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Stuck At Home? Write A Letter (Yeah, On Paper)

Photo by: Nathan J. Fish


  Commentary: Sitting in my favorite downtown pub has become a fond memory as New Mexicans have been ordered to stay home and businesses close, to slow community spread of the COVID-19 coronavirus.

The pub was where I often wrote letters in a notebook with detachable pages, using my favorite pen. There is a cohort of people located around the world with whom I exchange letters in English and Italian, and I’ve never shied from zipping off comments or suggestions to businesses, journalists, politicians or whomever.

Sometimes others would notice and remark about the “lost art of letter writing.” It is a lament that goes back to the ancient world. Even the Roman statesman Cicero complained that no one wrote letters anymore.

The letter’s time as a serious art form may well have passed, and may or may not ever return. Yet there is no rule that says letters must be public-facing literary endeavors; that they must be beautifully handwritten; or that you must fill several pages with scintillating prose and sagely wisdom.

Indeed, those pressures often serve as excuses, just as we excuse ourselves from going to the gym or taking up yoga or meditation or any of the things we say we want to do. The most famous excuse for not writing letters is, “I don’t have time.”

Well, a great many of us have time now.

At this writing, cities and states across the United States are on varying degrees of lockdown, with people directed to stay home as much as possible. The devastating scenes we have received from China and Italy of hospitals overwhelmed with critically ill patients, and mass graves in Iran, presage what is in store for us soon.

Whether we are fortunate enough to have a home stocked with jigsaw puzzles, games and books, privileged enough to have collections of DVDs or subscriptions for streaming movies, there is likely time now to write some letters. Their value is more than many estimate.

Seniors in nursing homes and inmates in prisons are cut off from visitors, but they can receive letters. A missive as humble as a paragraph jotted on an index card can make someone else’s day. Yet this is just the beginning.

Write another paragraph (if you want — you make the rules in this game) describing something that made you laugh. Or write, “Here is something I wonder about,” and then keep writing. If you’re a doodler, decorate the paper. Nothing will leave the recipient any poorer. Have you ever heard anyone say they hate receiving a personal letter? Yet this is only the beginning.

A letter, even an email, is a venue for expressing whatever you think and feel about the pandemic. Alternatively, it is an opportunity to pay attention to other things instead. Unlike a social media post, it is unlikely to ensnare you in the mosh pit of online snark and reproach. Taking a moment to reflect and report on your experience one sentence at a time is more cleansing than you might expect.

It also creates a document that may be valued by generations to come. Think of the treasure trove of letters — simple, unambitious letters sent to loved ones — from the battlefields of World War II or during other historical events. They are heirlooms, historical documents and curiosities.

When I first started writing to people, a stamp cost 15 cents. Now they cost 55 cents or $1.15 for an international letter. It’s still a bargain for all I get out of writing and receiving them.

It costs little to give it a try, if you’re home with a bit of time on your hands.