When I was little I never had to write I will not talk during class a hundred times on the chalk board-not because I was perfect but because my teachers used other, probably less effective, means of discipline. I never had to write something repeatedly to learn a lesson, but I believe I understand the reasoning behind such a punishment. There is a definite power in writing something by hand, anything really. Whether it be a thank you note, a to do list, a consequential essay on why one should never cheat on a test, or even the love-struck repetition of your first name and his last name in the margins of a notebook, the written word (really, literally written) seems to add an air of formality, permanence and importance to whatever thought, idea or dream it communicates.
Typing is a useful skill, but all of our mechanized communications have somehow lessened the finiteness of what we are saying. Delete, backspace, spell check, recycle bin…as permanent as we have all learned computer files are, they also seem a lot like vapor. They exist only as binary code, stored on a miniscule chip. That just isn’t the same as a manuscript covered in coffee stains and smeared ink, with entire paragraphs scratched out or circled and moved elsewhere by means of squiggly arrow. Maybe it’s the time it takes to physically form the letters that makes hand written documents seem more substantive … the thousands of practically imperceptible auto-pilot decisions about letter size and placement, the space between words, correct spelling, punctuation rules and, perhaps hardest of all, keeping it all in straight lines. Maybe it’s the intimacy of pen to paper, the unique formation of the letters, specific to one person, the nearness of their hand to the page as abstract thoughts become concrete sentences. Afterall, we don’t swoon over copies of form letters from the office of the President or even teen idol fan clubs, but a real honest to God autograph, made by someone’ s own hand, that’s impressive.
All of these thoughts ran through my head today as I wrote a repetitive “Thank you for your service!” on 25 boxes of cookies to be delivered to the local VA men’s dormitory tomorrow for Veteran’s Day. I wrote the letters by hand, over and over, trying to make each look like the last, thinking that this simple statement of gratitude will be read by a man who went to war. To war. I began to feel like it was such a small act of gratitude that it almost didn’t merit doing, handwritten or not. But then I began to think about the handwritten letters many of these men probably received while doing active service. I thought about all of the hands that wrote them. Hands that belonged to people these men missed dearly and prayed to see again. Hands that bathed children, mowed lawns, made dinner, sewed clothes and fixed tractors. I thought about how much these letters must have meant to them, to have something that not only expressed the thoughts of their loved ones but was imbued with the essence of them because it was written with those same hands.
I know that these men do not know me, do not know who wrote on these packages. But they will know that someone who appreciates their military service took marker to hand, then hovered it over paper to magically transcribe feelings of appreciation into universally perceivable symbols that will simultaneously hold and continuously emit that meaning for as long as they can be seen by the eyes of man. They will know that these hands could have been doing any number of other things during the time it took to write these letters. They will know that while every effort was made at conformity, no two were written exactly the same. They will know all of this, perhaps without even realizing it. They will know this because they will feel, as only a handwritten note can induce, that they are special, remembered and appreciated.
To all of our veterans and active duty military, I cannot write you each a thank you note by hand, but please accept my genuine appreciation for your service, and may you receive many handwritten letters from people you love.