“Love you and miss you loads! Can’t wait to hear more adventures next week! XOXO…”
When was the last time you sent someone a letter? I don’t mean birthday cards or thank you notes. When was the last time you sent a loved one a handwritten letter and kept a correspondence going through snail mail?
I would imagine only a few people still communicate through this outdated medium, but letter-writing remains a timeless mechanism that can bridge an emotional and physical gap between two people.
Letter-writing has played a particularly important role in the resurgence of my relationship with my older sister, Adina. Other than the occasional argument that most siblings have at one point or another, we didn’t have a lot of issues growing up. Our strong bond as brother and sister was rooted in listening to mashups of pop songs, watching “America’s Next Top Model” and making each other laugh, often to annoy and vex our parents.
After she left for college, however, our conversations became sporadic, and I began to see the limitations of our communication and our closeness. I would only get to see her during school breaks or religious holidays. It was in her absence that I realized how little I knew about what was going on in her life.
Being the younger sibling, I didn’t think to ask about whom she was dating or her thoughts on current events. Selfishly, I figured that it wasn’t my place to inquire about such ideas. As a result of this apprehension, we began to drift apart.
What I value most in my relationship with my sister — other than the sweet childhood memories we share and our similar tastes in music and TV — is the necessity for transparent communication. More specifically, the necessity for our exchanges to be more than just the generic “Hey, how are you?” The necessity of openly discussing heavy, hot-button issues and our current pop culture obsessions. I was looking to evolve our older-younger sibling dynamic into something akin to a mature close friend-colleague-type relationship.
During my first two years of college, my sister and I hit a rough patch. We weren’t talking or texting each other much. Often, I wouldn’t get a response to a text I sent her until two days after. When we did talk, it was always at an inconvenient time and typically the same one-sided conversation: I’d tell her at length about my life at the moment and she’d only tell me vague details about hers. Our lives couldn’t have been more different — me, being a college student and her, working as a high school special education teacher in Seattle. Given the weight of daily stresses straining our routines, our conversations became inert.
What bothered me wasn’t just that our communication lacked depth and dynamism, but that somehow our closeness as siblings was gradually dissolving because of lack of communication. We both knew it, yet neither of us wanted to admit it or confront it because it would open up all kinds of uncomfortable wounds that had been deeply suppressed from years of reticence.
On a family vacation in Palm Springs last winter, the rut deepened into an all-time low. Our conversations quickly went from tepid to passive aggressive to hostile. Tension stirred between us during long bouts of simmering angry silence on the drive there and back. Staying in the same hotel room for a few nights didn’t help either. We were acting as if we weren’t even siblings anymore, just two disgruntled young adults who happened to be related to each other.
After we apologized and reconciled, things got somewhat better. We both recognized each other’s needs: She wanted me to ask more mindful questions and I wanted her to give me more thorough answers. Still, something was missing, especially when our discourse returned to its normal, lackluster state.
During this past spring semester, I attended the New England Literature Program, a six-week academic retreat in the woods of New Hampshire, where technology was nonexistent and the only means of outside communication was via letter-writing. Along with the other elements of the program, I found the tech-free environment particularly exciting and liberating. Not only would I get the chance to experience life without my phone or computer, but also I would learn to connect with my friends and family outside NELP through physical, handwritten letters — the “old-fashioned” way.
When I wrote my first letter to Adina, in addition to the rest of my family, I instantly noticed a change in the way I communicated. My inner thoughts flowed more fluidly from my fingertips. I paid closer attention to the kinds of words I used to describe my experience away from home, integrating daily anecdotes with pensive, personal reflection. I felt like a better version of myself writing these letters. And when I received my first reply from Adina in the mail, I grew giddy. She wrote a long, thoughtful response back, asking me questions about the experiences that I shared with her and divulging her own vivid stories about her early summer days.
I loved the letters she sent me, because I, too, believed Adina was the best version of herself in her letters. I felt her dynamic spirit in the way she emphasized her emotions through capitalized words and multiple exclamation points. I sensed her compassionate attention to detail in the way she asked me about the classes I was taking on New England authors, weekly camping trips and other various activities. But perhaps most importantly, I learned so much more about her from how thorough she was in recounting her day-to-day happenings. Her letters made me feel a lot less lonely and alienated in our siblingship, and I’d like to believe she harbors a similar feeling.
In one of Adina’s last letters to me at NELP, she proposed that we keep writing letters to each other after the program was over. At first, I was a little unsure — why keep corresponding through letters when we could just text, call or FaceTime? It sounded redundant, but I figured I’d give it try, since I enjoyed writing to her anyway and wanted to see if it would further develop our revitalized closeness.
Post-NELP, we continued writing letters, giving descriptive accounts about what we were both up to since our last correspondence. Soon, we texted more frequently and direct-messaged funny memes to each other. I stopped getting mad at her when she wouldn’t respond to my texts, because there was more than just one line of communication. Now, our day to day felt riper and livelier. Through Twitter and texting, we talked about our pop culture icons (some of our favorites are Issa Rae, RuPaul and Fiona the Hippo), exchanged ideas for tweets and discussed our thoughts on relationships and current events.
As slow and time-consuming as writing letters may be, they have the power to open up a whole new channel in an emotionally dormant relationship. Even if technology offers a faster route for communication, there is something so authentic, so cathartic and so gratifying about handwriting a letter to someone, awaiting their response and then reading their reply over and over again. Sure, the process requires some extra patience, effort and commitment. Conflicting schedules might lengthen the waiting period. But letter writing shouldn’t feel like a chore. Rather, think of it as a regular conversation, one in which you and another person can make up for lost time.
“I can hear your voice through your words. I’ll write back as soon as I can.”