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A channel of pure thought

William Stewart | Tuesday, April 13, 2010

I spent the last summer away from home. The completion of the term sent me down and back up again through the country, living, for various reasons, with 11 different host families, nights beneath 11 alien roofs. During those hot and sunny months, I became acutely aware of my distance from places and people familiar. This awareness was not a shock or a burden, but an amazement at the distances to which I was now connected by virtue of the presence of my friends and acquaintances. To be honest, I liked the feeling that accompanied the knowledge that a zip code or the jurisdiction of a city no longer defined my world. Perhaps, then, my interest in composing and mailing enveloped letters was motivated by a desire to indulge this impression of worldliness, a desire to not choose the instant gratification of emailed conversation, a desire to comprehend the distances of the people to whom I was attached, distances measured in postage marks and days between my writing and the delivery of the response.

So I wrote. Handwrote, dated, scribbled, composed, signed postcards, loose-leaf, stationary, note cards, photographs. I began correspondences with friends from school, siblings and complete strangers. To one person, Jeff, with whom my only contact had been through his amateur folk rock that I heard on YouTube and MySpace, a $20 bill and a haiku on my part yielded a heartfelt note, a hand-drawn spider on a CD of his recordings and a joke-telling dinosaur cut from purple construction paper.

Perhaps it is the mechanics of the Postal Service that fascinate me. Wrap up your thoughts in rectangle of paper, scrawl out three lines of names and numbers, smooth a colorful sticker onto the corner and, with nothing more than the action of opening and closing the mouth of an oddly-shaped, blue box, your little parcel arrives in the hands of its target. And usually in pretty good time, too. I find that purely mindboggling.

Or maybe it is the wealth of historical significance that stands behind each letter that I send that truly captivates me. My father worked as a mail-carrier during his college summers and would regale me with anecdotes of trucks with steering wheels adjustable for both sides of the car, uniform issue pith helmets, and the joy that came with spraying an overly aggressive dog. But I connect with more than just family tradition when I seal up the envelope. Each stamp I press is a shadow, a vestige of the galloping fury of American ingenuity and determination — the Pony Express. And that’s just romantic.

But no, what draws me the most to compose letters is the possibility that they embody.

A good friend began work in a third-world country after her graduation last spring. True, her inability to rely on consistent internet access dictated the appropriateness of snail-mailing, but, whether it was the extreme distance (and thus time) that would burden each letter or the absolute separation that such a letter would span, something about the situation illuminated the wonderful brilliance of the line of communication established by the post.

The two of us are separated by three years, by too many faces to paint, by a lifetime again of experiences and a thousand miles. Yet, what we hold in our correspondence is an opportunity at a channel of pure thought, a conversation between two minds. Admittedly, hints at lives, guesses at answers, but safety, certainty in the seal of the postage stamp and the knowledge that the addressed will read voraciously, and cherish and ponder, and bear the addresser through the day’s labor in echoey pen strokes on foreign paper.

In our case, a letter in the mailbox represents so much more than greetings and anecdotes. It embodies a dialogue completely denuded of any boredom or moodiness or annoyance that so often can burden the communication of our thoughts between those with whom we live. In the letters, we can choose our words carefully and depict ourselves patiently, as we picture ourselves and as we wish to be perceived by those around us. It is an ideal completely impractical in the physical world, in the relationship face-to-face, but it is a happy ideal afforded by some magic held within the seal of the back flap of an envelope.

William Stewart is a sophomore    majoring in the Program of Liberal Studies. He can be contacted at William.J.Stewart.90@nd.edu
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.