Tucked away in various corners of this old house are bundles of letters, held together by elastic bands or stuffed into a big envelope.
One of those bundles dates back more than 60 years. It was exchanges between two young people working in different communities the year before they married. That bundle of letters survived against all odds in the ensuing decades of their life together; it was even pulled from the burning barrel at the last minute, much to the delight of that couple’s grandchildren today.
It’s not because it’s steamy reading; in fact, it is pretty mundane. What is special about these letters is they offer a historical snapshot in the life and times of this family — glimpses of day-to-day living, the news events of the day and the reality that even 100 miles was a long way away in those times.
Another bundle of note is of airmail letters — as opposed to email — tiny scrawls on see-through paper exchanged between my 19-year-old self and my family while I was on an agricultural exchange to New Zealand more than three decades ago. Even by airmail, it took those letters up to nine days to cross the ocean between Canada and New Zealand in the late 1970s — and it was expensive for the times.
But those letters captured the emotions, the excitement, the homesickness and the adventures of that trip in such a way that makes them fun to read and reflect on now. They are like miniature time capsules.
Thirty years later, my own daughter took a similar trip to the land Down Under. Her communications home were by Facetime or Skype and occasionally by email. Those communications were instantaneous, rich and interactive, but fleeting.
There is no lasting record, except in our memories, of how her experiences changed her, helping her grow.
For all we’ve gained in immediacy — the instant access we have to all of our online friends and associates through venues such as Facebook and other social media — we are losing something valuable, as letters and the art of letter writing disappears from our culture.
Some social scientists worry that all of the conveniences offered by modern communications technology come at the expense of something else that’s precious — the art of conversation.
In his book The De-Voicing of Society: Why we don’t talk to each other anymore communications sciences professor, John L. Locke writes that we have become so accustomed to doing our communications and business online in the digital age that people have stopped talking, as in having a conversation, with each other.
“Intimate talking, the social call of humans, is on the endangered behaviours list,” Locke writes.
Conversations in a group of people include eye and facial expressions, hand gestures and the rise and fall of human voices as they make a point, or laugh. Capitalized words, exclamation marks and texted LOLs are a poor substitute.
In fact, many of us are starting to feel uncomfortable in social situations that require face-to-face conversation. Ever notice how many people automatically reach for their iPhone or BlackBerry as soon as there is a lull?
“Without intimate conversation, we can’t really know others well enough to trust them or to work with them harmoniously,” Locke writes. ”We also lose track of ourselves, our sense of humour, our own particular way of looking at things. Our society is poorer and more fragile for being voiceless.”
So while it came as no surprise to learn that Canada Post is eliminating urban door-to-door delivery as a cost-cutting measure in the face of declining mail volumes, we can’t help but think it might be a good thing. City folks will have to go to the box at the end of the street and actually meet their neighbours. Rural folks who have collected their mail from a post office for as long as we can remember know what happens when others converge on the same place at the same time with the same purpose in mind. They talk.
Usually, it is mundane grumblings over such things as the rising cost of postage stamps or the weather. But over time, as familiarity grows, they begin to talk about other things, such as their children or their views on community events or hot-button issues of the day. Sometimes they agree; sometimes they don’t. But they always walk away with a perspective they didn’t have when they came, often without even knowing it.
As those emails come in with people’s Christmas letters this holiday season, try printing out a few of them as hard copies. Just for fun, pull them out and read them again in a few years. And as your families and friends reconnect this holiday season try leaving the smartphones in the cloakroom.
On behalf of all of us at the Manitoba Co-operator may you have a happy holiday season full of conversation and laughter. We wish you the very best in 2014.