The Lost Art of a Handwritten Note

A couple of weeks ago I received a beautiful Christmas card in the mail. Its loveliness was outmatched only by the thoughtful handwritten two-page plus letter found inside. It read, in part, “This year I’ve vowed to send a handwritten note to special people in my life to let them know how I feel about them. Of course, it’s all good stuff!” (Whew. Exhale. Safe to proceed on…) The letter continued with my friend sharing heartwarming thoughts about our friendship and shared experiences.

Receiving that letter was the bright spot of my week, a week where I vowed to spend less time online. I’ve learned that, at times, I lean a little too hard on social media to fill emotional needs. It can quickly become an outlet, a distraction, to avoid doing the work that God has called me to do here at home. I’ll still hang around on Twitter and Facebook, and I’ll still frequent my favorite blogs because I do enjoy and find spiritual benefit in those activities. But I’m attempting to set boundaries and better guard my time while hanging around those spaces.

Then that gift of my friend’s handwritten letter arrived, and it was all a bit of confirmation that no matter how much a friendship might grow through online correspondence, in one way or another, we must be present to our friends. Think about it this way — we are an incarnational people. Meaning, because we have physical bodies, we’re sensory beings; we work through our senses. So God knew that it was best to send his Son in the flesh to live among us, to be a real historical figure. God’s love is not just some theory or idea. It is a flesh and blood reality that can be seen, heard, and wow, even touched. For if Jesus came in the flesh, if the Word become flesh, then so also must our faith and friendships be in the flesh.

Think about the following for a moment: there’s a bit of sacramentality both to the process of handwriting a letter and receiving and reading one that keeps us in touch with the physical dimension. My friend’s kind gesture of taking the time to sit down and handwrite all those letters reminded me of a post I wrote for CatholicMom.com last fall about the lost art of a handwritten note. I feel called to republish it here today.

(Note to self: Remember my friend’s idea for Christmas 2014. Heck, let’s start now! St. Valentine’s Day is right around the corner after all.)

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Handwritten Notes

Originally published September 3, 2013 at CatholicMom.com

I often ponder the letters of spiritual direction written and shared between St. Francis de Sales and St. Jane de Chantal. Through their written correspondence, these two powerhouse saints developed a great spiritual friendship. Their letters have even been compiled and presented together in a book for the contemporary world to learn from and enjoy.

Perhaps I have something of a wistful romantic attachment to letter writing as a relic of a bygone era. Over the past few weeks, I have received what I consider rare treasures — handwritten thank you notes from a few family members and friends. I consider them rare as more often than not, notes of gratitude received these days tend to be delivered by way of email and Facebook. Looks like I’m not alone. According to the U.S. Postal Service’s annual survey, the average home only received a personal letter once every seven weeks in 2010, down from once every two weeks in 1987.

With so many digital means of communication available at the touch of a button, taking the time to write a thank you letter by hand and send it via snail mail may seem antiquated. And maybe I’m just naïvely digging in my heels hoping the elegant simplicity of a handwritten letter will not become a lost art. Admittedly, any type of thank you note is better than none, but why not do something that’s great and handwrite your thanks?

The “etiquette police” agree. Ann Landers says it is always correct to send a personal, handwritten note. Emily Post suggests that, “The letter you write, whether you realize it or not, is always a mirror which reflects your appearance, taste and character.” Indeed, viewing someone’s handwriting is a window into his or her personality. Some of the finer examples of cursive could probably even be considered a form of art. Case in point: John Hancock.

Speaking of that famous signer of the Declaration of Independence, did you know that the new Common Core State Standards, a set of national benchmarks for American public schools, do not require students to learn cursive? I wonder if, in a couple of generations, people will even be able to read the Declaration of Independence. I sure hope my children will have that ability, and given I’ll most likely be the one to provide cursive instruction to them, I might as well give myself as many opportunities as possible to practice my penmanship and cursive.

I’ve noticed when I do sit down to craft a letter or thank you note, my five-year-old typically takes an interest in what I’m doing. She wants to know what I’m writing and why. Then she’s very eager to help me fold the note, stuff it in the envelope, put the stamp on it, and walk it to our neighborhood’s cluster of mailboxes for the postal carrier to collect. Why does she find this activity so fascinating?

I’d suggest it speaks to our nature. We’re an incarnational people; we work through our senses. The process of sitting down and writing a letter requires picking up a pen and putting words to the page, feeling the texture of the stationary and envelope, licking the envelope, and physically walking it to the mailbox. There’s a bit of sacramentality both to the process and the written word that keeps us in touch with the physical dimension.

Hopefully engaging my daughter in this process is organically fostering in her a sense of gratitude. And can’t we all use opportunities to practice a little more gratitude? With both a baby soon on the way and the holidays right around the corner, I suspect opportunities will abound here at Das Schmidt Haus to express our collective gratitude. As much as I might be tempted to shoot a quick note via Facebook or email when treated to a kind gesture of hospitality or generosity, certainly such efforts are worthy of at least fifteen extra minutes of my time. So I’m taking on a personal challenge and giving myself permission to view these upcoming events as opportunities to handwrite notes of thanksgiving. I hope those extra minutes strengthen relationships, improve my cursive skills, and continue to foster a five-year-old’s fascination for letter writing.

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