Please Read the Letter

I came of age in a place called Dale City, Virginia. It was not actually a city, yet, but just another massive subdivision of Washington, D.C. The developer, C. D. Hylton, named it after the hills and dales of the once-rural farmland upon which it was built. Each sub-subdivision was a ‘dale’, the first being Ashdale, the second, Birchdale, the third, Cloverdale… you get the idea. My parents bought a townhouse in Birchdale in 1971 and later, in 1976, built a house in Lindendale. I remember Mapledale being built but that is where my Dale City timeline ended. There were over 8,000 homes in Dale City at the time, all connected by Dale Boulevard (of course). It was the epic American housing development.

Typically, your best friends lived in your dale, or the adjoining one, because they were all connected by roads and sidewalks. Birchdale, my dale, was fortunate in that we had the swimming pool, youth center and basketball court, and lived within walking distance of a shopping center. Bob Shoraga also lived in Birchdale, and we became good friends during middle school. We hung out at each other’s  houses, played basketball, went to the pool, ran around the woods down in the dale behind us (we were on a hill), shared a girlfriend (at different times), and generally had as good a time as possible in a vast, impersonal, poorly planned community. Later Bob’s parents bought a house in Ashdale which was connected by a walking bridge over the creek, so we still could hang out with little effort.

But then tragedy struck. Most of Dale City’s population was comprised of active or retired military, gainfully employed in the Washington, D.C. area. And as often happened, Dad either was transferred or retired. And one day Bob told me that his dad was retiring from the Air Force, and they were moving back to his hometown of Cerro Gordo, Illinois. You know, not far from Decatur. Or someplace. It was sad news, but we had both grown up that way so there was little weeping or gnashing of teeth.

Lacking email, Facebook, Instagram or text messaging, or the internet and cell phones needed for all that (interestingly, Dale City was among the very first subdivisions in America to have standard cable TV) we resorted to the old-fashioned method of pen and ink, envelopes and stamps, and the USPS as our means of communication. Bob would write me about the exciting life in his new town of about 1,400 people and regale me with stories of rednecks and cows and how totally awful it all was. Especially after life in the land of dales! I would write back and bring him up to speed on the land without cows (although Dale City was, indeed, built on old farm country that was once full of cows) and we would hatch plans for him to escape his rural torture at the hands of flatland hillbillies. Over time, the letters dwindled, and we lost touch for forty years, until the internet. But that is a story for another day.

The story for today is about written communication. If you are reading this, you know I enjoy writing for writing’s sake. Using the pen (or keyboard these days) is a good way to express in detail what I am currently pondering or feeling. My therapist Don is who got me focused on writing a blog in the first place, as a form of self-therapy, and the other day he changed it up a bit with a new idea – writing letters. Specifically, he suggested that written communication with my children and grandchildren would be a good idea, especially since we are spread out. Since I am paying him, I decided it was worth pursuing – I need to get my money’s worth, right?

But why write? In the day of the aforementioned email, Facebook, and text messaging, why put it down on paper? I gave it some thought and uncovered some particularly good reasons indeed to write it down.

1) It is permanent. All in the digital age is vapor and will ultimately pass away when your hard drive crashes, you get a new phone, or other digital calamity happens. And it will happen.

2) It is well-thought out. Have you ever sent a text that you wish you hadn’t? There are many politicians who wish they had not been so hasty. Writing lets you think, write, review, and edit. Especially with Word as your tool. Nothing gets sent that is not ready for prime time.

3) It is welcome. The modern generations, raised in the digital age, are happy to get a one-sentence text with a cute emoji. But do you remember getting a letter in the mail, with your name on it? And not from Mutual of Omaha or Shriner’s Hospital, but an actual person.

4) It is personal. Today it is too easy to either send group texts or to copy and paste. A letter is personal, custom-tailored to one person. It cannot be copied and pasted or forwarded. It is a gift to one lucky recipient alone.

5) It is powerful. You are able to say without reservation what you feel, without pause or interruption. The pen is indeed mightier than the sword, and as the Apostle Paul wrote, sometimes people are surprised at the authority of the written word:

 “For his letters,” they say, “are weighty and powerful, but his bodily presence is weak, and his speech contemptible.” 2 Corinthians 10:10

6) It is therapy. That’s right, it’s good for you, but not in the eat-more-fiber kind of way. It lifts your soul, opens your thought process, brings you a sense of accomplishment. You have created something from your mind and provided a blessing for another person.

In the words of Ralphie:

“Oh, rarely had the words poured from my penny pencil with such feverish fluidity.” The Christmas Story, 1983

Exactly right, Ralph Parker.

As moderns we take for granted all the electronic devices and media at our disposal, and yet all that stuff is only decades old. I bought our first home computer in 1997! Written communication has been around since, well, the written word. Any biography you read, any telling of history, any examination of the thoughts of men in days past, is usually centered on the written exchange between people. Letters from sea, letters from war, letters from explorations, letters from lovers. Letters about travel, letters about war, letters about adventures, and, most important, love letters.

Because it takes love to write.

So, I will take my therapist’s advice, and reach out with written communication. I will use a word processor, because my handwriting is largely illegible (although “rarely have the words poured from Word with such feverish fluidity” is not quite so poetic) but I will hand-write the address and lick the stamp (oh wait, stamps are self-stick these days). I believe I will start with the grandkids and then maybe branch out to the kids. I might even write a letter here and there to friends. I can’t promise the frequency, because writing takes time, effort and thought, but I think it will be good for me and good for those who receive my letters.

And, if you get one from me, please read the letter.

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