Riddle me this.
I am a bridge between hands that never quite touch. I turn all our words into one ceaseless rush. Eschewing the ink for a binary dream, to gather in piles of dust on the screen.
What am I?
I’m an email.
While my commonplace identity might only trace back a few decades, in that time I’ve flipped the world of traditional, non-verbal communication upside down.
Let’s be honest–I’m cutting edge. The future. I was the first written message sent from space. In this country alone, 90 million American thumbs grope for me through mobile devices. More than half of them desire me enough to do so every single day.
All of this is true. But like most advents of the modern world, forged through progress in the name of convenience, an altogether different voice rings out: at what cost?
Whatever happened to the delicate loping of pen upon paper; the familiar rush in recognizing a friend or lover’s distinct scrawl?
Should a cramp suddenly seize your hand while returning to this age-old practice, just rest assured that you’re likely not alone. A recent poll revealed most adults will allow 41 days to pass between writing anything the old-fashioned way, while one-in-three wait upwards of six months.
Once revered as a flush of expressive grace, cursive writing has quickly receded into unintelligibility. In a bold leap forward, The Common Core Curriculum Standard (the folks responsible for unified school policy across all states) dropped the traditional script entirely from the national curriculum.
No need for pens and pencils. Instead, children receive keyboards.
But the kids might have a hard time deciphering the legato codex of grandma’s “Happy Birthday,” let alone the Constitution of the United States. And according to neuroscientists, without handwriting, future generations might even struggle with reading comprehension in their early developmental stages.
Still, none of this is enough to stave the torrential influx of over-crammed inboxes, replete with spam, junk, and endless inquiries, all words exchanged and lost forever on a whim. Hand-written letters fall away into the roaring silence of a binary-coded void.
It’s easy to forget that the very history of our modern lives, the fabric tethering all future generations, depends upon written records. In the past, historians studied letters of correspondence to fill historical gaps. Every stroke of daily life contributed to the greater canvas of decades passed.
What would our understanding of yesterday’s great leaders like Abraham Lincoln amount to, without the intimate confessions that they shared while abroad? Most likely, these titans of change would remain cloaked in mystery and forever cast as caricatures. Through their letter writing, we are instead afforded intimate windows into who they really were, and through reading we carry ourselves that much closer to the very essence that inspired their support.
Perhaps more important, without handwritten letters, little would be known about the commonplace activities that determined the day-to-day lives of our ancestors. What they ate, how they dressed, what they dreamed about, what they loved most and died for.
We wouldn’t have the New Testament. One of the first narratives to be considered a novel, Samuel Richardson’s “Pamela,” would have disappeared altogether. The continual rise of our pop-music canon–hits like “Please, Mr. Postman,” “A Soldier’s Last Letter,” and “P.S. I Love You”–were born from these momentous and exquisitely private moments of intimacy.
By contrast, email serves as a snug medium between the phone call and text message. But both forms depend upon a delivery mechanism sculpted by brevity. The rate of delivery influences intentions and simultaneously risks watering them down in the process.
I can’t help but brim with sadness and bittersweet joy to believe that I might be one of the last generations to partake in this flight of words. It’s a dance that can cross oceans, with every bit of heart intact and still beating.
I’ll never forget opening letters from a best friend while he was wrongfully imprisoned. The way those words seemed to leap off the battered tissue paper and onto my skin, stinging with unbridled passions. The writing served as a vessel for those pent-up and aching rivers of longing, finally shaken free from their steel cage.
I’ll never forget what it felt like to write love letters. Those of us lucky enough to have done so (and hopefully still do) will look back and smile on those confessions, ripe with joy and promise.
Whether letter writing becomes a distant story told to children, or pales into personal reverie, we’ll tell of how it taught us the meaning of honesty in vulnerability–of compassion through expression.
It’s the sheer physicality of tracing those old words; brushing off the dust and realizing that somewhere, miles and miles away, nestled in a shoe box under a mattress, someone you once knew with your whole being can retrieve the memory like an old artifact and turn the page.
Feature image courtesy of Flickr.