The Evolution of Correspondence
In January 2000, I accompanied my husband on a business trip to Paris. While he was in meetings, I wandered around the city. A bitter wind blew through the streets. I'd lived in the South Pacific for just a year, but my blood had already thinned. I took refuge in the Musée d'Orsay and the churches of St. Germain. One afternoon, I happened upon a postcard market at Les Halles. Thousands of hand-tinted vintage postcards were for sale. Despite my strong aversion to accumulation, I couldn't resist buying a few. I chose them for the pictures. The words written upon them were simply an address or the words had faded into obscurity. Except for one.
Monday 30 December 1918
I'm sending you this card to give you my news which is excellent at the moment and I hope it's the same for you. I'm leaving for Angers next Wednesday and from there I will go to visit Mom in Paris around January 15th. Because I have no more work in Beaupréau. The boss' son where I work came back from the war, so I left because there isn't enough work for everyone. Soon I will go to a neighboring village to see if they need anyone to work in a locksmith shop. If not, I'll probably stay in Paris. I'll take advantage of this card to wish you a Happy New Year and a speedy return to your loved ones and I hope I will soon have the pleasure of seeing you. Best wishes – Henri.
So much history in so few words. These momentary tidings have survived for almost a hundred years.
I used to have a small collection of postcards. Most of them were from my wandering sister Pebby. Others were from friends I had met along the way, most of whom I had lost touch with. When I got married and moved overseas, most of the postcards fell victim to a ruthless purge. Sentimentality is a luxury that a nomad cannot afford. I kept only the most significant: my future husband's tender dispatch from New Caledonia, which was sent after we first met; the last communication I would ever have from my friend Breezy in Guam. It reached me a few days after I had heard of her tragic death; and the wackiest of those from Pebby's zany adventures. I saved some letters and cards from my mother, which had kept me going during the dark days in California. My father's letters – filled with the unnerving poetry of schizophrenia – also remain. Everyone else is stored in the vault of memory. Their exact words have blurred with time, but their spirit lingers. Maybe they've forgotten, but I haven't.
Once upon a time, I was an ardent letter writer. As a child, I wrote to my aunts and uncles who had moved across the country. Their rare replies brightened my lonely universe. It didn't matter what they had written. The message had traveled from someplace else. This habit lasted into adulthood. Letters from family and friends in Michigan filled the California void. When I left California, letters and postcards from the friends I had met there followed me. Until faces and memories dimmed and vanished, and there was really no point, anymore.
For many years, I had a recurring dream about a lost letter. It was adrift in transit, or maybe I had misplaced it. The contents were something that I had been waiting to hear for a long time. Something that would make everything okay. I was always loved and never knew. In the dream, I wandered through a labyrinth of corridors and staircases and rooms. Resolute, but bewildered. In the process of searching, I lost myself. Have you seen it, I'd ask the faceless entities that drifted by. Where could it possibly be? I would tell myself that I must remember to search for it when I awaken. However, when the gauze of sleep wore off and consciousness solidified, it became clear that no such letter ever existed.
Words sent on a journey. A connection between two people. Few things are more intimate and thoughtful. It doesn't always matter what's written. Even in the pre-internet days, people wrote about what they had eaten for dinner, the things they had bought, and the antics of the family cats. The banalities of daily life are more poetic when handwritten in a unique script. The inadvertent designs added to the narrative: coffee rings, cigarette ash smudges, and ink blots. Dried teardrops. Wisps of evaporated perfume or crushed flowers. The smooth texture of a wax seal. There was something personal in the act of moving a pen across stationery, looking up an address, placing it a mailbox, and raising the red flag.
The evolution of correspondence can be illustrated through Christmas greetings. In the past, an evening or weekend afternoon was set aside to write them out. For there were so many. Everyone deserved a short personal note inside. In the 1980s, people began to send photocopied letters that recapped the previous year's news. When the internet appeared, these letters became one mass email. Nowadays, people post a general greeting on their own Facebook page and call it good.
Communication has become a broadcast. Messages are for an audience rather than an individual. Many articles have been written about the disappearance of true interaction. Studies have shown that those who aren't on social media are literally forgotten. It would be easy to decry this shift. However, there were always those who never wrote back. People who forgot about you. Maybe social media has given those who wouldn't have otherwise made an effort a way to stay in touch. Those of us who abstain need to accept the consequences. Surrender to oblivion.
Facebook. It reminded me of a boisterous party. Everyone talking over each other. I walked in, made a quick lap, and then slipped out the back door. Few people noticed. Out of about a hundred people who were on my friend list, I remain in touch with five. Instead of disappointment, however, there is a profound sense of liberation. It feels good to know where I stand and on whom to focus my energy. My words are no longer wasted.
Handwritten letters have all but vanished. With the rise of messaging apps and Instagram, is the age of the postcard also coming to an end? If there is hope for its survival, it lies with the collectors. When I travel, postcard racks still beckon. I spin them around and, if an image catches my eye, I'll buy it for someone. I ponder every message. What might this person like to know about the location and my journey? It doesn't matter where it ends up – tossed in the trash, tucked in a book, hung on a wall, displayed in a future marketplace. They are all sent forth on their voyage with love.