Of & about Letters: Love-letters & Passed Notes & Everyday Declarations of Friendship

A letter is a precious thing, a firsthand account of what a person was trying to express at a given time, a record of correspondence & communication between two people, be they friends or family or outright unknown to each other. Letters come in the mail, plastered with stamps, tattooed with places I have never been: place/date/time. There is some evidence of the exact time when a letter flew through the canceling machine in a given city's post office. Other letters are composed in class, passed from your hand to mine, carried long-term in coat pockets, a reminder of my friend every time my fingers trace the creases and corners. I have mixed feelings about letters that leave through your fingertips, transmitted across state lines, political boundaries and the sea via live wire, only to be fed through a cable and projected onto a screen in front of my face. The words themselves travel well: they do not arrive jetlagged or wrinkled from their high-speed travel across countless time zones, instead standing tall whenever I summon them to present themselves and relay your message. In theory, they could not do a better job, keeping perfect contrast against the bleak backdrop of the screen and recounting every syllable in the exact cadence of your fingers tapping across a keyboard [in an illustration] so far away. [with black around the text] Something is missing. Something is not quite right. I do [illustration] appreciate the convenience: of knowing that seconds after I push a button you could very well be reading my words and smiling to yourself, of a means of communication that is virtually free in the monetary sense, and of being able to say four words ("Those brownies were great.") or forty-six ("Sometimes I just don't know what to say to you, and…") and know you will receive them almost instantaneously. I can't stop feeling like there is something artificial about this kind of communication. I see words, but I can't feel them. If I type what I really mean, no matter how descriptive my vocabulary, no matter the words I place in order ever-so painstakingly, you will not know what I really mean. I have qualms about communication that does not allow for emotion. I balk at the idea of composing anything short of a shopping list in a way that does not allow me to underline, [handwritten] "so I was on the [circled letter] T & I saw this guy on a bike with massive handlebars!!! The wingspan of them things was enormous…" [back to typed] italicize, stylize or mark with an upright happy face to denote preference, scorn, or delight. My grasp of the language can only take me so far. And then there is the matter of permanence: If I am to live a truly happy life, I require documentary evidence, a collection of paper items that, when analyzed and compared as a whole collection, give some sort of outline, framework and timeline of my life and times. I want to remember events and points of view other than my own. I could be happy without these things, I suppose, but I would feel like I lacked a history, like every piece of correspondence served its initial purpose and became useless, cast aside. Sometimes I see letters and thing that maybe these are some kind of literature, that if I have a series of notes my best friend passed me in class for two years of high school, maybe the collection is some kind of insight into the teenage experience or into the mind of the girl herself. I like to think that these things, especially those written in purple felt-tip pen, are worth keeping. I cannot throw away what became history as soon as my letter of response slipped out of my hands and into the mail chute. I cannot say that just because a time has passed, documentation of such lacks value. Sometimes I see collections of correspondence, things written by famous people before they were shining stars, and I think of the shoeboxes full of messages in the upstairs closet. Notions of fame aside, there is something truly valuable about the handwritten word, about candid records of a time and place. I have taken to transferring electronic messages to print form, to sending a signal from my fingertips to a great printer in the basement of technology building, so I can keep your words for more than the time it takes me to reply. This is no substitute for envelopes marked with your location, sheets of stationery with your script scratching across parallel lines, feeling the back of the paper and an embossed pattern in the shape of every character formed (because maybe, like me, you press down with your pen, every letter a deliberate creation), the smell of your house on the paper itself. There is just something sacred about these written words, about the honesty of penmanship and the care in addressing someone something to be sent to another person. If someone has sent you something, some words on paper, a declaration of any kind, do think of it as something special. Think of it as shared secrets and privileged information and a sacred text of some sort. Keep it away from the spying eye of fellow commuters, the hands of small children, and the reach of small animals. If you must read it aloud (to a captive audience), do so with the thought that you are expressing the exact emotions of a person at a given time, in one specific spot. Have some sort of reverence for the written word, with keeping records, with documentary evidence for being here and being alive. Just remember that they could be obsessed with much less charming things, and that should you become famous, they will probably end up writing your biography (or informing those who do).

Marissa Falco. Red-Hooded Sweatshirt, #3. 1999.

Published with the author's permission 12/03/2008