Over the last couple weeks, my downsizing efforts focused on letters. I started with two banker boxes filled with letters dating back to the same year I was born. My goal was to reduce by half. I succeeded. What’s left is one very full, very tight box.

As I sifted through thousands and thousands of words, I was acutely aware that letter writing truly has become a lost art.

Letters and cards I recycled. The photo doesn’t show that the pile was an inch deep.

Last week I mentioned downsizing my exercise journal and the momentary melancholy that accompanied it. Going through the letters, I felt the same. I knew with absolute certainty that, at some point in the future, I was going to miss these downsized letters. Yet I was equally certain, it needed to be done. An interesting dichotomy indeed.

When I hauled the two boxes to my couch (one of the few pieces of furniture I have left) in front of the television, I figured it would take the equivalent of two or three movies to get the project done. Two days, tops.

It took 10 days, working on it each evening. Thirty or more hours. And I only sorted through about 60% of the letters. Everything from parents and grandparents was automatically kept.

The project could have been faster. No question. But I would never see these again so I wanted to read each one. And it took longer than I anticipated. One downside of this fast-food, social media world we live in now is most information we take in is done in tiny bite-size pieces. I’d forgotten it can take five or 10 or 15 minutes to read a “real” letter.

It didn’t go as fast as I expected but it was 10 days of bliss. Many of the letters I hadn’t read since I received them. It was a joy to go back and relive the place I was in my life when I got those letters. And to remember what place in their lives my friends or family members were in.

An Interesting Pattern

When you are in the midst of something, it’s hard to have perspective. So I was fascinated and surprised to see a particular pattern among the letters as I moved forward in time from the 1980s to now.

First everything was handwritten letters. Some were on plain lined paper while other letters were on beautiful stationary. As more people starting owning computers, but still pre-internet, letters transitioned into being written on a computer, printed out and mailed. Variety came in the form of fonts.

Next there was a period where friends felt nostalgic for writing letters by hand. Letters began something to the effect of I felt like writing you a letter rather than typing one. It was a short-lived period.

From the computer typed letters, things transitioned into email. They were still regular letters. And those I printed out and kept.

Finally, except for holiday and birthday cards and letters from grandmothers, letters stopped.

An Unexpected Bonus

Do you ever have people who were part of your life but aren’t any longer? No dramatic reason except you moved away from each other and lost touch.

A small section of one box was dedicated to the handful of people I’d lost touch with. All of them I’d thought about now and again over the years. Then when I came across their letters, I decided to see if I could find them. I donned my detective hat.

I met Gail when we both worked on the same ranch one summer during my NYU days. She had divorced, returned to her maiden name, not to mention there are many people on Facebook with her last name. Another woman had an unusual first name, Demrie, but I could not remember her last name. On the letters, she only wrote her address as the return address.

After a couple of hours of scouring Facebook and Google, I found and connected with both. Social media has positive and negative aspects, but finding a long lost friend is a huge positive.

It’s a double bonus for me because now I have two more people on the road I get to stop and visit.

A Few Gems

The trip down memory lane ran me through the emotional gamut. I went from nostalgic to laughing out loud to shedding a few heart tears. Sometimes all within the same letter.

There were so many gems but here are a few I couldn’t resist sharing:

Laura was my college roommate. I wrote about her in the Downsizing post about floppy disks. This gem made me feel a bit old, but mostly it just made me laugh.

I finally took the big step, and upgraded to Windows 95 with all the pertinent software, including Word Perfect 7 for Windows 95.

The next ones are from Karen who, occasionally, still writes me a handwritten letter because she is a fountain pen enthusiast and looks for any reason to use one.

I’m writing this on a $3 typewriter I got at a thrift shop. I like writing on them because you have instant evidence of work done.

The fountain pen community is fun. We’re all obsessive. One guy commented on our insanity with them: “You’re talking to people who buy salad spinners for their pens.”

I’d really like to see you! You may not recognize me tho—I’m almost 49. Yikes. The body has sort of melted and sagged, but underneath it all, I’m still a kid.

The last one is from another NYU friend. Jay and I lost touch a long while ago but he wrote inventive hilarious letters. Interestingly, I kept more of his letters than anyone else’s, except family’s. Or maybe, it is because we lost touch that I kept them. This one was written on my birthday, 1998.

Okay, I’m a bit behind. How can I get my personal letters produced at work when they insist on giving me actual work to do? That’s very inconsiderate and rude on their part. But today is a blow off day and I shall do nothing but give my devoted attention to you, and only you, my love.

Do you have a box of old letters and cards somewhere? Even if you aren’t downsizing, if you have letters, go back and revisit them. It’s worth the time and effort.

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