Last week I took the kids to the Postal Museum, which is a fun museum to tour and as a bonus it is directly across the street from Union Station, which is why we went there on that cold day. Trekking about DC isn’t as much fun when you’re freezing your patootie off.
The kids enjoyed learning about Owney, the postal mascot, some of the routes mail carriers had to take to get the mail across the country before there were roads, and the interactive displays. I, however, was struck by a quote engraved on one of the walls in the foyer where a giant statue of Benjamin Franklin stands. Sorry, I didn’t write it down, thinking I would surely remember the exact words, but a simplified version is: the purpose of the postal service is to bind together the citizens of the United States of America through personal letters, something I don’t remember, and business correspondence.
Those words (well, not those, but the actual ones) made me envision America as a country with ribbons tying its people together. The ribbons carry our thoughts, our dreams, our hopes, our well-wishes, photos of each other, words of sympathy and compassion. Slowly, though, we’ve all witnessed and been part of a decay of those ribbons. We send an e-card for someone’s birthday, keep up via facebook or maybe the phone. Then we moan when we open the mail to only find bills, and junk, or “business correspondence.” I thought about the older people in my life who don’t even have email; how lonely must it be for them to live in this modern age of instant, easy communication?
And there is certainly a case one can make for using instant mail over snail mail. After all, we’re wasting less paper, we’re being more efficient with our days, we’re multi-tasking, and we’re saving money. But that’s sort of my point: email is cheap. And everyone knows it. When I send you an email, I’m doing it because I don’t want to spend much time on it, dare I say, on you? When I send an e- birthday card or simply write “Happy Birthday” on your facebook wall, it’s usually true that 1- I didn’t remember until it was too late, or 2- I didn’t even know it was your birthday until facebook told me so, or I saw everyone else wishing you a happy birthday, or, it might even be both.
Now here is where my train of thought gets uncomfortable for me. I have always been someone for whom remembering others’ birthdays just isn’t that important, unless it’s one of my kids’. I don’t know why, nor do I think that is a good trait to have. I’m always pleasantly surprised if other people know it’s my birthday, unless it’s my mom, because let’s face it, that’s a pretty important day in her life too. (Love you, mom!) I have tried different ways of remembering people’s birthdays, and I always fail, so I personally love it when I can simply check in to facebook to realize it’s a friend’s birthday, then I can feel all good about myself when I wish them a very public Happy Birthday. I feel like I’m saying, “Hey, look at me, I remembered you and took 10 seconds out of my life to let you know it!” Not that I don’t really mean the good wishes I have for them; I’m very sincere in my affection for facebook friends’ birthdays. It’s just that there is always a little ribbon of guilt that goes out with that message.
I much prefer to send out a true ribbon of friendship by writing someone a little note via the postal service. But look at the effort involved! Pick out the stationary- which color? a card? how big?- find a pen- carve out 10 or more minutes when a baby won’t steal the pen to suck on it- figure out what to say- hope to not make a spelling error, since there’s no delete button and no spell-checker- find the address book- and a stamp- and finally, put it in the mailbox. Yes, look at the effort. And you know the effort I’m talking about. And you know the effort when you open your mailbox and find my letter. It’s why you feel so happy. It’s why I feel so happy when I find one from you in my mailbox.
That, my friends, makes for a lovely ribbon of friendship. Of course, things will be even more difficult once we’re overseas, but think of the joy of getting a letter from far away! We can bond with others not just over a cup of coffee, or on facebook, but also with notes and letters and cards sent with a stamp and a smile.
My grandmother was always really good at writing people. I think she must have sat down everyday and written a note or two. She would sometimes share family news, sometimes ask about my life, and often include a photo. I long to be like her in this respect. I long to cast out threads to the people in my life to keep them bound to me. So don’t be surprised if you find a note from me one day. And don’t be upset if you don’t– I’m trying but far from fast or perfect.