Wireless communication of a different sort

Out of necessity, my 21st-century teen tries his hand at an antique medium.

Karen Norris

Over the summer, one of my teenage son’s high school classmates lived and worked in a remote country place where she lacked reliable internet and phone service. Because it was hard to call or text his friend or reach her on social media, Will landed on an old-fashioned alternative to stay in touch. Once a week, he tried to sit down and write a letter.

That little phrase, “sit down and write a letter,” is one of our language’s most pleasant redundancies. People often text or email while standing, walking, or, sadly, driving. But the only practical way to write a letter is sitting down – in a posture of repose that encourages reflection, the blooming of a thought.

Writing letters helped my son think about a lot of things, including letter writing itself, a rare topic in our household, as it no doubt is in others. Except for thank-you notes and brief messages of condolence, I haven’t written a decent letter in years. 

When Will asked for stationery to get started, I struggled to remember where we stowed the paper and envelopes; it reminded me of the blank I draw each Thanksgiving when we have to find the heirloom gravy boat.

But once we fished the essentials from a shelf and Will biked to the post office for stamps – an errand that required us to recall just where the nearest post office was – he settled into a spot near the living room window and set to work.

That was his correspondence corner, the place where I’d routinely spot a 21st-­century adolescent with a sheet of paper on his lap, scribbling away. I could not have been more amazed if I’d encountered him churning butter or cranking a Model T.

Etiquette being what it is, I didn’t ask my son what he was writing to his friend. But I did ask him if writing a letter felt any different from writing an email, text, or post.

“What I’m learning,” he told me, “is that you don’t want to write about the news in a letter. By the time the letter gets where it’s going, the news has moved on.”

His insight would never have occurred to me, although its logic is airtight. Given the endless mutability of current events, a letter about the latest political gaffe or Hollywood scandal would travel about as well in first-class mail as a fillet of sole. To really succeed, a proper letter must nudge both the writer and the reader beneath the current of the headlines, into the more sustaining depth of domestic life, personal musings, private dreams. As my son wrote letters, I spent time in another corner of the house dipping into the essays of one of the world’s greatest letter writers, Virginia Woolf. 

Woolf, who died in 1941, worried in her own time that as communication became cheaper and easier, people would think less about what they were trying to say, forfeiting the ideal of letters that were “inducements to careful composition, to the finishing of sentences, the artful disposition of trifles, the polish of phrases, the elaboration of arguments and the arts of the writing master.” 

The texts and emails we now dash off by the dozens each day seem a grim fulfillment of Woolf’s fears.

I’m not giving up my smartphone and laptop, and I’d be lost without the convenience of connecting with multitudes each day with a few quick keystrokes.

But my 17-year-old reminded me this past summer that in an age of instant communication, snail mail still has its virtues.

Recently, Will returned to the boarding school where he spends most of his year. Tonight, I’m going to sit down and write him a letter.

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Dear Reader,

About a year ago, I happened upon this statement about the Monitor in the Harvard Business Review – under the charming heading of “do things that don’t interest you”:

“Many things that end up” being meaningful, writes social scientist Joseph Grenny, “have come from conference workshops, articles, or online videos that began as a chore and ended with an insight. My work in Kenya, for example, was heavily influenced by a Christian Science Monitor article I had forced myself to read 10 years earlier. Sometimes, we call things ‘boring’ simply because they lie outside the box we are currently in.”

If you were to come up with a punchline to a joke about the Monitor, that would probably be it. We’re seen as being global, fair, insightful, and perhaps a bit too earnest. We’re the bran muffin of journalism.

But you know what? We change lives. And I’m going to argue that we change lives precisely because we force open that too-small box that most human beings think they live in.

The Monitor is a peculiar little publication that’s hard for the world to figure out. We’re run by a church, but we’re not only for church members and we’re not about converting people. We’re known as being fair even as the world becomes as polarized as at any time since the newspaper’s founding in 1908.

We have a mission beyond circulation, we want to bridge divides. We’re about kicking down the door of thought everywhere and saying, “You are bigger and more capable than you realize. And we can prove it.”

If you’re looking for bran muffin journalism, you can subscribe to the Monitor for $15. You’ll get the Monitor Weekly magazine, the Monitor Daily email, and unlimited access to CSMonitor.com.

QR Code to Wireless communication of a different sort
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today