Saturday, February 14, 2015

Lost Art of Written Communication

Some events of the past week have me thinking again about the lost art of paper-based communication. I attended Brown University’s Josiah S. Carberry Day dinner at their Faculty Club on Friday the 13th. The featured speaker was alumnus Barnaby Evans, the creator of Waterfire Providence. He spoke about the importance of books—physical ones, not electronic ones—in living a full and rich life. He was preaching to an admiring choir, as Carberry dinners are hosted by The Friends of the Library.

The evening was informative and entertaining and, for me, also provocative. On the almost-two-hour drive home to Connecticut, I was mentally assessing possible blog topics for today’s post. I’ve been writing about communication lately in my usual humorous style. Printed books reminded me of handwritten notes, something that also crossed my path literally this past week. The two ideas came together for a more serious essay about the lost art of written, non-electronic communication.

About three weeks ago we had to make a painful decision to send our elderly cat, Luke, to the Rainbow Bridge. My grandniece Sophie and my grandnephew Bruno, ten-year-old twins, each sent me a handwritten condolence note on our loss. They had met Luke on their visits to our condo not long after we moved to Connecticut last fall. The notes were short, but they each included a hand-drawn picture of Luke and a specific recollection of why each of them had enjoyed meeting him.

The notes made me cry, not just because they reminded me that Luke is now gone, but also because of the thought that went into them. I sent Sophie and Bruno handwritten thank you notes for their thoughtfulness. My messages were written in cards from the Metropolitan Museum of Art that had photos of feline art in their collections. This exchange reminded me of how special such written messages can be, and how rarely they happen in our electronic world.

I'm going to save these notes with other special items from Luke’s life. I hope that the twins also save their cards at least for awhile. More importantly, I hope that they stop for a moment to savor the special feeling that a personal message put to paper and delivered by mail to their own hands can impart.

This thought process reminded me of a project I embarked upon around the turn of the millennium. I had decided to hand write letters to people who had been my friends for decades. In those letters I recounted my earliest memories of wonderful times we had shared that set us on a path to a lifelong friendship. To begin this project, I chose two women whose relationships with me dated back to my first years working in Manhattan after I graduated from Brown. I carefully selected the notecards to hold each letter.

These were women my age. We learned cursive writing in school and penmanship was a serious subject. I was therefore stunned that for a long time neither of them replied. Not even a purchased thank you card. Eventually, one sent me a brief appreciative email promising a more personal reply in the future. (It never came.) I wrote about this in my holiday newsletter a few years later, prompting a new reply from her. She explained that she hadn’t written back because she didn’t know where to begin to respond to my touching letter.

I knew her well enough to take her explanation at face value. (We’re still friends today.) In some ways, I found that even sadder than the total non-response from the other woman. (She passed away several years ago.) How unfortunate, I thought, that the art of letter writing has been so eclipsed by electronic word-bites. And this was well before the popularity of IM (instant messaging) and 140 character tweets.

Perhaps this is why my heart was so deeply touched by the special notes from my grandniece and grandnephew this week. It’s also why I decided to hand write thank you notes back to them. I hope that this is just the beginning of a life-long correspondence between us. (My greataunthood is as close as I’ll ever get to being a grandmother.)

I’d be thrilled if some of that correspondence turned out to be handwritten. But frankly, I’ll settle for a tweet now and then. I am, after all, a realist with romantic inclinations, not a romantic with realistic overtones. If you’re unclear on the difference, I suggest you find a book or two on these topics and check them out of your community library. If you’re not sure what a “community library” is, Google it.

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