As a child, I had many penpals. At one point when I was in elementary school, I had a penpal in nearly every state. I learned about the differences that form the fabric of the United States. Later, in high school, I had penpals in France, Germany, Mexico, and India. I learned about cross-cultural differences and practiced using the languages I was studying: French, German, Spanish. Writing the letters, putting them in an envelope, putting a stamp on the envelope, stuffing the letter into the mailbox, and then waiting for a response provided entertainment, suspense, and charm that does not seem to be reflected in today's world of the electron.
Today I do not have penpals. Rather, having worked in 24 countries, I have friends all over the world. I can practice Arabic with friends in Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, Qatar, Egypt, and Bahrain; Russian with friends in Russia, Ukraine, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and Moldova; Spanish with friends in Ecuador (and the USA for that matter); Portuguese with friends in Brazil; German with friends in Germany and Austria; and so on and so forth. In some cases, as is the situation with friends in Cambodia and Thailand, where I do not speak the local language, my friends get to practice their English with me. Our words fly back and forth instantaneously, and there are times that we are on line (Skype, Facebook, gmail, etc.) at the same time and can IM each other or even, as in the case of Skype, see each other as we talk aloud. It is, indeed, a brave new world.
Still, I miss the charm of the handwritten letter. I rarely see a handwritten letter these days, but occasionally, very occasionally (as in once a year or so), one finds its way into my mailbox. When I pull these letters out, I feel another attribute beyond charm. Let me explain by describing two "correspondents" of recent years.
(1) A couple of years ago, after reading every one of Fr. Thomas's books that I could get my hands on (you can find a tally on the reading list I maintain on Mahlou Musings), I wrote to Fr. Thomas. What prompted me to do so was his book, Authenticity: A Biblical Theology of Discernment, that helped me to understand much better the locutions I have experienced and to know what to do about them. As I described in the post that contained his obituary, Sad News: Fr. Thomas Dubay, I typed a letter with reactions and questions and sent it to him. In near-immediate response, I received my letter back with handwritten comments on my comments and suggested answers on my questions. It was a shaky hand and a sincere one.
(2) A couple of months ago, a friend suggested that I write to Fr. Terry, my former 83-year-old de facto spiritual advisor/director, who had been transferred to a town on the other side of the mountains about an hour away and whom I missed, not having found anyone else in whom I could share some of the spiritual "oddities" that occur in my life. So, I typed off a two-pager, and off it went while I went off to Afghanistan. Upon return, I found a letter in my mailbox, addressed to me in shaky penmanship. It was from Fr. Terry. We have since been in additional correspondence about each other's lives, as well as spiritual matters, and Fr. Terry offered to drive over the mountain to have lunch together this coming Friday, which we shall indeed do. I am happy to be back in contact with Fr. Terry, even if only in slow-mail, handwritten mode. Fr. Terry has not fully entered the e-age. Perhaps he never will. It does not matter. If I have to wait for a handwritten response, that only increases the charm -- and suspense of the correspondence. His notes arrive in my mailbox in a shaky hand and a loving one.
There is much that the handwritten note gives away beyond its factual contents; factual contents could have taken e-format but the emotional content is often conveyed not in words but in the way the ink is laid down upon the paper. In the way the letters are made, one can see the character of the writer -- urgent, leisurely, tenative, bold, loving, sincere... In the smoothness or lack thereof of the pen strokes, one can sense the age of the writer. There is far more than just old-world charm in the handwritten letter. There is an intimacy of personal revelation that one cannot avoid as the hand of the writer guides the pen in drawing word-pictures for the reader. One cannot but feel the touch of the writer's hand.