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McCallum: Written By Hand

04/18/12 7:55AM By Mary McCallum
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(Host) April is a busy month, from observing Earth Day to promoting the preservation of hand-written cards and letters. Commentator Mary McCallum is an educator, librarian and freelance writer whose recent re-discovery of a long correspondence from the past has renewed her appreciation of this fading practice.

(McCallum) Recently, I came across a folder of letters from an elderly friend who died in the early nineties. As I sat on the floor and read, I lost all sense of time. Each letter drew me on to the next. Allan had lived two miles down the dirt road from me in an old Vermont farmhouse that had changed little over the years. It had retained its spare, practical New England homeyness - drippy faucets, chilly drafts, pull string lights. And it was strewn with books.

Allan's letters, written on plain white paper in tiny chicken script, reminded me of the friendship we had shared that was punctuated by walks in the garden, tea and toast, and thick letters in my mailbox.

When I was forty and dumped unceremoniously by my boyfriend, eighty year-old Allan sent a letter of condolence with this advice: "Stick out your chest and look down with scorn and contumely on dastardly rats." A few more lines suggested courage and an invitation to tea, but it was that punchy first phrase that strengthened my heart and taught me a new word for contempt .

Well into our correspondence, I told Allan's daughter that I didn't open his letters until I went to bed where, propped up on pillows, I could take time to savor his words and decipher the crimpy cursive. Weeks later I received a letter in which he told me he had it "on good authority" that I read his letters in bed. He would henceforth include in each dispatch a bedtime story about his youthful travels: walks across the English countryside, archeological treks in Turkey in the ‘30s, chance encounters with shepherds in ancient Greek olive groves.

With the rise of digital communication and the techno juice of email, instant messaging, Tweets and texting, letter writing is becoming a lost art - except in the world of corrections, where it's a lifeline to the world beyond bars. The U.S. Postal Service is a staggering dinosaur saddled with junk mail that nobody wants to open, while social networking sites boil over with postings and short messages, few of them reflective, crafted or memorable. Most are deleted upon reading.

In Chicago, there's a group called Letter Writers Alliance. They have a website, yet their mission transcends the digital - keeping the art of letter writing alive. They sell real stationary, address books and even airmail stickers - vintage stuff. And it's heartening that a new Vermont business specializing in fine custom stationary recently opened in Manchester. Its owner believes you just can't replace the feeling of holding a letter in your hand.

I'll keep my little pile of letters posted from a friend just down the road. Artifacts of another time, they required time and attention of both writer and reader. They fueled imagination and reflection. Back then, there was no Send button to hit, to let fly in an instant and perhaps regret later on.

But of course, that's what white-out was for.

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