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Lange: Real Mail

12/15/11 7:55AM By Kerstin Lange
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(Host) This time of year, many people sit down to write ‘year in review' letters to friends and family, sharing milestones like children starting school, a new family home, or a new job. Commentator Kerstin Lange recently had occasion to reflect on the joys of writing letters - and receiving them - throughout the year and over time.

(Lange) I love getting mail. I mean real mail, in paper envelopes. Okay, I am not a complete fossil - electronic correspondence has added a whole new dimension to my contact with far-away friends and family members. And of course it has revolutionized the workplace for anyone who needs to exchange information quickly and across even small distances. Still, finding a ‘real letter' in my mailbox gives me a charge that I rarely get from e-mail.

What's so different about a paper letter? The other day, I came across a treasure in the attic - a box of old letters. Just looking at the stamps was like a trip to a miniature art gallery and natural history museum in one. There was a stamp from Ghana showing a beautiful butterfly, and a U.S. stamp with a picture of a spiny-backed spider - a creature with striking red spikes that doesn't live anywhere near Vermont and whose existence I never would have been aware of were it not for that stamp. A stamp from Germany featured a self-portrait by one of my favorite artists, who died at the age of 31 just over one hundred years ago. The image brought up an instant connection with the quintessentially north German landscapes and people she painted.

Then there were the addresses - physical addresses, which provided something of a road map to my life trajectory in a way no e-mail address could. There were letters addressed to me at a P.O. Box in Richmond - my first ‘real' address in Vermont, after living on Mt Mansfield my first summer and receiving mail care of the Green Mountain Club. Before that, a number of addresses in N.Y. state, each conjuring up memories from different life phases - sometimes feelings of belonging and others, a sense of being lost.

And of course there is the writing itself. Time seems to slow down when you write by hand, or read a handwritten letter. Each person's writing has a personality of its own, and some, alas, are quite unruly. Or, for that matter, not meant to be read by everyone - I remember a time in elementary school when a friend and I taught ourselves to use Viking runes as a secret script - which proved a bit too cumbersome to maintain in the long run.

One of the letters I found in my treasure chest wins the prize in the ‘real letter' category, though.

It was from my old high school friend Marten in Germany, and in this particular letter he was telling me - some dozen years after the fact - that he had once had a crush on me. The letter had arrived just a few days after I had sent off a similar confession, which he could not possibly have received yet - the two letters must have crossed somewhere over the Atlantic!

All in all, this retrospective inspired by the box of letters made me glad that I learned to write in the era before computers came along. How enriching to have all of these options!
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