The other I day emailed a friend because I needed her mailing address. We’ve actually met in person twice since getting acquainted through social media and our respective writing, but other than the town, I still didn’t know where she lived. She didn’t know it, but I wanted to send her a card.
How odd it was to use email to ask where she lives just so I could send her a note. Why not just express myself in the email and be done with it?
Here’s why: I’m not a digital native. I’m old school when it comes to social greetings. I prefer them on paper, whether I’m sending or receiving—not all the time, but a lot of the time.
My first job certainly has a lot to do with it. I worked in a greeting card store during high school and midway through college. There was so much I loved about that job: the inherent order of stocking cards, the wide range of customers, the fudge counter (ahem), and the strict boss whom I mildly feared back then but fully appreciate now as she prepared me for subsequent jobs and adulthood in general (like how she required that we count back change to customers, something that I wish I saw more of today). It’s where I became an expert gift wrapper and balloon bouquet wizard. Having extra cash in my pocket was definitely a perk too.
But mostly I just loved the cards and stationery. I ran that employee discount ragged, especially when it came to Shoebox cards and Mrs. Grossman’s stickers. If there was any opportunity to give a card to someone, I would. Or I’d buy them “just in case,” hoarding them in my bedroom closet for another time. My taste has grown up a bit since then. Now I’m partial to quirky cards from indie bookstores and offbeat gift shops. And if I’m holding a credit card, don’t let me within arm’s reach of anything with letterpress.
Standing in front of the card display, you see the full spectrum of life before you: Birth, Birthday, Wedding, New Home, Bon Voyage, New Job, Get Well, Anniversary and Sympathy. Sadly, I find myself slowly inching toward the end of that line in the cards I now buy. But there is just something about stumbling upon a paper card that instinctively makes you think of a particular person. There’s that satisfaction after the quest to find just the right card, whether it be for your friend’s birthday or to convey your sympathy to your coworker. You put pen to paper and send your words off with the mail carrier.
Cards and letters allow someone else to feel remembered and revered while standing at their mailbox. A fleeting moment for sure, but one that is more likely to be savored, and possibly saved, than a one-liner clicked away to an inbox. It is, in a word, special.
Unlike emails, texts and comments on social media, buying and sending a paper card requires a different kind of forethought and contemplation. For starters, you have to remember at least three days ahead of time to make sure it gets to someone by their birthday (admittedly, the Belated Birthday section has saved me many times). And is there really any other way to extend condolences or say thank you properly other than on paper? It’s also more likely the recipient will open it at home or during a quiet moment when they’re ready, and not while distracted and standing in the express checkout line at the supermarket.
Don’t get me wrong. I’ve been saved by the ability to get an almost forgotten birthday wish out by text before the 11:59 p.m. finish line. But when it comes to pass that late in the day, we all know what it feels like to hit send (sheepish) or worse, receive it (like an afterthought). With paper, even if it arrives late by a day or two, the margin of forgiveness is wider because we can both blame the snails for any tardiness, and the sender gets points for the Herculean task of finding a stamp that hasn’t expired.
I like hearing the sound of ink scratching my thoughts on paper, the featherweight heft of cardstock in my hand, the bitter taste of envelope glue on my tongue. I cherish seeing the handwritten mistakes in cards that I receive. Haven’t we all scorned someone when they seemingly forgot to use spellcheck in an email, but think it’s sweet when we see evidence of “you’re” corrected to “your” by their very own hand? The disparity seems somewhat arbitrary. I enjoy those last minute annotations revealing the sender’s scattered train of thought. I love a hearty P.S. at the end, flowing to the back with that superfluous arrow to guide me.
Having grown up with paper as the medium, I loathe the electronically derivative and distilled “HBD” for birthdays and the trite “so sorry for ur loss” when someone loses a baby or a parent. Full words are going extinct. Whatever happened to dropping a few bucks for a friend and scrawling out something heartfelt on card stock to show you mean what you say for more than the three seconds it would take you to move your thumbs across a tiny keyboard? When we have to use our pens to say how we feel, we must think first. There is no backspace button. We must pause and contemplate, frame what we are trying to say. We slow down to find a clear space—in our minds and on our counters—to express our joy, concern or sadness.
Yes, we can send more abundantly and quickly with emails and texts, especially to those who are more acquaintance than friend. We can preemptively abbreviate and delete and rewrite words to abridged “perfection.” Yet, I wonder, what are the costs of those trade-offs? Are we sanitizing and truncating emotional connection too?
Those squares and rectangles of illustrations and prose lift people up. I know they do, on both ends. I remember the delighted smiles of the customers I helped find the perfect birthday card for their children or parents. I remember the silent, stoic faces of people trying to find the right way to acknowledge someone’s passing, even if they were not exactly their own words, maybe especially not. I remember the grandmothers buying the biggest, most expensive cards when new grandchildren arrived.
I lived in a world before Facebook birthdays, when good wishes weren’t dispatched from devices. Expressions of love and friendship were indelible on paper instead. I saw what happened in those card store aisles. I also know what happens when the mailbox is opened and there’s a card waiting there for me, or better yet, a friend an hour away.