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Jack's Take: The lost arts of letter writing and friendship

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Photo by Jack Hilovsky
Photo by Jack Hilovsky

The end of another year always makes me grow reflective. I kick around in my head what is important to me, what I can let go, and what I might like to do differently in the year ahead. I still think of myself as a work in progress. I am leery of getting set in my ways and so will often surprise even myself when I venture into new, uncharted territory. Like walking the 500-mile Camino de Santiago last spring. Or resuming tap dancing in my fifties (see last month's column). This next year I am wanting to learn more about the variety of birds. Maybe even become a bird watcher. I bought the Audubon Songbirds and Other Backyard Birds picture-a-day calendar for 2023.

After completing my annual letter to friends and family several days ago, I sat down to watch the winter scene outside my living room window. Snowflakes gently glided from on high and settled softly on the tree branches and statuary in my courtyard. I had taken a walk with my friend Dean earlier that evening, and we got to talking about the unexpected little cards with notes he would often send me after we spent time together, visiting the art museum or attending a sneak preview of a SIFF film. He suggested many people could use a primer on how to write an engaging thank you note. I agreed that sending handwritten notes was a lost art that only he and my dear friend Jenny in Portland seemed to value.

In a recent New York Times op-ed, writer John McWhorter remarks that the current generation of college students he teaches no longer writes in cursive. He goes on to say that most writing now occurs on a keyboard, and so cursive, designed for handwriting, has gone the way of the CD and the landline telephone. It is no longer essential, McWhorter claims. I would beg to differ.

Photo by Jack Hilovsky  

While texts and emails, even Facebook, FaceTime or Instagram, might bring us into the instant with friends and family, there is nothing like a handwritten letter. During this time of year many people send Christmas cards or New Year greetings. They are precious to me because it takes some effort and thought to select a card, write even a short note, address the envelope, and put a stamp on it (not a ring, Beyonce!)

I have even saved some of these cards and letters, bound with colorful ribbons and nestled in a box in the back of my closet. Whenever I am reorganizing, I lift the box lid and read one or two, thinking Maybe I should get rid of these, who will enjoy them when I am dead? But then, sitting in my closet (what an irony), I read my friend Leticia's note from 1988, postmarked from New York City and telling me in the most comforting handwritten words that she supports my coming out as a Gay man and she loves me regardless. I had forgotten she even wrote this letter, though we've been friends since college. If she'd sent her message in a text or email, it would have been erased long ago, lost to time.

When we write with the hand, I'm told, we are more connected to our heart than when we compose words on a keyboard. I keep handwritten journals, a collection of musings, that date back to Ronald Reagan's second term in office (don't do the math). My experience is that some of my most personal writing began with letters I sent when I first arrived in Seattle from Ohio. I missed family and friends. I was undergoing so much change in my twenties, coming out and finding myself, daring to be brave enough to confide and let the chips fall where they may.

Fortunately, those friends and family stood by me, despite the fact that my truthfulness challenged my parents, who struggled with it. I can see some of the melancholy in my mom's letters that I have saved, even though they are difficult to read, not because of her handwriting but because of the emotion behind them: sharing news from back home, saying that she missed me, wanting reassurance that she had been a good mother.

As my friend Dean and I came to the end of our walk that snowy night, he gave me a small gift of handmade soaps that he purchased while visiting Portsmouth, New Hampshire, last summer. We embraced. I told him how much his notes had meant to me over the last year, the thoughtfulness behind them. They were from a bygone era, old-fashioned but lasting. They are testament, like Jenny's and Leticia's, to a friendship that stretches through time. Wrapped like a beautiful ribbon.

Jack Hilovsky is an author, actor, dancer, and blogger who has made his home in Seattle since 1986. His first book, RJ, Farrah and Me: A Young Man's Gay Odyssey from the Inside Out, was published in June 2022. It can be found at Madison Books, Nook & Cranny, and the University Bookstore, among other local booksellers.