I have a collection of letters in a drawer. Letters written to me by my husband in the early days of our romance, when he was travelling overseas and I was in Canada, before we decided to combine our lives. Others are small notes from my daughter, cards and scraps of paper, where she’s written lists of things she loves, or little messages to me. And, wonderfully, there is a letter from my grandmother, received many years after she died, when my uncle found it among her things and sent it to me.
All of them filled with stories. Stories of love and caring and growth and loss. Written in ink on paper in strong hands, curling hands, hesitant hands still learning their letters. Each one unutterably precious to me, releasing memories each time I read them.
One of my favourite books, A Venetian Affair, is a true story built from letters found in the attic of a crumbling palazzo, sent by the owner’s ancestor centuries before to the woman he loved but was unable to marry. History is built on accounts of events from those who were there, but also on the smaller stories found in letters and diaries, details of everyday life that give us a more complete picture of how our forebears lived. Consider how many civilisations are lost to us, simply because their words are lost. The Great Library of Alexandria was partially burned by Julius Caesar, then lost to decline and the rise of Christianity. Spanish missionaries burned priceless Mayan texts, considering them to be un-Christian. The oral traditions of the bards of this island were almost lost, until someone wrote them down. Even so, what remains is only a partial picture of what was. Words are important.
But now we live in a digital age. We have mostly lost the joy of receiving a note from afar, of coloured stamps and spice-scented notepaper, of bright ink on a pale translucent page. Letters have become emails, notes and invitations text messages. Experiences, memories and emotions all swirl through a digital forest of words, deleted, edited, lost forever. Will our descendants be able to comb through these words to find out who we are? Or will we just be known as the Plastic Age, our lives pieced together from packaging slogans and shopping bags from landfill? We are better than that, surely.
Of course, people do still write letters and send cards and keep diaries. But so much of what we write is online these days, including this blog. And we cannot keep chopping down forests to use as shopping lists or toilet tissue or yesterday’s news. But we can choose recycled paper and vintage note sets, or recycle old Christmas and birthday cards into notepads so they can be born again. So make your mark on the page, share your words, write a note to someone you love, or hate. Splash ink and pencil shavings and sealing wax, tie it with a ribbon, stick on a stamp.
But don’t let our words be lost.