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For letter, or worse

Tammy Swift

FARGO — I'll never forget the day.

In many ways, it was a day like many others. Blue sky. The sounds and smells of lawn-mowing in the distance. That slight crispness to the air that suggests cooler days are coming.

But one thing set this day apart. It was the day that I received a truly odd object in the mail.

It didn't come from a politician. It wasn't emblazoned with phrases like: "Closeout Sale!" Or: "Grand Opening!" Or: "Final notice!" Or: "We want you back!"

In fact, the envelope was completely devoid of any exclamation points at all. The address and return address were neatly handwritten. It was in real pen and written by human hands — not a computer-generated font cunningly designed to look like cursive.

What could this be, I wondered. Maybe Target was trying a more personal approach to sending its credit card bills? What else could explain this piece of mail that wasn't a bill or advertisement or CVS coupons for "Valued Customer Yammy Swift."

Greedily, eagerly, I ripped it open. I unfolded it to find a relic from the past. It was a handwritten letter from an old friend. She wished me a happy birthday and asked how I was doing. She told me about her canning and baking projects and regaled me with back-to-school stories about her kids.

I pored over every word, re-reading certain passages to prolong the experience. Should I post about this momentous post on Instagram? Should I have the letter bronzed? Should I sit right down and write my friend a letter, thus hopefully turning us into "pen pals?"

I remember when pen pals were commonplace. In fifth grade, our teacher invited us to start writing to kids from a school in Vermont. I was matched up with a redheaded girl named Candace, and we exchanged letters and pictures over the course of a whole school year.

I barely knew her, especially after exchanging letters in which we shared only the most superficial details — like the fact I liked spelling class or the mention that she loved the color purple.

Even so, it was so exciting to get those missives on blue, flowered stationery in the mail. It made me feel important to warrant correspondence from a stranger who lived a thousand miles away.

It makes sense, then, that a letter would mean even more today. At a time when we communicate via hastily composed emails, Snapchats or texts, the act of letter-writing implies that someone took the rarest of 21st-century commodities — time — and dedicated it to connecting with you.

I was reminded of this when I came across a post from the "Better Humans" blog, titled, "How to use writing to radically improve your relationships." The writer, Silvia Bastos, credited the long-term success of a long-distance relationship with her boyfriend to the habit of writing long emails and real letters.

Long letters, Bastos says, gave them plenty of space to more precisely talk about their feelings and convey their true personalities. The practice of writing lengthy letters turned out to be as cathartic as journaling, as interesting insights would pop up in the process. Unlike the frequent, semi-distracted shorthand of texting, their letters were carefully constructed to ensure fewer misunderstandings or impulsive reactions.

And, as the letters arrived only once every few weeks, they were highly anticipated beforehand and greatly treasured once received.

It all makes sense, when you think about it.

When it comes to preserving relationships, it pays to take time to express oneself clearly and thoughtfully.

It really is "for letter, or worse."

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