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Snapchat or Snail Mail: Love, Letters, and Long Distance

Host intro: In an age saturated with instant messaging, from Messenger to WhatsApp, Oliver Arnoldi has learned about the benefits of a slower method of communication.

I don’t know why I did it. It was 2001, I was seven years old, and I was writing to Tony Blair, the British Prime Minister, asking him to be my pen pal.

Yeah, I was a pretty weird kid, and on reflection, perhaps overly ambitious. Sadly, Tony turned me down. He said he was too busy or something grown up like that. But he did write me a letter back. It was amazing — picking it up, tearing it open, not knowing what might be waiting for me inside.

Over the next decade, I grew up a bit, and fell in love with a girl I’d known since the beginning of high school. A girl who soon moved to Paris as an exchange student while I stayed in England. I’d see her every six weeks, and in between we’d try to connect — [Skype sound] — yep, trying to lovingly stare at a face formed of five pixels was hard. We were in love but the internet and its distractions made love so difficult to remember. We needed something a bit more real…and then I remembered Tony Blair’s letter.

So I tried writing my girlfriend one. It wasn’t like sending a text or an email. My black cursive scrawl needed to tidy itself up…and my words carried extra weight on the page. I felt like I was taking her on a first date again. It took me an hour and several drafts to write, but a week later she wrote back. Her handwriting was so neat. She didn’t talk about much – a morning run along the River Seine, a difficult physics class – but, reading the letter, her voice was so clear in my head. She was there, like she used to be, telling me about her day without the chasm of the internet. Of course we still Skyped, but our letters became something else…

A way to forget about the distance. To forget about our loneliness. What we wrote about didn’t actually matter. It was simply the idea that she had thought of me, slowed down for me, lingered over how to phrase a sentence, just for me.

We did drawings, too. Beautiful Parisian streets, inevitably gloomier London scenes, and the occasional pug. And then she moved back to London and predictably, I moved out, to New York. On the plus side, I could finally offer her more exotic sketches – a hot dog vendor, or a badly drawn silhouette of the Manhattan skyline.

Our letters, over time, had become a collective diary of experiences we never shared, yet somehow, written down, it made us feel that much closer.

That diary has sadly come to an end. We broke up five days into the new year. Certain things just became so clear — like that big blue ocean between New York and London that our letters tried so hard to cover up.

So for the moment, I’m on a letter-writing hiatus. Her letters lie in a pile in my bedroom drawer. I don’t want to look at them at the moment, but one day I will. One day, they’ll be sacred reminders of our younger selves.

For now, I’ll say this — the next time you want to talk to a loved one far away, rather than opening your MacBook, slow down. Pick up a pen, choose some nice paper, and in half an hour, you’ll feel closer to them. And in a few days, they’ll feel closer to you. Trust me.

Back announce: Oliver Arnoldi is trying hard to throw his MacBook out of a window, but he just can’t do it.

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