From hand to hand

The cards are beautiful, but the handwritten notes inside are what matter most.

“I’ve always felt there is something sacred in a piece of paper that travels the earth from hand to hand, head to head, heart to heart.” ― Robert Michael Pyle

During the third semester of my PhD program in Communications (from which I withdrew at the end of that semester, due to uncertainty about Matt’s schedule and whether I would have anyone available to help with his care), I did a qualitative research project about sending traditional handwritten cards, notes and letters through postal mail. The research involved hours of interviews with people from all over the USA and at least two other countries. It was fun and fascinating to talk to others who felt, as I do, that there’s something special about getting personal communication delivered by the post office.

One theme that emerged in several interviews, one that I don’t remember ever having thought of myself, was the special bond the receiver felt in holding a letter that had been in the hands of the sender. It was almost as if the letter served as a link joining the touch of hands across the miles. When I read Pyle’s quote, I thought of those interviews and the many people who voiced the same thought.

Interestingly, that research paper reinforced my decision to quit school. I realized that I’d much rather spend time writing actual letters, than reading and writing ABOUT writing letters. That one paper was a great experience, but the best part about it was that it fed my enthusiasm for sending postal mail.

Laura Vandekam’s podcast “Before Breakfast” recently featured a program encouraging listeners to send handwritten notes. Since her program is often career-focused, prioritizing efficiency, this episode jumped out at me. The emphasis on handwritten notes was not something I typically associate with time management strategies. But as she explains, “I bet a handwritten note creates at least ten times the impression of an email. But it doesn’t take ten times as long to write.” She goes on to give hints on how to incorporate the habit of writing handwritten notes into one’s schedule without consuming too much time. “I promise it will be worth your time,” she says, “because guess what? People are a good use of time. And handwriting notes is a good way to show people that they matter.”

I agree with her completely, but I confess I don’t do nearly as well at this as I would like. Still, I’m inspired by others who do. Despite this being an online community, many of you have made the effort to contact me via postal mail with cards and letters I treasure, some of which have come from faraway places I dream of visiting, such as Wales. As Vandekam describes in her podcast, when I see handwritten correspondence in my stack of mail, it’s an instant day-brightener and I often want to open it first (though sometimes I save it as a reward for slogging through the boring stuff). So it’s extra-fun for me to post notes to others, hoping to share at least a bit of the joy I feel when I receive one.

I find that writing notes and letters is an amazingly calming, mood-lifting experience. I like to use pretty stationery (or make some cards myself) and I have a lot of fun with stickers and pretty postal stamps, but none of these things are necessary. As Winnie the Pooh supposedly said, “It doesn’t take a lot of pencil to show a friend you care.”

Today, or this week, I hope you will make time to send a note in the mail to someone who would love to hear from you. And I’ll make an offer I’ve made here before: If you, or anyone you know, would like a handwritten note from me, just send your postal address to me at defeatdespair@verizon.net, and I’ll be happy to send you one! I’ll guard your address and I promise not to post it here or give it to anyone else. I’ll even enclose a tea bag if you tell me what kind you like! I’ll have fun sending it, so if you want me to send it, it will be a win-win.

Whether from me or from someone else, I hope this week will bring you a special piece of mail that has traveled the earth from someone else’s hands, head and heart, to end up in yours!

36 Comments

  1. Good morning, Julia,
    I freely admit that when World Vision started sending faxed letters from children to sponsors and sponsors to children instead of the real thing, my enthusiasm waned measurably. I was no longer looking at the same paper and ink or crayon marks put down by my dear child; someone else had that letter, or possibly even threw that one away. Furthermore, my sponsored child was no longer reading from paper I might have scented, and couldn’t receive a bookmark or hair ribbon I’d have slipped into the envelope. (I’d even sent a stick of gum once.)
    Now we’re encouraged to simply email the child, where, as you’ve noted, they can’t even see the pen color I’ve selected, or my scrawled out ❤️. On the plus side, it’s easier to attach photos than to print and send them … But then I’m at the mercy of a printer in some impoverished village to recreate what could have been a nice photo. Sigh.
    I did pick up some note cards yesterday, so at least I can send cards to friends and family.
    Even you, if I located your most recent address (I’ll be calling you 😉 ) !

    • Hi Susan, I can understand your disappointment at losing the original letters. Our sponsored children are all affiliated with Christian Relief Fund, and they still send the original letters. The ones from our central American kids are usually translated (by a parent or agency employee) but the original letter in Spanish is always included, and the ones from Africa and India are actually written in English. Usually the kids draw pictures and make cards for special holidays. The only down side is that it can take weeks or in some cases, even months, before we get the letters. But they are worth the wait. For a variety of reasons, including the unreliability of mail, but mostly to keep the level of support consistent for all the children, they ask that we not send them gifts or money through the mail, though photographs are always welcome. Did you ever see the movie About Schmidt with Jack Nicholson? That was such a sweet story line about his letters to his sponsored child. He was a grouchy curmudgeon but his connection with the child really showed his human side. If you haven’t seen it, you might enjoy it if only for that part of the story (although I liked it all). I believe Kathy Bates was in it too. She is one of my favorite actors.

      • I haven’t seen About Schmidt, but now I want to see it. 🙂

        • I hope you will! And please let me know what you think. I’m posting a card today to your MN address — I wasn’t sure where to send it but you will get it eventually. As Ashleigh says, “By the time you know where I am, I may very well be somewhere else.” 😀 That made more sense when he wrote it 20 or 30 years ago, but oddly, it’s often true even today with “instant” communication!

          • That is a good quote! And it is true of me, too, as I don’t always advertise what I’m up to or where I’m going to be next! 😊

            • Same here. There are good reasons not to broadcast one’s whereabouts, but it can be confusing…even to the person on the go! And here’s a related Ashleigh quote that’s important for all of us to consider: “Until I hear how you are, I can only remember how you were.” When we hear from people, it’s easy to assume they know what is going on with us, even if they don’t hear from us. Reciprocation is so important. I’m still trying to do better in that regard.

  2. Jack

    While I’d like to say we’re anachronistic, my experience tells me otherwise. My wife just retired from a 16 yr teaching job, part time at our church, where she looked after two year olds from 9-1. Imagine the Christ-likeness of someone who could do that! Not I, not in a million years. On the last two days of her work (her kids were either of the Monday/Wed or Tuesday/Thur attendance cycle), she received hand written notes from the mothers of all the kids she had taught. All of them brought her to tears, some to mine. No email would have conveyed the same meaning as a letter than was written by the same hand that loved on that child as my wife did also.

    And an interesting sidenote: in the business world now, proper writing skills are considered essential in two realms. The first of which is the ability to clearly and concisely communicate. The second, more subtle, is a thoughtliness issue. She/he who is inclined to write precisely is also more likely to work more precisely. Will English majors rule again? Fagettaboutit!

    • Jack, thanks for sharing that lovely story. I imagine your wife will miss a lot of things about her job, but most of all the kids. No wonder the parents send her those notes– I well remember how grateful I was for my sons’ preschool teachers. The toddler’s first experiences away from home are emotional milestones, and trust in the teacher is so important. And you’re right; not everyone has the gift for it. Re: the importance of writing skills in the workplace– I’m glad to know it still matters. I had the impression that written communication is becoming ever more truncated and informal. As you say, skilled writing is indicative of a disciplined approach that doubtless carries over into other areas.

  3. Another most excellent post on connection and communication within a complex world where we are captured by memes and speed. A few years ago, I took on the challenge of being the family archivist. How do I tell the stories in a way that they will survive? If there is one letter from a great-grandmother – how do I preserve the paper? Who will take over when I pass on? Will the emerging generation listen? What format will provide the greatest flexibility? These are the questions I am in the process of answering. One way that I’m looking into is short podcasts. Life is always, always an adventure – if you have time, check out the podcast that I share with my mother and sister. https://anchor.fm/teatoasttrivia/episodes/Telling-Our-Stories-e3voqq

    • Thanks so much for sharing that podcast! I loved hearing your voice. It fits you perfectly, which I guess is not surprising. But sometimes I have had the experience of hearing the voice of someone I’ve read for years, and they sounded different than I imagined. I enjoyed hearing your sister and mother, too. Loved the quote from Mary Oliver, also. By the way, I tried to find a button to subscribe to the podcast, but couldn’t find one. I might have to look for it in the iTunes store.

      The questions you raise in this comment are relevant to many of us who hope that personal histories of our friend and families will be preserved in some way. I especially identify with your wondering whether anyone in future generations will be interested enough to “tune in.” Format is another big question; I remember when 8-track tapes, then cassettes, then CDs, were the “hot new thing,” but how quickly they became outdated! Whereas handwritten letters, journals and diaries are still accessible. Your sister’s point about the things that tend to get left out (we emphasize the happy times over the difficult ones, usually) and your mention of the diaries that were so popular when we were girls were both timely for me. Just tonight I came across a very brief journal of sorts from long ago, that I kept by writing a quick note each day on a pocket calendar, describing what I did, who I was with, etc. It just happened to cover my last semester in college, when I was first dating Jeff regularly. Reading it was quite revealing. I had forgotten how many other friends (men as well as women) were a consistent presence in my life at that time; looking back, I remember that time mostly as if it was just him and me, but of course it was not. We rely on the archivist to capture a bit of the objectivity that memory tends to blur. Bravo to you for taking on that task! I am guessing that at least some of your descendants will be very glad you did!

      • Thank you for your heartwarming comments. It is an encouragement to me as I head out into the unknown. While we want certainty in our lives, we live our best lives in ambiguity. The unknown appears to ignite our creative spirit and strengthen our resolve to persevere. You have identified my greatest concern – format. Even this morning, I was considering how I would transfer the conversations with my father that were captured on VHS. And once transferred, how to edit etc. I found you thoughts on “forgotten friends” brilliant. I tried to remember the names of the people who were my companions in my high school and university days. They have simply slipped my mind. Our memories do indeed blur. I enjoy our conversations and your posts as you have a marvelous way of highlighting the essential of our human experience. By the way, Anchor Podcasts as easy to use. Come join the podcast conversation. You can subscribe at: https://podcasts.apple.com/ca/podcast/tea-toast-trivia/id1455800625

        • Thanks for the link! I was able to subscribe this time. I tried get Alexa to play it (on the Amazon Echo) but even when I enable the podcast skill, she wouldn’t cooperate. Then I tried to download them so I could put them on my iPod but that didn’t work either. Oh well, at least I know how to use the computer to play them. So many of the titles look interesting.

          • I love technology. The problem is, of course, is that many times is has a mysterious way of not working. YIKES!!

  4. Carolyn

    I will be sending you one very soon. May not be this week but the next. Have a good week. Hugs and love to you and Matt.

    • Thanks Carolyn. I am hoping we get to see you next month! Hope you are doing well. We keep you and Terry in our prayers. ❤

  5. Do you know, I’d completely forgotten that I wrote to you? It seems like ages ago now. Perhaps I’d better send you another letter (although I really owe Pauline in NZ one first… I started writing her a few lines 3 months ago and have just realised that I never finished that missive). I absolutely love receiving mail and feeling that physical connection to the sender and I too have been very lucky to receive many letters from fellow bloggers. I even have a pen-pal who I only communicate with by letter and who I have never met.
    Here’s to many more exchanges on real paper, written with a real pen x

    • I’m glad I could jog your memory on that! Ah, but I could never forget your letter. It was an exquisite piece of mail in every way; the paper, the penmanship, the international postmark, the wonderful details of life that had both the comfort of familiarity and the enchantment of a faraway setting quite different from mine in some ways. It does seem a long time ago, especially when I think how I had intended to answer you quickly and then never carved out the time to do it. I still intend to, though! Perhaps you will one day meet your pen pal. I have a British pen pal with whom I’ve corresponded for nearly 30 years now. I met her once, in 2001, when I visited another friend who was living in England, and I spent one of my days there with Sue, my pen pal. I credit her with getting me hooked on tea in earnest, after we spent a chilly, rainy day mostly touring outdoors before coming in to her cozy fireside and having cup after cup of tea, made in true British style. I am so totally excited that she is coming to visit me for two weeks in late October/early November!!

  6. I’m a big fan of sending ‘snail mail’ cards and notes !!
    😉

    • Denise, I’m happy to know that…I think there are many of us who still enjoy postal mail. Here’s a great site for people who appreciate old-fashioned cards and letters. The author, Naomi, has a lot of good ideas about correspondence. I enjoy exploring it and seeing her beautiful mail art. https://www.naomiloves.com/

      • Oh wow, she has some great ideas… I think in some ways I’ve pared a lot down in life but in other ways it’s busier. Having grandkids has really shifted things.
        💚💜💙🧡💛

        • I agree with you that it’s always a challenge to simplify because things keep changing around and it seems that the “to do” list just expands to fill any space we are able to free up. So what I’m working on now is trying to make more time for the fun stuff and eliminate or at least streamline more of the boring or tiring or frustrating stuff. I like being busy as long as it’s something I WANT to be doing!

  7. Mike B.

    Theses cards are quite adorable. Our daughter in law sent us one that was put together by hand, but looks like a nice print of a watercolor of flowers– It is done by Vicky Pugh with Papyrus and quite beautiful. As my cursive is not the best a card might not work, but Ihave been sending some sketch post cards to the grands in NYC. Monday we went to the kindegarten graduation for Norah at Avery elementary in Canton. She got awards for P.E., sight words and math. I guess from what I understand many of these events are now driven by social media and the need for photo ops, Dana Carvey has a funny standup routine about being older and having one black and white snapshot from his elementary school days. We are now shaped by social media. One of the girls in her class has a last name of Pines and her first name is……Georgia. I thought that was adorable.

    • Mike, I love that name – Georgia Pines! Partly because I love the name Georgia anyway, but if I’d have had that last name, I probably would have done the same thing. Now all they need are two more daughters named Carolina and Virginia, hee-hee. Yes, there are some amazingly beautiful cards — and the more artistic among us, such as Boomdee, make exquisite one-of-a-kind cards that are even better than anything one could buy in a store. My cursive isn’t good either, so I print everything for legibility. I hear that nowadays cursive is going the way of the dinosaur, not even taught in many schools. But while I was cleaning out yesterday, I came across a little story I wrote sometime in high school, where we were sometimes required to use cursive, and I was surprised to find that my cursive looked better than I had remembered it did. Congrats to Norah on her awards. Yes, every child now has the same amount of P.R. exposure as only celebrities had when we were kids. I’ll have to look up that Dana Carvey routine. I mostly stay away from social media (unless you count this blog) but we are all nonetheless shaped by it, for better or worse.

  8. Mike B.

    I can still call you a PHD candidate right?? It’s l ike at one time I was in Pre-Med. Like a million other,but I can still count that right. This is my friend Julia -a phd candidate. Acutally my son Kris in NYC is working on his PHD in education. First in our family..

    • I didn’t realize that I could be called a PhD candidate. I was not quite halfway through my coursework and light years from my dissertation, so it would definitely be stretching it to use that term, but hey, why not. Although I don’t plan ever to go back, but I suppose that’s just details. Library school was so practical that I think it ruined me for any sort of humanities-based PhD. Having lived mostly with scientific types, and having gotten my master’s in library science, the PhD program I was in felt unbearably like ivory tower navel-gazing. It seemed like it was primarily academics reading and citing each other’s papers, which nobody outside the discipline cared about or read. I imagine that an education PhD would be more practical, similar to library school, where our whole raison d’etre was to facilitate access to information across all disciplines, including the very practical ones people use in daily life.

  9. Connie Reed

    Thank you Julia for this great and wonderful blog! I simply adore writing letters to people and then best of all hearing back from them. It has certainly become a lost art. It is personal and makes the conversation between the two individuals so much more intimate. And, I also would love to share some tea with you! I sent my email address to you and would love your address! Take care!
    Your old friend,
    Connie

    • Connie, I’m happy (and not surprised) that you enjoy sending and receiving letters. The custom does seem to be fading out but I’m hoping there are still a number of us determined to keep it alive, and who knows? Someday future generations may re-discover the beauty of it, when the emptiness of technology becomes more evident– as I think is already happening to some degree. As you say, it’s far more personal and people feel more of a connection, or at least a unique sort of connection not present in calls, emails, etc. I hope someday we can share a cup of tea in person, but till then, you are welcome to join Sheila and me and many others on our “virtual Verandah” where we chat over our favorite flavors and watch the world go by. I was so glad to get your address — I sent you mine too. ❤

  10. Mike B,

    I recently received from a cousin, a short letter my mom wrote to him in 1960 when he was in the army stationed in Germany. It contained a picture of a ten year old self, brother and sister. This is from another place and another time and kind of represents a sweet spot for the family in time. No comparison to an e-mail. My mom sounded so happy and upbeat. This is now kind of a family heirloom. “When the emptiness of technology becomes more evident.”
    My sister in law has been doing some handmade cards which are cool. It may be difficult for future historians to write their treatises on cell phone records.

    • Mike, what a precious treasure that letter is! Occasionally, in my cleaning and clearing, I will come across something similar and marvel at how it means more to me than most if not all of my newer, more expensive possessions. I am happy your cousin kept it and then was thoughtful enough to send it to you. I am happy to learn your sister is making handmade cards! I do that occasionally. Mine are simpler than most– some are quite elaborate– but at least I know that they are one-of-a-kind.

      Re: future historians — they will be able to re-write, revise or delete digital “history” (including such mundane publications as this blog) in any way they see fit. Digital records are dangerously easy to bowdlerize or slant to whatever is politically correct at the time. There’s a reason our country’s founding documents are kept in safes. As Ashleigh Brilliant has said,”Paper is flimsy and ephemeral, but, (unlike a computer) it never forgets what you write on it.”

  11. Mike B.

    Wise words from Ashleigh.

  12. Mike B.

    And buried in the letter from my mom was a letter from my ten year old self to my cousin. I just found this-It was folded into a small square. In this letter, I described a call by patched phone call from uncle in Antartica. April, 1960–I was t en. My uncle was a decorated Navy commander and led an expedition to Antarctica- “Operation deepfreeze.” He has a glacier named after him -the Bertoglio glacier. He is buried in Ocala,Fl. So I plan to visit his gravesite. Lloyd was career navy and flew fighters in ww2 and retired in Key West. He flew P-19 dive bombers.
    The glacier is on my bucket list. I wonder if I can make it??? But it is the family glacier. I really should go. Don’t you think?

    • Wow, Mike, this is so impressive! I totally think you should go to Antarctica to see the Bertoglio glacier. It’s so great that you found that letter. Did you know at the time what a momentous achievement that was? And how few young people your age EVER got a call from Antarctica? Here is a picture that might show his grave. It’s in Ocala so it must be the one.

  13. Mike B.

    I did find the gravesite and left a memorial rock for him. I found the humidity in Ocalla to be quite oppressive. My friend in Marietta said.” Well people from Atlanta don’t go south in July – you know.” Funny.The beautiful trees in the cemetery -Live Oaks- reminded me of Savannah. That is the grave in your picture. Fortunately, the cemetery office was still open when we got there as he is not i n the veteran”s section but the Tranquility GArden. I would have never found him.
    The glass boat at Silver springs State park was fun and I did not know that the Sea Hunt home dock was there. Also filmed there was ” Creature from the black lagoon.” There were signs about to take notice of any active gators. People were doing standup paddle board though and seemed quite relaxed.
    I believe it was Lloyd’s third wife that was from Ocalla. She could still be alive, but I found no one by that last name in the digital yellow pages. Ocalla is famous for horse breeding and such. The local newspaper wrote an article about that call from my IUncle to us. I wonder if they could get me a copy? I aslo came across my cousin’s wrap sheet and mug shot when I googled my uncle;s name. He has had a tough life and only met him once when he was like 3. He is somewhere in Florida.

    • That’s interesting about the horse breeding in Ocala. I know nothing at all about that town. As for the alligators, I am more afraid of them than ever after seeing this nightmare of a news clip about the infamous “kitchen alligator.” Check that first photo! Can you imagine anything more terrifying than to see that in your kitchen in the middle of the night?!!!
      If you can tell me the name of the newspaper the article was in, I might be able to help you find the archives. If you know the year and even the month, that would be even better. Is the mug shot cousin the child of the naval officer? If so, I can imagine that being the son of a prominent person may have been difficult, quite aside from anything else he had to deal with. Anonymity is a blessing that most of us take for granted.

  14. Mike B.

    That would be totally crazy to actually go to Antartcia, right??

    • Not at all! I’ve actually thought about going there myself. If you and Verie take this cruise, let me know and maybe we can go at the same time. Until then, read all about Cindy Knoke’s visit there at this blog post.

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