Bass Mitchell: A love of letters

Bass Mitchell

It’s all too rare these days. What? Checking your mail and finding an actual letter. I don’t mean a form letter from the innumerable sources out there trying to get my money. I mean a real letter – something someone actually sat down and wrote to me with me in mind.

Recall what it was like to get a letter from home when you were at college. Just seeing it in that usually empty mailbox, recognizing the hand of someone who loved you and was thinking of you, and then finding those words from someone’s heart. And if it contained money, so much the better.

A letter was and is something to savor, to hold, to read over and over, to keep as a cherished treasure. Mine are in folders where I regularly come across them and pull them out to read and to remember.

I fear that the fine art of letter writing is almost dead. I am not sure why. Perhaps the advent of email has hastened its demise or the increasing cost of stamps. But it is more likely that we have become such busy people that we will no longer take the time that a letter requires. In so doing I think we have lost something most precious and meaningful.

Although I love email and use it often, it does nothing for me like a letter, which I can hold, that the writer had to sit down and take precious time for each word and phrase. A letter is a gift, you see, a gift of yourself. You send a part of yourself in it. So, when I actually get one, I know someone held that paper. Their eyes looked upon each page. They breathed on it and maybe a tear stains it. Each letter is unique, a one-of-a-kind, a limited edition. Each one is priceless.

Letter writing was the email of the past – about the only way to communicate (carrier pigeons were not all that reliable and were, well, messy). Imagine what we would lose without the letters of the past. They are living history, from which we learn so much about the people and times before us – all through correspondence. Ken Burns, for example, did a wonderful Civil Wars series, a video documentary, that was so powerful because throughout it he used the actual letters from soldiers and families of that time.

No doubt those letters have become treasured family heirlooms, a connection with persons they have only heard of in a genealogical list, yet somehow mysteriously traverse the years to come to them.

I trust you have such letters. Perhaps not as old, but precious to you still. I do.

One letter was from a dear friend. I was looking for a job and facing an important interview. He knew this and wrote me. I still take it out of the old blue envelope in which he sent it and find still inspiration from his words, “Just be yourself. That’s good enough for anyone. Be yourself.” My friend died soon after sending this.

Another treasure of paper and pencil was written by my father to my mother years ago upon the death of her mother (my grandmother). In his unique slanted printing style I read these words to comfort her, “Your mother was like a second mother to me. She gave me many wonderful gifts. But her greatest gift to me was you…”

So, I have maintained this custom from the past. I am a man of letters. I collect them. I write them. “Notes to Folks,” I call them. I make it a practice to write persons in my congregation as a part of my ministry. And in each letter I breath a blessing; I pour a portion of my own spirit. Each one is a heart-felt prayer. Often I have found that they were received in like manner and carried blessings far beyond what I had imagined.

There is something mysterious, even spiritual about letter writing. Somehow heart, mind, hand and spirit are joined together with paper and pen to express words and feelings that are beyond description but somehow do find a voice and hearing. Letters are small, intimate miracles.

I have hope that this art of letter writing does not have to stay lost, that it can and is being rediscovered. For as I sat to write these words, I thought of the little boy who writes his own little card and letter to his grandmother each week. He has done this, on his own, for three years. And she writes him back. They are creating treasures they will long cherish. That’s a tradition worthy of passing along to our children.

I encourage you to take up the pen and paper to write a letter. Re-learn or learn this art. Send a part of yourself to someone who has been on your heart and mind, who really needs to find something in their mailbox besides junk mail. Sure, the postage is going up and it will require your time. And maybe it will not end up in a Ken Burns film or the Smithsonian. But think of the joy it will bring to the one who receives it, for whom it may well become a blessing and treasure valued for years to come. And maybe, when the postman comes again, there will be a treasure in paper and pen for you.

Bass Mitchell is a writer and United Methodist Minister. He lives in New Market.

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