The Wonders of Snail Mail

Image: Annie Spratt
by Cristina Montes

Even in this Internet age, I still send snail mail.

My attachment to this dying form of communication dates back to my formative years. After having lived in the US for almost five years, my siblings and I had to return to the Philippines ahead of my dad to allow him to finish his Ph.D. studies. My dad’s frequent letters eased the pain of the separation.

My dad wrote about various things. He wrote about how deep the snow was during winter and how tired he was from shovelling it. He wrote about sampling a native dish made of fried worms during a trip to Mexico; the letter even had drawings of the worms and the step-by-step process of putting wrapping them in a tortilla, slathered with guacamole. He wrote stories: some purely silly ones, some with moral lessons. I remember the one about how a little oyster named Margarita made a pearl: it had a science lesson on pearl formation, and a moral lesson on how we make pearls that only God can see when we react cheerfully to irritations. It had a Latin lesson, too, as my dad included a footnote that said “Margarita means ‘pearl’ in Latin”. My dad’s letters kept present his humor, his wisdom, his sense of wonder at the world.

Because of this, snail mail has stuck in my consciousness as a lifeline to people we care for but who live far away. As I was growing up, I coped with impending separations — from yayas who went home, from classmates during summer vacation, from relatives who moved away — by asking for mailing addresses.

Not all people whom I wrote maintained a continuous correspondence. But there were those who did, and to this day, we remain very good friends.

Today, I also use e-mail and social media to keep in touch with people. I cannot deny that these means are more convenient. But I still occasionally send snail mail, especially during Christmas time. I remain convinced that it can connect people in ways that more advanced technology cannot.

E-mails and posts on social media cannot conjure a person’s presence in the same way that snail mail can.

Whenever I receive a letter, especially a handwritten one, I receive something tangible that the sender has actually thought out, handled, written, and sent with his or her desires to be present enclosed.

When I write a letter, the time and effort spent thinking of things that the recipient –he or she alone, in particular — would like to read about, and actually writing it down, revives the pleasure of companionship. In this day of superficial interactions, time spent writing down a letter — and it does take more time than clicking on a link on Facebook — is time spent slowing down and thinking of and with someone else instead of just oneself. As St. Josemaria Escriva wrote,

“You praised the ‘letter-apostolate’ very highly when you wrote: ‘I just can’t manage to fill the pages with stuff likely to help the friend I’m writing to. When I begin, I tell my guardian Angel that all I want is that my letter may do some good. And even if I only write nonsense, no one can deprive me — or my friend — of these moments spent praying for what I know he needs most.’”

The habit of letter-writing is also a way to improve one’s communication skills. There are a number of good writers in my family, and I think they are good writers because they are frequent letter writers. In the past, when one could not upload pictures on Facebook of what one ate or what one saw during a trip, for example, one had to describe it using words. Because of this, the letter-writing generation developed skills of description and exposition. While it would be a hasty generalization to conclude that this Instagram generation does not verbally express itself as well as the older generations, the maxim “practice makes perfect” applies in writing as in all other activities, and letter writing is an enjoyable way to practice writing.

This does not mean, however, that one must be a Shakespeare to write a letter that the recipient would enjoy reading. Nor should letters be long. Ultimately, what touches the heart is the effort to write and mail a letter that arises from a sincere desire to be present to someone else, despite physical distances.

As much as we wish we won’t ever get separated from the people we love, it cannot be avoided this side of heaven. The existence of social media is hardly a consolation in times of impending separation from a loved one. But I am grateful that there is a way — a way that has been effectively used since time immemorial — to keep in touch that, while not exactly replacing physical presence, definitely comes close to doing so.

Perhaps there is someone you know and love and whom you have not gotten in touch with for a long time, who would be happy to receive something in the mail that is not a bill, a solicitation, or a court process. You will not regret the time and effort spent writing and mailing him or her a letter. The recipient may not respond, but he or she will surely “smile before opening”, as we used to scribble outside the envelopes of our letters.

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