Illness, slow time, and the lost art of letter writing

From those nagging suspicions that surface as a call to action through uncomfortable scans and biopsies, the wait for results, the unfailing shock of diagnosis and, finally, treatment that invades and exhausts, there’s nothing like a life-threatening illness to bring perspective to one’s life.

My habits changed in 2011.  Right from the beginning, still reeling, I took stock, figured out which aspects of my life I have control of and which I don’t.  Where I have control, I take it; otherwise, I let it go.  I now connect more often with loved ones, and I connect better, speaking from the heart about things that count.  My husband and I argue less—the little things just don’t matter—and we embrace more, glad at every sunrise.  Before treatment and since I regained my strength, I’ve exercised with vigor, delighting in physical exertion and all it means: I’m here, now, alive.

The world looks and sounds different.  That’s because I’ve slowed down.  I take the time to look around, to listen.  The shift of light in swaying branches, distant birdsong, the squeals of neighborhood children, the elderly couple walking hand-in-hand—life is all around.

One day, early on in my ordeal, when I went to collect the mail, I was delighted to find among the bills and junk an envelope with my name scrawled in blue ink.  A friend had taken the time to send a card full of love and good wishes in an elaborate handwritten message.  Not only that, but she made the card herself using the cover of an old Silhouette Romance paperback.  Inside, she had glued a short passage from the book, a conversation between lovers about convention and risk taking, hilarious, terribly written prose that, out of the context of the novel, was just the message I needed at that moment.  I was so touched.  Over the next long weeks, a few other such letters arrived and became lifelines for me.

I began to yearn for the time not so long ago when letter writing was commonplace.  There have been times in my life when I wrote letters daily.  This was in the late 1980s when I lived and worked in Thailand.  Without the distractions of the Internet or TV or a telephone or any kind of nightlife, I managed to do quite a bit of writing during those years.  I sent out dozens of letters every week, hoping for, but not necessarily expecting, a reply.  I didn’t need an answer to feel a real connection with the people I loved.  It was enough to give them something of myself in a dashed off postcard or a crammed aerogramme or lengthy descriptions of my daily life on several pages of onion skin paper.

During the awful wars of the 20th century, vast machinery was created to get letters to and from soldiers.  Imagine the heightened emotion, the strange events, the care, the longing, the hope each of these letters held.  Imagine going to the letterbox, finding in the stack of correspondence the unique handwriting of the man you love.  Or what it meant to the soldier to hear his name called at mail time:  A letter from his fiancé had finally arrived!  Throughout the prodigious 19th century, letter writing was the most common form of communication.  In fact, by the end of the century, there were between six and twelve mail deliveries per day in London, permitting correspondents to exchange multiple letters within a 24-hour period (Murray’s Handbook to London As It Is).

Without ever having had any formal instruction, my children use a variety of keypads with aplomb—to text, to send instant messages, to dash off emails.  Even in school, when my youngest was assigned an overseas pen pal, she wrote her letter in Word and printed it out.  To me, something valuable has been lost to us.  Our words might be tidier and more readable, but what about our hearts?

There’s something wonderful about knowing that the page you hold in your hands was only a short while before sitting on the desk of a friend, bent over, brushed by the sweep of her hair.  Not only does the letter bear her handwritten words, her crossed out mistakes, the afterthought that climbs sideways up the page, but also her fingerprints, her perfume, maybe a tear, her breath.

A letter is a gift of self.  And of time.  Something we all need more of.


  1. Beautifully expressed, Adair! I still write letters by hand, not so many now, but there are some friends who don’t have access to computers. I love letters that have little drawings in them or illustrated envelopes even. Now that is rare!

  2. “It’s a hard thing to explain to somebody who hasn’t felt it, but the presence of death and danger has a way of bringing you fully awake. It makes things vivid. When you’re afraid, really afraid, you see things you never saw before, you pay attention to the world. You make close friends. You become part of a tribe and you share the same blood- you give it together, you take it together.” – Tim O’Brian

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