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An Ode to Old-Fashioned Letters
Why handwriting letters will always be better than social media
I want to love social media, but I will never love it as much as I love a good old-fashioned letter, a missive crafted from one heart to another. During the rare luxury of long stretches of quiet, when I can discipline myself to stay away from distracting memes and pictures of my friends’ vacations, steeping myself in writing letters or re-reading old ones is true delight. I can say this with pride as a Gen-Xer: Growing up with slow communication cultivates patience. It requires you to take your time with words, to believe yourself worthy of someone else taking their time with the words they have for you.
For the past several years, I have been working on a novel with significant epistolary correspondence at its heart, Women of the Post. My debut was inspired by the Six Triple Eight, a postal battalion of 855 Black women who cleared a backlog of millions of pieces of mail for soldiers during World War II to improve morale so we could win the war. So, being steeped in the importance of letters made me nostalgic, of course. But upon further reflection, I realized that my love for handwritten letters started like most great loves do: with my quirky mother.
My mother raised me on her own in the Bronx in the 1980s and 1990s. It was more than she could manage, since I learned officially, as she lay dying, that she had borderline personality disorder and bipolar disorder. As all parents do, she did the very best she could with what she had.
But the basic things a child needs to grow up feeling safe—a stable home, regular schooling at the same place—were luxuries, not givens. There was one single silver lining, a thin filament of hope throughout my relatively unsafe childhood. My mother wrote me letters, sometimes notes, almost every day.
There was nothing in these notes that she would not say to me in run-on sentences punctuated by sloppy cheek kisses before I was fully awake. I usually fell back asleep when she was gone, knowing I would wake up to her elaborate cursive in Bic black ink on mint green steno pad paper, perforated at the top, folded in half, weighed down by a slim red plastic telephone with a long once-curly cord stretched through the expanse of the living room and planted semi-permanently at my bedside.
A sample note might say: Shunda, I love you. I will be downtown until tonight, but I left turkey and cheese for you in the fridge. Make yourself food. I will call you when I am on my way back. I love you. Mommy.
So, I’ve understood for a long time how a letter can shore you up. That letters are inscriptions and expressions of deep love, a love that is patient and a love that is kind. A love written on paper, to me, was true and real.
This is part of why I became so enamored learning of the Six Triple Eight for my novel. They traveled to Birmingham, England and Rouen, France to clear backlogs of mail to improve morale for troops who had not heard from their families in some cases for more than a year. Not only did their focus and under-heralded achievement inspire me to write about them for several years, but it reminded me that my epistolary love has deeper roots.
The first love letters I read that weren’t written by my mother were part of the beauty of Alice Walker’s Celie from The Color Purple, such a canonical work that the novel has been made into a movie, a Broadway musical, and now another movie inspired by the musical. The letters were elaborations of desperation from Celie to an omnipresent God and really, to the reader; they were sweet, intercepted missives between sisters.
The message I somehow received is that there is no distance a letter cannot travel, physically or spiritually or emotionally. Reading these words, just like reading Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret, as a kind of note, made me feel like I was eavesdropping on a private conversation between another woman and her creator, like there was some special knowledge that I could gain if only I could sit still and listen closely.
There is a level of permanence that physically writing gives me that is connected to a core part of my identity as a proud Bronx native, where Hip Hop was born out of necessity, since massive disinvestment from the days of Robert Moses and tenements torched for insurance money defined what the world thought of us. Then came the crack era, massive death from HIV/AIDS, andepic, newly visible instances of modern police brutality, from Rodney King to Amadou Diallo and Patrick Dorismond. All I had to cope, the only power I had, were words on paper.
I acquired hand-me-down flimsy spiral notebooks from my mother’s ambitious undertakings at junior college and started a journaling practice that would last, mostly uninterrupted, for the next 30 years. I came to understand the alchemy of the physical act of writing as being as imperative to my life as breathing. Putting pen to paper served as a conduit for inscribing my own power and sovereignty over my life, as a way of talking to God. I felt for the first time as if the divine universe was responding to my focus—or that it might.
Maybe it makes sense, too, that I have also always been obsessed with repositories and catalysts for paper letters, a long way of saying I have a weird fascination with the U.S. postal system. I wonder if the nation’s postal operations might be America’s most equitable, at least as viewed by Black folks, in that they have fostered a strong Black middle class. There are few African American family trees missing an auntie or uncle or cousin who has been working at the post office for more than a decade. Aside from the military, it is one of the only branches of the government that has consistently delivered on a promise of a path to equal opportunity or enabling the attainment of the American Dream.
But I can’t name anybody who worked at the post office when I was a kid, I just have always been what one of my library professors called “pervy for paper.” There has always been safety and security for me in the written word. Letters were buffer for me against most people, since growing up the way I did—frequently without, usually bullied—made me both too aware and overly sensitive to the cruelty of others. It felt easiest to remain outside, to be apart. To send letters to a future self who would either learn to be less sensitive (no luck) or find a way to gather courage crafting sentence after sentence (a work in progress) and to be brave, bold in facing the daily fear of being a contested guest in this world as a Black woman who is both cerebrally shy and also awkward, funny, and private.
Maybe the only thing I love more than good, old-fashioned letters is my privacy. Here, too, is another reason to love letter-writing: It is the last intimate connection that flourishes in a kind of private sanctuary. Talking on the telephone is a close second, but a snail mail letter operates outside of social media spectacle or the fraught environments where messages from strangers or work frenemies or bosses—like email or Slack or Teams—give in to their capitalist and commercial tendencies to bend any spare creative thought to the will of a brand-building exercise.
Finally, letters are intentional, revolutionary acts of love. They require the active participation of both author and reader. My inner contrarian is having a fit at the word “require!” But hopefully, the care and attention that comes with having a letter written just for you feels everything but obligatory. My wish for you, if you write a handwritten note, or you receive one, maybe even if you write and send such letters to yourself (guilty) is that you feel deeply cared for, attended to, that you see all letters written with such intention as the greatest love letters you have ever read.
Joshunda Sanders is the author of Women of the Post, inspired by the Six Triple Eight postal battalion, her debut novel, and five other books. Her work has appeared in the Bellevue Literary Review, Oxford American, the New York Times and many other publications. She is Senior Executive Communications Officer at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and lives in the Bronx, her hometown.
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