I got a letter in the mail with stamps on it a while back. It was sent from Mozambique from the child my wife and I sponsor there through “Save the Children” charity. It had three colorful Mozambique stamps and was hand-addressed and hand-written, and included a picture of the boy, who is now not so much a boy; he is in his teens, but was a child when we became his sponsors about eight years ago. It was the first and only letter I have received through the mail with stamps on it, written by hand, in … I don’t know when; a very long time ago.
I miss letters. I miss writing them, addressing them, licking stamps to put on them, and dropping them in the post box, then waiting for the answer to come in a few days, or a week or two, or a month — depending on how far the letter has to go and how diligent the recipient is. Letters felt valuable because to send one took time and effort, to receive one generated some degree of excitement in the day. A human value is lost replacing letters with instant messaging or email or whatever that other thing is called.
I want to be notified of an event by telegram. I want to read about it in a few cut and paste lines with stop for periods. Then the telegram can go into a box or a trunk with the letters I keep and it will always be there, the event will always live. Something told with a telephone disappears utterly when one hangs up. I am sorry I will never get another telegram. You cannot wrap a piece of ribbon or a rubber band around your telephone calls or your emails, you cannot keep them in a box in the closet that after you are dead and disappeared will be stumbled across by your granddaughter, who will sit on the floor before the box because she is too enraptured to move and read them sometimes with laughter and sometimes through tears. You can’t do that anymore and it is a loss greater than you imagine.
In the most obvious sense, I am not especially pleased that a very short bit of my life span lies before me, while the great bulk of it stretches behind. But only in that obvious way — I like being alive. Yet, I would truly hate to face the opposite of that now, to have the wide expanse of my life looming ahead, with just a tad of it in the past. Because that would mean I would not have lived during the time of letters, during the time of books. I cannot imagine what sort of life one can have without a knowledge of a world where people sat at a desk with pen and sheaf of papers and wrote their thoughts, their dreams, their romance, their desires, or just the news to one other person, word by word, pen scratch by scratch; the world where an evening spent in a good chair beneath a good lamp with a good book was a fine evening, with maybe the radio on somewhere nearby.
John Locke (the real one, not the character by that name on the TV serial “Lost”) was essentially wrong when he proposed his epistemological theory of tabula rasa, or the empty tablet, which by analogy he wanted to show how we know what we know; that is, entirely through the accumulation of experiences. He said suppose the mind at birth is like an empty tablet, nothing on it, and from that moment of birth each experience writes on the tablet, the more experiences, the more the tablet contains. What we know of the world is what is contained on our tablet. Pardon the somewhat amazing simplification; I want to make a point with this, by implication: That the longer one lives and the more experiences one accumulates, the more one knows and the more one understands, and it is logical to assume that you know more at the age of twenty than you did at the age of two, and that you know more at the age of sixty than you did at sixteen. The person at sixty has had something of the range of experiences possessed by the person of ten or twenty or thirty or forty … , has “been where the younger person is.” But the younger person has not been where the older person is and cannot project over that space, whereas the older can easily look back across the space contained by the younger’s entire life.
I have generalized because I am not writing a book about this, just engaging in another nostalgic rant, and maybe offering some titbit for consideration.