Let us consider letters….Life would spilt asunder without them. ….Byron wrote letters. So did Cowper. For centuries the writing-desk has contained sheets fit precisely for the communications of friends. Masters of language, poets of long ages, have turned from the sheet that endures to the sheet that perishes, pushing aside the tea-tray, drawing close to the fire (for letters are written when the dark presses round a bright red cave), and addressed themselves to the task of reaching, touching, penetrating the individual heart.
This, a very compressed selection from Jacob’s Room (each ellipsis marks a full paragraph), is my favorite bit from Woolf’s 1922 novel. I promised myself that writing this weblog must be also a commitment to writing to my friends more, not less, often. An entry here is easier to write than a proper letter and Woolf shows why: to really write a letter, one must try to reach the individual heart.
I’ve gotten some really good ones already in 2005: a long letter from a friend and former student on really fun paper, an envelope in an unfamiliar hand with “celle qui t’aime” where the return address should be, a postcard from a long-lost friend in Japan. Life would split asunder without such things. When I opened the note from “celle qui t’aime” and saw who had written it, I thought, with a blush of pleasure, “yes, that’s right, she does love me. And I, her. She is my friend.”
I have written more letters than usual in the past six weeks. Writing a good one takes concentration, but then, sometimes, a bad one will do. After all, a letter is a “sheet that perishes.” We may be trying to reach an individual heart, thinking about what that one person would want and need to hear, but the main thing we’re saying is “hey!”
Today I got a great, day-changing email from Italy. My friend there gave me the sunny, public, glam version of her day: all monuments and great pasta, and then the grouchy, February one (including a sick cat). The grouchy one is funny and reassuring (hey! my dog is sick…) but sunny one is spectacular. It reminded me of my girlhood pact with my grandmother: in lieu of keeping a diary, I wrote her letters. She was ill (with diabetes and all its attendant annoyances and worse), so I did not dare burden her with my woes: I just brightened everything up. It was cheering for us both.