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Letters from the heart

Dawn, our magazine editor, sitting on a patio smiling

By Dawn Dimond, Editor of our member magazine

Since the new (ab)normal of social distancing and lockdowns, many of us have started to re-evaluate what’s most precious and meaningful in our lives – and hands-down, it’s our connection to others that we seem to be missing the most. We’re social animals, after all.

Sure, there’s been an unparalleled surge in digital contact, with Zoom, Skype, Facetime, WhatsApp et al enabling remote dinner parties, pub quizzes, birthday bashes and lord knows what else on screen. But we all know someone – and maybe you’re that someone – who is not plugged in and online.

My mum’s one of them. Now 83, she’s resisted all my entreaties for me to get her anything more than the most basic of mobile phones “for emergencies”. She would put learning to stab out and send texts in the same bracket as learning Mandarin while simultaneously juggling.

My mum has slight hearing loss, but not enough to rule out the phone, so she’s lucky. Undoubtedly, during the weeks to date (and counting) of her being shielded, totally confined to her third floor, one bed flat, it’s become the most important device she has – up there with the telly and the kettle. As her only family, the fact that I live 200 miles away has always been a nagging worry. Now I can’t even get going on my day until I’ve had the reassurance of speaking to her and checking how she’s doing.

But I’ve now established an alternative way of connecting with her. Not daily, as with our phone calls, it’s true, but one with a longer shelf life and probably more powerful impact – the good old posted letter.

Who doesn’t love a letter? The sort that has the Queen’s head and a handwritten address on the envelope; the sort that sticks out beacon-style among the bills and the junk mail.

Since Covid 19 brought the world to a standstill, many references and comparisons have been made to WW2 – a time when letters were essential in keeping war-separated families, lovers and friends connected. The letters that recorded our thoughts, then, serve as a record of our history now. Letters are a legacy in a way that digital communications are unlikely to be – after all, who prints out an email or saves a text to savour somewhere down the line?

Some of my most-cherished possessions are letters kept from different periods of my life – from a pen pal in Alaska, set up by our schools, when we were nine-years-old; from a primary school friend who moved to the other end of the UK when I was 11 and I’ve never seen since but who still writes at Christmas (giving me updates on her grandchildren). Most precious of all, the letters from my best friend, written when we were in our 20s. She lives on in them now, preserved in that rosy-hued capsule of time, three decades after her death.

If you’ve not put pen to paper for years, now is surely the time. If there is someone in your life who is isolated right now, not just by virtue of social distancing rules but exacerbated by deafness, hearing loss or tinnitus, then dig out your pen – and especially if that person has limited or zero experience of digital communication, or patchy/non-existent Broadband connection, and for whom the phone is mainly a source of frustration. Imagine, then, how welcome a sight that letter on the doormat.

A few reasons why a letter is special:

  1. There is nothing quite like the personal touch of a handwritten letter. Handwriting is unique to the individual, and requires a particular effort well beyond the scope of a downloaded font. But of course, if dexterity is an issue, or your handwriting, for whatever reason, illegible, then typing your letter might be the best option.
  2. Letter writing takes time, effort and reflection. A page or two of what’s in our head – of news, thoughts, love. What’s written in a letter can never be unread (or ‘unsaid’) which makes it incredibly powerful. A dashed off text or email will rarely reflect our feelings, reflections or realisations. Someone said ‘a letter is a talk on paper’ – so write it as you might speak, without worrying about perfect prose. It should reflect you and who you are, and the relationship you have with the person you’re writing to. Imagine them with you and what you would like to share with them if you were face to face.
  3. They are worth saving – to read over again and again. We tend to save letters in a way we never do with texts and emails. They get tucked away in drawers, files and boxes for later enjoyment. Even if we forget where they’re kept, there is real joy in finding them again and peering back through that extraordinary window to ‘the time when…’
  4. They outlive you Letters last. They can be passed on to the generations that come after. If the person you’re writing to can’t get out at all, consider including a stamped and self-addressed envelope, in case they’d like to write back. They could then leave their return letter outside with a note to the postal worker to send it on. Remember that post might be a bit slower to arrive at the moment, with postal workers at full stretch as the workforce is affected one way or another by the virus. But it will get there.

We will get there.

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