I remember so clearly the feeling of opening my mailbox to find a handwritten letter inside: seeing my name scrawled across the front of the envelope, sliding my finger under the back flap to open it, rubbing the grain of the paper against my thumb.
And there was nothing like sending mail either: the time it took to compose a good letter (sometimes a day per paragraph, the half-composed missive traveling in my backpack from house to cafe to library until I finished it); the rush of affection I’d feel signing the closing valediction; the final quiet moment before I dropped the letter into the mailbox where it emitted a satisfying thud as it found its temporary home among all the other envelopes.
Upstairs I store almost all of letters I’ve ever received in a box labeled “memorabilia”: there are the sweet cards from my mother when my sister and I would stay with my grandparents for most of the summer when we were kids; the long letters exploring our mutual love of punk rock from my middle-school friend Rob Rankin after he moved from Southern California to the northern part of the state; the missives from friends and family when I moved to Johannesburg to teach high school after I graduated from college. Sometimes when I open this box I don’t come downstairs for hours; the past becomes a hall I walk through as I hold these artifacts in my hands.
When email arrived on the scene in the mid-nineties, I lamented the threat it posed to the traditional letter; now I’m as nostalgic about those cyber-missives as I am about real letters. I remember the rush of seeing a bolded “1” next to “new mail” and the exquisite pleasure of deciding whether to read the letter quickly on screen or to delay the gratification by printing it out and reading it under a tree later in the day.
My love affair with Annie largely played out through email: because I was a graduate student in 1994 and she had an Internet savvy brother, we were both early adopters of the medium. Our first introduction, through a friend, happened through email, and when we consummated our relationship as romantic and I summarily moved across the globe to South Africa, we exchanged hundreds of long emails where we revealed our hearts’ hidden folds through the wires. I once printed out all of these letters; it was a 200-page manuscript. If someone asked me to tell them the story of our love, I could just hand them that sheaf of paper because it chronicles the tale so well.
These days my inbox is about as juicy as our house’s mailbox. Both are crammed with junk mail and bills, with the occasional informational item thrown in. It’s almost shocking when real letters arrive. Instead we now have texts, social media, and instant messages. There’s something to be said for the rush these can bring, too, but the more instant the communication, the more forgettable it seems to become. I’ve had “IM” conversations that seem to exist oddly out of time; I may be present during them, but once they’re over it’s almost as if the exchange is wiped from my mind, the memory of it vague like a dream come morning. There’s also so much less room for rumination: modern communication may be fast, but you know you’re losing something when complex thoughts have to be whittled down to 140 characters.
Annie was recently downloading information from an old cellphone before she sent it back to the manufacturer. First came the contacts; then the photographs; next the video. And then she asked, “Should I also get all the texts?” They represented interesting moments of several relationships, but she wasn’t sure they merited a save. In the end, she opted to let them go; that doesn’t mean they lacked value, but I do wonder what will happen if we have no more records of our lives.
At least with email there’s some captured history; I occasionally click back to the very opening pages of my emails and read the long notes I exchanged with friends back in the old days of 1997. But even this is ephemeral; a few weeks ago I opened my inbox to find all of my old emails mysteriously erased. I engaged my provider’s customer-service machine, and the best I could get was a “real time” instant-message exchange during which the technician was unable to restore my emails. Fifteen years of correspondence gone in an instant.
In some ways I feel lighter without those thousands of notes following me around, but the truth is I have lost words that were given and exchanged in moments of passion, pain, and love. Part of the reason I dutifully keep all of my old letters and journals is to remember the paths I’ve taken in life, which anchors me when I’ve lost my way. As the folk singer and storyteller Utah Phillips once said, “I can go outside and pick up a rock that’s older than the oldest song you know, and bring it back in here and drop it on your foot. Now the past didn’t go anywhere, did it?” I know that box of memorabilia upstairs is my version of this rock; in a fire, it’s one of the first items I’d run in to save.