Tuesday, September 14, 2010


In the old times, long before the advent of telephones, telegraphs, and even something as ordinary today as newspapers, there was one written form of communication that kept humanity connected: personal letters. Communicating our news, our thoughts and fears, our hopes, our daily lives, our plans was important, as it still is. But since people not in our immediate presence couldn't be contacted privately and directly back in the old days, we couldn't stay in touch unless we wrote a personal letter--signed, sealed, and delivered by one human being to another.

A piece of paper: the magical link to keeping humanity together, in touch mentally, emotionally, spiritually!

How easy it is for today's texters and e-mailers to forget that personal one-on-one communication wasn't always an instant thing. It wasn't always easy, wasn't something we could do while standing in line to get a cup of coffee and rush to work.

Anyone with anything of import to say, back in the old days, said it in letters. Important people, rich people, business people. Lovers arranging a tryst, and husbands and wives missing one another. Doctors sharing information about a patient's illness, attorneys discussing an inheritance, scientists describing a new discovery. Friends and family and neighbors writing about the vicissitudes of daily life and their commitment to navigating one day after another. Staying in touch was harder, of course, if you were poor and didn't have paper and ink. But everyone with these fundamental items--paper and ink--was practically assured that he or she was tethered to someone else of importance in life, no matter how far away that person was.

How easy it is for us today to forget the tremendous importance of these simple pieces of paper, so fragile and ephemeral as physical things, in our understanding and appreciation of mankind, of the history of humanity, of our evolution as societies flung far and wide. Letters delivered, read, shared, discussed. Stained with tears of sadness at tragic news, or with tears of joy at love professed. Folded in apron pockets, or soldiers' tunics, or within the folds of magistrates' or emperors' flowing robes. Opened and re-opened, tucked away in dusty boxes or drawers. Or torn in anger or despair, a piece of paper destroyed for the words it carried. How amazing it is that letters survived, tied with ribbons and scented with perfume, or stuffed into trunks in attics, or placed in books for memory's sake.

Generation after generation, century after century, eon after eon, these elemental, simple pieces of paper carried literary DNA's of our human connectedness and evolution. That old letters survived at all is another realization to startle us, to amaze us with its implausibility, to make us marvel at how this early form of communication among the masses--so widespread, yet so personal and private--kept humanity linked.

Letter-writing as it was in the old days--the taking of pen or pencil in our hand to set our thoughts to paper--may fully become a lost art someday, as things seem now. Our fingers clicking on plastic while words form magically on lighted screens will also someday seem archaic. But let us never forget the immense power of people wanting to communicate, the indestructibility of their ancient means of doing so, and the permanence of something so impermanent as mere pieces of paper.

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