that’s the most reliable way that I can remember, but other people hold their stories closer to their heart. I have friends who are decidedly not on Facebook and who hardly have an online footprint. If I want to know what’s going on in other people’s lives, I need to ask. That could be why I’ve been having a hard time writing, the same way I prefer the indirection of blogging compared to the directness of e-mail. It seems presumptuous: “Please take the time to tell me about your life.” But the world is full of interesting people and I want to get to know them, so I can try.

imageI refilled my fountain pen and dusted off the prettiest stationery I could find, this Carta di Firenze set with a beautiful peacock-and-flowers pattern with powder-gold spots – another gift from my mom, to whom I wrote the first note. Then I wrote another note to a friend, and another, and another, and another, and another, until the creamy notepaper was used up. To make it easy to enjoy the pattern on the inside flap of the envelopes, I used stickers to seal the letters closed instead of sealing the flap all the way. Well, the letters may be mundane – I’m still re-learning how to write a letter – but at least the paper is pretty. I looked up the postage (it’s gone up quite a bit!), stuck on an assortment of stamps (another dusty collection I should get through), and put the letters in my bag. I tucked the surplus of envelopes into my newly-labeled “Envelopes” drawer, also quite full of the odds and ends of collections. (Why is it that there’s always this mismatch?) No more buying stationery until these cabinets are empty, and emptied in the best way possible.

Time to revisit books like A Woman of Independent Means (Elizabeth Forsythe Hailey, not the no-nonsense financial guide by Gail Vaz-Oxlade), Daddy Long Legs, and Yours, Isaac Asimov. Can you recommend any good epistolary novels?

Do you write letters? E-mail me at [email protected] and let’s swap mailing addresses. I can’t promise that I’ll write regularly, but I think it would be great to learn this again: the art of letter-writing, and the art of being the kind of friend who writes.