Slimantics: Letter-writing in the time of COVID-19

 

Slim Smith

 

 

It's only been a couple of weeks since Americans have been "sheltering at home," yet some folks are already showing signs of discontent.

 

Now that the entirety of Lowndes County and the city of Starkville has passed ordinances to further limit where we can go and when we can go there, the angst will continue to grow.

 

There is little doubt that this has become an inconvenience, which reminds me of what British essayist G.K. Chesterton noted more than 100 years ago.

 

 

"An adventure is only an inconvenience rightly considered," he wrote.

 

In the coming days, weeks and, perhaps, months, our mental health may rely on how many adventures we have decided to have.

 

I draw on two experiences that have helped shape my attitude when it comes to being more or less home-bound.

 

The first, I've written about a fair amount, the other, until now, not at all.

 

In 2007, I spent six months in prison and it strikes me that the current situation is, in some ways, similar to that experience. First, there's the obvious: Confinement. Second, there's the tedium that comes from confinement. Third, there is the isolation.

 

The trick to prison life, I quickly learned, was to stay busy. There's not much to do in prison. If you sit around doing nothing, a minute becomes an hour, and so it was important to invent a routine and keep your mind and body occupied. I walked miles and miles around the exercise yard every day to help fill the long hours.

 

But my main diversion was writing letters, lots of letters, usually three or four a day. I wrote letters every day. With each letter, I'd ask the person to write back and fill me in on their lives and -- this was important -- to provide me with addresses of friends and family members the recipient might know so I could write to them, too.

 

As time passed, I began to get dozens of letters -- far more than any other inmate -- mainly because I'd started my letter writing campaign.

 

That was the only way I had to communicate with the outside world and feel as though I was still a part of it.

 

On the outside, people aren't too keen about writing letters. It's too time-consuming, too much of a bother. Today our written communication is more immediate and easier. Emails, texts and social media exchanges have taken the place of letter writing.

 

We lose something in that exchange, I believe. When you sit down with pen and paper and write a letter, you are inclined to be more thoughtful, more deliberate in what you say and how you say it.

 

How many letters have you written in the last year? If you're like me, few to none.

 

Which leads to my second life experience, the one I've not written about.

 

On Aug. 2, my 27-year-old daughter, Abby, was killed in an automobile accident in Texas.

 

On a side table in my home, I've kept a collection of things that remind me of her. I'd hesitate to call it a shrine because that suggests something morbid and unhealthy.

 

There is the urn with her ashes, which I plan to scatter on the anniversary of her death at one of her favorite spots, a couple of photos and a few other odds and ends that no one else would associate with her, but remind me of something we shared.

 

But the most important items are the Father's Day cards she sent. I treasure them because they are written in her own hand. I can imagine her sitting in her apartment writing the short messages and she's alive and happy again. In that little corner of my home is where Abby is. Present tense.

 

We had exchanged texts, emails, social media conversations by the hundreds, but none of them evoke the same tender intimacy of these cards and the few lines of still-girlish handwriting found there. I wish I had more of them. I wish I had written to her and she had written back in response.

 

What a treasure that would be now.

 

I share these experiences as an effort to encourage you in this time of isolation, a time when boredom or frustration threatens to cloud your attitude.

 

Grab a pen and paper and find a quiet spot in your home. Think of someone you love, then write to them. Give it as much or little thought as you like, write about things large or small. But take your time. Make it an adventure of the spirit. Imagine that this is the only way you will ever have to communicate with that person.

 

Take it from one who knows: You will never regret it.

 

 

 

Slim Smith is a columnist and feature writer for The Dispatch. His email address is [email protected]

 

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