I remember that when I was a kid all of my notes (whether passed in the hall or mailed to pen pals far away) ended with the earnest request, “Write me back.” And the ones I received said the same. Somewhere along the way, we learned that this was part of kid-note etiquette.
I guess we had to make sure the recipient was well aware of the sacred pact that had been forced upon her or him—a letter received came with a requirement to write back.
Now, as a full-fledged grownup, my notes generally do not end with demands for the reader to write back (unless, of course, I’m writing my young nieces who expect that as a crucial component of a letter!). Even letters I write to people who have not responded to my last missives never contain admonitions.
I write people to let them know I’m thinking of them and to share a bit of what’s going on with me. While I love return letters, I do not send snail mail explicitly to get something back. And I certainly do not write letters to make my recipients feel guilt or shame or anger at the new mantle of responsibility I have placed upon their shoulders from which they can’t wrestle free until they respond!
But you would think that was the case.
After my birthday request for folks to write to me, I received an email from a friend who has actually written me numerous letters over the years. He promised he would write, at some point, but that I shouldn’t get too excited, because it would very likely be six months from now. He wanted to set the bar low so I wouldn’t get my hopes up. He may also have set this expectation to assuage his guilt about the time it might take to write—a guilt he took on himself.
He then sent me an email a month later saying, “I’m still going to write, but just not now.” This made me realize that he’s carrying around this burden of having to write me a letter, it’s another addition to his to-do list. I’ve inadvertently shouldered this man with another responsibility, a man who spends his “free time” chasing a toddler around and probably trying to cook dinner, pay attention to his wife and catch a few winks before having to head to work and then do it all over again.
That was not the reason for my birthday request! I swear!
I also received a birthday letter from a friend who is currently living in France. (She sent the only international addition to my birthday request pile!) She mentioned in her note that she used to be an avid letter writer, but she stopped because sending out letters that that rarely elicited responses made her feel lonely.
I can definitely understand the unfulfilled wish for a return letter creating a feeling of loneliness. But perhaps if she knew that her recipients far away were likely saddled with guilt for not having written back, she would take comfort. Both sides were actually thinking of each other!
Of course, in the best of all worlds, letters sent out are received with joy and returned in kind. Yesterday I received two (!) pieces of snail mail and I am looking forward to writing back. I just bought some new stationery I can use!
But I suppose that just reinforces this vicious circle. Or, because it generates snail mail, maybe it’s a virtuous circle.
To inspire you to approach letter writing with an open heart and without a feeling of dread or responsibility, I leave you with this video: