For me, receiving mail has lost its magic.
I once loved anticipating mail. Getting it now is perfunctory, like bringing in garbage cans. Today I receive mostly advertisements printed on intrusive cards some larger than four by five. They hardly fit in the mail box. Then there’s the relentless stream of bills. The joy of anticipation is gone. Once, the excitement of getting the mail was finding a real letter, handwritten, addressed to me. Few if any write letters any more. The world of communication, once a twist of the wrist, has gone electronic. We are literally, snagged by the web, trapped in the net.
I once read that in sixteen-eighty in London, England, the mail system functioned 24/7. If Mrs. Dalloway invited me to take tea with her at 4:00 pm, I’d receive her invitation at 10:00 am. I would post my response straightaway and she’d receive it by noon. Anywhere in London for a penny. It got pricey if you posted out of town, and there was a caveat: the receiver paid postage, not the sender. Considering all the junk mail I receive, wouldn’t it be neat if the post would not surrender my mail to me unless I first paid up? Just say no, would do the trick.
In colonial times, communicating with kin overseas was stressful and cumbersome. A ship’s officer arriving in port with letters without stamps would advertise in the local newspaper. They’d list the names of those having mail and for them to come collect and pay for it, if not already paid for by the sender. I would imagine a husband in London, sending a letter to his wife in Annapolis, would cost her an arm and leg to claim it. Absence may make the heart grow fonder, but it sure ups the ante in the family budget no matter who pays.
Aviation promised more speedy mail delivery. In its infancy, however, the pilot was more at risk than any mail man was when a junkyard dog tore after him. Without instrumentation, pilots became disoriented when flying through clouds. Pilots might swear they were flying level but in fact were in deep descent. Crashes were frequent.
I remember three chapters in my life when receiving mail was exhilarating. The first was during WWII. I’d receive V-MAILS, letters from my father while he was at war. The return address read cryptically: “Somewhere in Europe.”
Then came my cereal box years. Cereal makers, like those producing Wheaties and Kix, offered toys like the ‘secret decoder ring” that broke all codes or another ring that, by changing color, “foretold weather.” Mailing off a quarter with the box top would assure that I’d possess one of these wonders. After I’d mailed off my submission, I would begin counting the days and even intercept the mailman before he reached the door.
In late adolescence, I was in and out of love. For some of these loves, letters were part of the romance and I came to expect them. The wait for letters was excruciating. I now marvel at how verbose lovers are at eighteen. I simply couldn’t write enough to shape the nuances of my emerging passions and give a voice to my excited sentiments. Run-on sentences were the name of the game.
In today’s post-modern world, hand written letters have been eclipsed by email. Email is fast, economical, and costs the same to send anywhere in the world. Emails arrive almost instantly and like mice, seeing one always means there’s lots more. Some are bizarre. I used to get regular emails from a barrister in the Caribbean who’d address me as ‘Dearest.’ He’d urge me to respond immediately as he was keeping fifty thousand pounds in trust for me.
Email, especially texting, has spawned a form of hieroglyphics designed to reduce words to their marrow. It makes electronic messaging even faster, by lessening the time a writer spends composing texts. For the uninitiated, these symbols are inscrutable and seem more like the periodic table or scientific equations than real words or even sentences. Even the tender sentiments they purport to communicate become tepid and as ho hum as yesterday’s alphabet soup.
How about instead of emailing or texting your loved one, “I can’t wait to look into your eyes and savor the soft scent of your perfume,” you write ‘ILU/ILY’ which means “I love you.” ‘XOXOXO,’ means, I want to hug and kiss you. It works for some, but not for me. Is this only because I’m a luddite, that I’m so old a dog I disdain new tricks? I’d say it’s more than that. It’s about nuance and in my opinion, next to facial expressions, only words can hone our emotions to such fine tolerances.
Tweets serve communication the way fireworks light up the night sky: while they catch your eye, they quickly fizzle. No nuance, here.
Letters take a lot of time and thought to write. It would take me the same time to write one letter by hand than to dash off twenty emails. In communicating with a spouse, loved one or friend, the nature of affection encourages the sharing of many different thoughts and feelings like pillow talk that is lengthy and meandering.
Electronic communication is a boon for commerce. It’s great for communicating data or gathering information, arranging appointments, ordering holiday gifts and getting directions to unfamiliar places.
When kissing my wife before bedtime, however, I can’t imagine holding her and saying ‘ILU/ILY.’ Nothing beats a plain old fashioned, breathy, “I love you,” whether it’s carefully written long hand or whispered softly in an ear. Consider something as sensual as hugs and kisses; when reduced to a formulaic, ’XOXOXO,’ it loses all its pizazz.
A simple ‘PS, I love you,’ works better.
Columnist George Merrill is an Episcopal Church priest and pastoral psychotherapist. A writer and photographer, he’s authored two books on spirituality: Reflections: Psychological and Spiritual Images of the Heart and The Bay of the Mother of God: A Yankee Discovers the Chesapeake Bay. He is a native New Yorker, previously directing counseling services in Hartford, Connecticut, and in Baltimore. George’s essays, some award winning, have appeared in regional magazines and are broadcast twice monthly on Delmarva Public Radio.