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" … genuine attention seems to necessarily take the slow boat between us."

Over the past two weeks, I've found three opportunities to write letters. My correspondents were in hospital, cut off from electronic communications, so I sent actual letters. Not e-mails. Not Tweets or quick Facebook commentary, but genuine actual personal letters. I first had to dredge up my faint memory of just how to format a letter, for these babies demand a specific formal: date and location at the top, etc. I next had to rethink what one includes in a proper letter, for a proper letter seems confidential. It will never go viral, or even aspire to, for it wants to be an outpouring, a heart to heart with one heart imagined and the other far-too used to hiding. Letters allow a rare sort of conversation, one-sided and many-faceted. The purpose seems to be an out-pouring, a lightening, a confiding unknown to every other medium. A letter lives on the stark edge between private and public, with a public of precisely one.

Much of history seems represented in letters.
Biographers heavily rely upon private correspondence in which the historical person revealed personal perspectives absent from their more public pronouncements. Many of these seem in retrospect to have been unburdenings, releases from their life's otherwise secret pressures. Even the ones that might have seemed superficial at the time grew in significance over time, providing background color and depth. A person's voice seems somehow more characteristic when narrating a letter than when engaging in even face-to-face conversation. The letter might provide glimpses of the writer's soul.

In other writing forms, artifice and craft seems somehow necessary. A plot needs following. A persona must be maintained. But when letter-writing, genuine personality might take center stage. Even when relaying some simple action or observation, the filter through which that description passes seems more prominent than those provided by mere objective reportage. Letters exhibit the writer's subjective self, relatively unburdened by any belief that what's written might enter any permanent record. They might just as well be written on flash paper, intended to dissipate into a brief flame and lingering smoke, as long-lived as they might become. They belong to a specific point in time, resonating that space and no other. These characteristics might make them more eternal than any other form.

I felt considerably lighter after sticking that stamp, as if I'd received a sort of self-inflicted absolution. I'd more or less bared my soul and felt cleaner for it. I knew that I could never take back a single sentence as I secured that page into its envelope then took my short contrite walk to the mailbox and courageously slid that tiny slice of myself through the slot. The conditions of my correspondents' incarceration might prevent them from replying in kind, but I don't mind, for those letters completed a circle, even without ever generating any response. I sent them in the fairly certain knowledge that I would not be overwhelming anyone's already burgeoning email inbox and that my letter would be received as an absolutely unique presence among the expected bills, magazines, and free pizza coupons which make up the bulk of received mail. I will sit with my correspondent then without the fuss of anyone feeling compelled to entertain me in return. I will have provided a small wrinkle in their day, something somehow superior to every other distraction possible, and one blessedly short-lived.

I have been characterized as a man of letters, but I utterly fail the first defining element, for I've grown accustomed—too accustomed—to dropping an email instead, to slipping in overly brief glimpses of myself when posting a comment or electronically responding to some provocation. Even my holiday poems arrive by email now, a convenience which might utterly undermine my sincerest intent when creating them. Letters are an inconvenience. They demand drafting and proofing, printing and folding, stamping and walking to the mailbox. They also demand attention from both parties involved, and as Humberto Maturana insisted, attention is love. I can slip you a sliver of snark at something approaching the speed of light, but genuine attention seems to necessarily take the slow boat between us.

©2019 by David A. Schmaltz - all rights reserved

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