Most people don’t know they are crazy until they sit down for an intervention with themselves.
My friend, Veronica is a artsy-craftsy woman. She creates gorgeous birthday cards using ink and collage. On Facebook, she is a member of a group named, “Save the Post Office,” which advocates for old-school letter writing by hand. For those who might not know what that means, it includes licking stamps, sticking them on store-bought envelopes, then sending the letter, non-electronically, person to person, like Ben Franklin might have once done, through the United States Post Office, something many of us haven’t done since 1992.
Veronica and I met in 2005, during the early days of personal blogging. She stopped writing her blog a few years ago, but recently she said that she missed sharing her personal stories. Social media just didn’t do it for her. She had an idea. She would write personal letters to her friends, scribed by hand, as if she was sent back in a time machine to her teenage years. One of those friends turned out to be me.
I did not know Veronica had included me in this experiment, but I certainly wasn’t surprised when I received her letter in the mail. She enjoys pushing herself creatively, someone who will take the time to write you a personal letter rather than take the easy route of pushing a button on Facebook Messenger.
I opened the mailbox that day at noon. Inside the box were the usual suspects — bills, a New Yorker magazine, and a coupon from Bed, Bath, and Beyond. Stuck in between the pages of the magazine was Veronica’s letter, my name hand-written on the envelope in a non-perfect cursive; it made me smile. I had a phone call to make, so I decided to open the letter in the evening, when I could give it my attention.
At 8PM I went to my desk and picked up the letter. It was time to read it. But when I tried to open it, I froze. Something was preventing me from opening the envelope, by why? What was there to fear? To avoid the discomfort, I opened Facebook on my laptop, but when I saw the glowing green light of Veronica in Messenger, I worried that she would ask me about the letter, so I shut off the computer. I grabbed the envelope and took it with me to bed, but when I started to tear it open, my mind filled with movie images from the past.
There was the Army messenger handing over the grim letter to the young woman, now a widow, at her front door. The lover awakening to a goodbye letter on the bed, signifying the end of a relationship. The suburban man’s suicide letter left after being fired from the company, being too ashamed to face his family.
Why did these melodramatic scenes pop into my head? Did I know they bore no connection to Veronica’s letter? Of course I did.
I waited until the next morning to open the envelope, when I had a renewed sense of reality. Veronica’s letter was personal, but contained nothing she couldn’t write publicly about on Facebook. She said her kids were growing up, getting married and going to college, and this was creating changes in her life as well. Nothing scandalous or scary.
That day, another letter arrived. Veronica’s letter-writing experiment was going to continue all week.
I found it easier to open the second handwritten letter. When I unfolded it, I immediately noticed that Veronica did some editing, crossing out a sentence with her pen, then scribbling her new thought sideways, in the margin. This raised the stakes in her letter-writing. The imperfections of the second letter was reminiscent of the notes you might pass in homeroom during elementary school. And again, I froze, for a different reason that the day before. Seeing Veronica’s edits, and touching the same paper that she once held in her hand was too visceral, like I could feel her pen still vibrating on the page. It felt too intimate, like I had walked into the bathroom while she was there, and I froze in a combination of curiosity and shame.
Yes. I know what you are thinking. Crazy. I was beginning to think so myself.
My letter reading improved as the week went on, until I received the seventh and last letter, which I couldn’t open for another four days.
Let me make sure you understand all this. None of these letters were intense or extremely personal. These letter were not sent to torment me, but as a creative exercise for herself. I know this because after reading the last letter, I finally called her on the phone.
“Veronica, I want to talk to you. It’s a little weird and personal….” I said, telling her my tale of the five handwritten letters. And as I proceeded, I gained the ability to step away and analyze my craziness. Maybe this is the true power of storytelling. You begin to understand yourself.
My hangup was about intimacy. Intimacy and anxiety in the digital age. For eleven years, a large bulk of my socializing has been mediated through electronic means — laptops, tablets, and phones, blogging, Facebook, instagram — to the point where I never hold a hand-written letter in my hands or speak to a friend on the telephone. My conversations are on IM or email, outlets without physical contact. Even Skype is a two-dimensional representation of reality. Since my divorce, I’ve had two romantic relationships, both based online, but the major background to our romantic tales doesn’t primarily take place in romantic cities like New York or Paris, but behind the lighted screens of our laptops, hundreds and thousands of miles apart.
Yes, I meet friends and lovers in person, but I wonder if my online existence has become so habitual that I have grown uncomfortable with the intimacy of something as innocent as a handwritten letter. I have grown so comfortable chatting with a thousand people at a time on social media, that sitting with a personal letter written just for me freaks me out. That is crazy. The truth is I felt myself unable to handle the intimacy of reading the letters, the lack of control. Would I have to write back? What if I connect too deeply? What if I don’t know what to say, or she says something that makes me cry? What if she is telling me that she is getting a divorce or has some mysterious disease? Can I just press the like button? Have I forgotten what it’s like to have a real friend? And what does this say about my relationships with others? Romantic ones.
“Maybe I shouldn’t write you again,” she said at the end of our conversation, laughing. “I didn’t realize it would affect you so much!”
But I hope she does. Or even better — maybe I should write back.