April 10, 2013

The Lost Art of Letter Writing and Thank You Notes


Two events last month have reminded me of something from my younger days that was so common as to escape notice: receiving written letters, thank you notes, or invitations in the mail. Today, to receive any of these is cause for pause. Letters are e-mails, thank you notes are usually Day Spring e-mail cards, and Evite handles almost all invitations to parties or special happenings.

What brought this to mind was the release of  a book by former President George H.W. Bush (the senior one). It is simply hundreds of pages of letters he wrote to his parents during the war, his wife to be, and all the world leaders or people he interacted with during his long political career. The fascinating part is the content: the writings are centered on his love and empathy for others, his deepening and sustaining friendships through personal communication, and his creative side. You may or may not agree with his politics, but this book is as far from political as one can travel. It is about a caring, intelligent, sensitive man who used words and letters to touch others.


The second thing that promoted this post were two thank you notes from dear friends. Betty and I had an opportunity to help them with a party that was important to them. What we did was both fun and allowed us to do something for them. Within days both husband and wife sent us handwritten thank you notes that were personal and meaningful. An e-mail or Hallmark card wouldn't  have been the same.

My mom made it quite clear to me that as soon as I was able to hold a pen I was expected to send thank you notes after every Christmas and birthday. Invitations were to be hand-written by me. Any gift, for any reason, triggered a note. I have slipped over the last few years, though Betty and I still have a drawer full of thank you, sympathy, or  thinking of you cards. I must admit, though, Day Springs sees a lot of activity from me.


courtesy imgur.com
Another couple we count as friends have an amazing collection of fountain pens. They are not used for writing, just as pieces of art on display. As beautiful as they are, it is kind of sad to see them not serving their original purpose.

Writing letters is no longer part of my experience, either writing or receiving, except to and from inmates I work with through prison ministry. Part of the reason is quite simple: I have very few friends anymore that don't live here. I've lost contact with almost everyone else, so there is almost no one for me to write to.

Thinking back to the post of last month about the U.S. Postal Service, this lack of writing and mailing is a major reason that organization is fighting for its life. Only junk mail, magazines (another hurting segment), and  Netflix discs find their way into my mailbox. Millions of first class pieces of mail aren't written anymore and bills arrive electronically, so the post office is in trouble.

No one needs to remind us that texting, Facebooking, Pinteresting, or Tweeting are the preferred way to communicate by everyone under 40, and many over that age. Cursive writing, proper spelling and grammar are barely taught in school anymore. Long form writing is pretty much confined to blogs, and rough drafts of graduate thesis papers, and book writing. Of course, virtually all of that writing is done on a computer so spelling and grammar checkers can catch mistakes and the end result can be e-mailed to someone else as an attachment. Actually putting pen to paper doesn't happen.

I am not an  old curmudgeon saying we should all go back to the old ways. There would be no Satisfying Retirement blog if I wrote everything out first on a yellow legal pad. I love my spell checker and the ability to write faster and (hopefully) better. But, there are times when I long for the days of hand-written thank you notes and the personal letter that took time and effort to craft.

No great message here, just a sense of loss when I realize letter writing and thank you notes are likely to disappear completely with our generation.


Note: We are on our nearly month-long RV trip through New Mexico and Texas. That means a little slower response to comments. But, never fear. My trusty laptop and I are out there somewhere looking for a WiFi signal to stay in touch.

Friday I will have an update on our trip so far, complete with photos from Betty.

13 comments:

  1. As a retired postal employee, I am sure I am biased. However, I felt this way before working for the USPS. I think we have gained so much with all of our electronic communications. However, I think we are losing something also. (Always trade offs it seems.) I still send cards and notes...but not nearly as many as before. However, I know from personal experience that a card or note in the mail is a special treasure. I have kept many from the past...sure can't keep them all. Some I revisit from time to time and smile and relive a very special friendship or event. Emails don't provide that or the person's penmanship. And sometimes, the sender has passed away and I still have a "little of them" with me. Emails don't provide that. Sounds sentimental? You bet! I am and proud of it. I treasure my friends and family very much. When someone has taken the time to send me a get well card, birthday card or Christmas card....they really care. E-communication is effective but not necessarily warm and fuzzy. So, as we move forward....I will continue to do both...e-communicate and also hard copy. Both have their own value.

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    1. The idea of investing the time and energy into writing personal notes is something that has been lost. You call the written note a special treasure and I'd agree. I'm afraid I am as guilty as anyone of slacking off, but based on the comments that have been left so far, I will have to make a new effort to put pen to paper and stamp to envelope.

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  2. Great post Bob. Of course I too am very much in the digital world. As you say our blogs would not exist without it. My father wrote me a long letter a few months before he died. We communicated that way as he didn't have Internet access and of course telephoning was out. I keep that letter on my desk and re-read it almost monthly. He died three months before I retired. I was so looking forward to spending more time with him but that wasn't to be. But I still have that letter as a sort of link to him. I know his hands actually scribed the words. He, unlike me, always had such beautiful handwriting.

    Have a great trip. I look forward to your on-the-road reports. We are on our last day of our trip.

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    1. Safe travels, home, RJ. We just arrived in Ft. Stockton Texas and are getting settled for a few days.

      My grandfather and uncle both were real believers in the power of personal letters. They used typewriters but the effect was still the same. My grandfather sent me a letter when I was 12 and had suffered a major personal disappointment. That letter was a major turning point in my life.

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  3. RJ is so right. Writing our elderly relatives is important. I still love getting letters back from them- even if it says that I need to change my life (always).
    I also try to send my grandson a letter a month. There is nothing better then, " you got mail!"
    Sending post cards to kids while traveling is still an important part of my life.

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    1. Our grandkids get so excited when we send them postcards from our travels. In fact...thanks so much for your comment. It reminded me we have to get some for this RV adventure!

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  4. It is wonderful to receive real snail mail and have a box full of old letters. It is not the same with e-mails, Facebook comments, etc. What keepsakes will the upcoming generations have that evoke the same kind of memories?

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    1. The answer...no keepsakes. Isn't that sad.

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  5. I'm grateful that beautiful wife Sandy takes the time to send personal thank-you notes without fail, and now is into crafting personal birthday, holiday, and other special occasion cards. For about 30 years, I exchanged letters with my mother weekly whenever I was away from her household--almost all of that time. That was a bit of an effort, but I never regretted it for a moment. I love my puter and what it can do, but it does not yet replace the personal touch, and probably never will.

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    1. Good for your wife! Betty has a friend who not only sends lots of encouraging cards but hand makes every one of them. They are miniature works of art. I'm sure Sandy's will have the same feel.

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  6. My husband Art turned 70 last month. A family member asked if we were having a party. I said no, but he would love getting birthday cards. I sent out an email to our distribution list requesting same.

    Art got nearly 20 birthday cards in his mailbox, plus about 50 that came in via email and Facebook wishes. He spent the day reading and grinning. The 20 that came by mail are still sitting on the windowsill, reminding him of people who cared.

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    1. Betty and I put the few real cards that come in on our fireplace in the living room. They will stay for weeks after the event reminding us of the people involved.

      By the way, happy belated birthday to Art from Betty and me!

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  7. I loved this post and all the comments about how receiving a note or card in the mail is so special. I have also encouraged my children to send thank you notes over the years. I am a great supporter of good manners. On Wednesday, I was watching my 2-year old grandson. We went to the mall and I bought him lunch there. As we were walking away from the food counter, he turned in his stroller and clearly and loudly said, "Thank you!" to the server. Both the server and I were surprised but definitely pleased. My view on thank yous (whether they are paper, verbal, or electronic) is do them however you can, but make sure you do them. Maybe there will be a resurgence in thank you notes being sent because of Jimmy Fallon. :-)

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