A few weeks ago, I received a package from a friend living on the West Coast. Inside the package were twelve sealed letters, ready for me to open over the course of a month. And open them I did. Each one contained the hand writing and colloquialisms of my friend. Each envelope filled with the personal, the emotive, the empowering, and the Romantic—exactly like my lively friend who loves people, psychology, social-justice, and Mary Ann Evans.
A few days later, my phone chimed, alerting me that an unopened e-mail waited in my inbox. And open it I did. A note from another friend living in the D.C. area, sent from her iPhone as she paused in the midst of classes and hospital work to see how I was doing. Each sentence on the screen glowed with precision and warmth—exactly like my gentle friend who studies and works in the fast-paced world of medicine.
Though I am a 21st-Century woman, reading these correspondences made me feel like an ancient Roman. In the Roman world of sprawling empire, letters tied people together. A letter was always a practical form of connection, but the Romans turned this mode of communication into a work of art and a piece of philosophy. To the Roman mind, a letter was a physical extension of the sender to the receiver. When you read a sender’s words, they became present to you—as if you sat in the same room with each other. This made correspondence, especially among close friends, a sacred and intimate act. Open a letter, and you open a passageway to your friend. Distance be damned.
I agree with the Romans when I read letters and e-mails. I love to experience my friends through the things that they write, because as a writer, the main way I engage with the world and others is through words: sometimes spoken, sometimes written. Typed words and uttered phrases conjure up for me my life’s beloveds, even when they are far away. But though I depend on words, I know that without action, without some sort of real presence, some sort of real love, those same words can become cavernous and distancing. I am grateful that I have friends who know the weight of words. When miles space apart friendships, letters and e-mails typed on iPhones become an action, a sort of real presence, a manifestation of real love. Allowing you to once more hold your friends in your hands.