A Vanishing World

Fossil shells on rock

“To touch the soul of another human being is to walk on holy ground”

Stephen R Covey

 You won’t be surprised to hear that I am a huge fan of Christmas. As soon as the schools are back, I’m eagerly and excitedly searching the shops and the internet for this year’s cards. My selection criterion is simple – it has to make me feel Christmassy, so the more glittery, colourful and sparkly the better.

Every year we have the same debate in our household – do I really need to buy and send so many Christmas cards, especially to people we haven’t seen for years ? My answer is a very definite “Yes”.

For me, Christmas is not about the material things, it’s a chance to share and connect friends and family. Often, with everyone’s busy lives and people living miles apart, Christmas cards become the once a year opportunity to do this. With the days getting colder and the evenings drawing in, it’s the one time of year when we feel more inclined to snuggle up on the sofa and between Strictly Come Dancing and Downton Abbey, put pen to paper.

Last week I found myself with a couple of hours to kill and unusually, I had nothing with me to read. I ventured into a newsagent’s and spied a magazine that I hadn’t read before – “Psychologies”. In it was a review about a book due out on 24th October, called “To the letter: A journey through a vanishing world” by Simon Garfield.  In the book Garfield discusses letter writing and the personal, physical touch it delivers;

 “This is not a letter but my arms around you for a brief moment”  Katherine Mansfield (as quoted by Simon Garfield)

  Perhaps I am just a product of my all-girls high school, Jane Austen rich education, but I just love letters – receiving, reading and writing them. Someone has invested their time and energy in handcrafting something personal. What saddens me greatly is that letter writers seem now to be on the endangered species list.

During the past few years my parents have shared letters with me that they’ve inherited from family members. They are pure gold – full of raw emotion, passion and dreams. As they’ve been written the ink has sealed in tiny pieces of their author’s soul, just like prehistoric insects immortalised in amber.

One set of letters is from my grandmother to her younger sister, many written during the war. There are accounts of her having to talk herself out of trouble with her commanding officer for elicit nights out. In one letter she introduces the wonderful soldier she’s madly in love with (my grandfather) and asks her sister to use her ration coupons to help her put together her wedding trousseau. My mum and I sat one afternoon whilst I read them out, and we laughed and we cried.

Having talked about the joy of receiving and reading letters, let’s explore what writing the letters has to offer.

“We write to taste life twice. In the moment and in retrospect” Anais Nin

 Research, and my experience, tells me that the act of writing accesses our left brain – analytical and rational, which then frees up our right brain to create, intuit and feel. This provides us with clarity of thoughts and feelings, reduces stress and helps us solve problems more effectively. As Anais Nin points out in the quote above, writing also allows us to “taste life twice”.

The method of writing is an important consideration. In our high-tech world, it is much easier (and cheaper) to write using our PCs/tablets and to send things by e-mail. I might be alone in this, but I am a hundred times more excited and appreciative when I receive a hand-written, personal letter by “snail-mail”. Perhaps it is because it’s now so rare to see anything other than bills and junk-mail lying on our doormats.

I am hopeful that all is not lost. That Mistress Technology, with all of her whizzy gizmos and gadgets, hasn’t hypnotised us all into thinking she’s now the only show in town. As the following article explains there are actually benefits to writing by hand:

“The Week” (Jan 16th 2013) Chris Gayomali – “Four benefits of writing by hand”

  • It’s better for learning – putting ink to paper stimulates the Reticular Activating Centre which lights up areas of the brain associated with learning;
  • It makes you a better writer: 2009 University of Washington study showed that students wrote more, faster and in more complete sentences by hand;
  • It prevents distraction (e.g. Facebook isn’t flashing up);
  • It keeps your brain sharp by engaging motor-skills and memory.

 “Fill your paper with the breathings of your heart” William Wordsworth

 Sending cards at Christmas can be the perfect time to include a handwritten note or letter, crafted just for that person. Written from the heart, it can have great power. It can “touch the soul of another human being”. Perhaps it can also create something to pass down through the generations, just like my family’s letters have done.

There are 13 weeks until Christmas. Plenty of time to get your pens charged with ink, to sharpen your pencils and build your stack of letters full of news, views, thoughts and dreams.

But let’s not stop there.

Steve Toepfer, of Kent State University in Salem, undertook research on the benefits of writing letters of gratitude.  He found that when people wrote three letters of gratitude per week, each week their levels of well-being, happiness and life satisfaction increased and levels of depression decreased.

So, once the Queen has done her speech and our Christmas pudding has gone down, perhaps we should start work on our beautiful, handwritten “thank you” letters.

Have a great week.

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One thought on “A Vanishing World

  1. What a thoughtful piece Loretta – you have reminded me how much I love a proper letter. I have kept some of the letters that my mum sent me when I was at university (way back when email wasn’t even a twinkle in anybody’s eye!). I read them every so often, and it’s just like mum is talking to me, across the years. All the more special now that she isn’t around.

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