In an age of emails, texts and tweets, the art of old-fashioned letter writing remains a powerful tool to enhance people’s lives, whether through daily journaling, communicating with a pen pal or composing a love letter. Here are three stories from across America that prove the power of the pen.
While most sweethearts exchange romantic cards or notes on Feb. 14, Gary and Lisa Morris, of Acworth, Ga. (pop. 20,425), have found a way to make every day Valentine’s Day. Each day since 1990, the husband and wife have handwritten a love letter to each other. In all, the couple estimates they’ve written more than 8,000 letters.
“I write in the mornings before I go to work,” says Gary, 59, director of the Marietta (Ga.) Regional Youth Detention Center. “Lisa writes during the day, and then when I get home from work, we sit down and share what we’ve written to each other.”
The couple first began writing down their feelings in 1978 while attending Marriage Encounter, a Christian marriage enrichment weekend that uses love letters as a tool to enhance communication. They liked the intimacy that writing fostered, but found daily discipline difficult.
“After a while, we stopped,” Gary says. “Then in 1990, we went on another Marriage Encounter weekend, and we’ve written each other a letter every day since.”
To keep their writing fresh and relevant, the Morrises, who married in 1971 and have two grown children, often identify writing topics of the day.
“We may decide to discuss what’s on our ‘bucket list,’ or how we feel about each other, or even discuss harder topics like money or God,” says Lisa, 58, a retired nurse. “It allows us to talk about things that we would never ordinarily talk about. It’s a safe way to communicate, and the whole purpose of the love letters is that it’s a gift of love.”
The practice has deepened their marriage.
“I don’t know how you can tell someone you love them in a richer way than to say, ‘You’re worth my time, and this is what’s inside of me, and it’s a gift to you,’” Lisa says.
Gary agrees. “I’ve read about how precious I am to my wife in her own handwriting and been told that she loves me every day since 1990,” he says. “It’s hard not to take it seriously after 8,000 days in a row.”
Although they haven’t lived in the same town in nearly three decades, Barbara Birkeland and Eleanor Jean Beck know about each other’s daily lives better than next-door neighbors. That’s because every day for the last 28 years, the pen pals have written a letter to each other.
“Eleanor Jean has received letters of joy and sorrow, frustration and celebration, anger and incredible good fortune from me; and in return, I have anticipated every letter from her, whatever the mood or daily grind,” says Birkeland, 68, of Cloquet, Minn. (pop. 12,124), about her friend Beck, 68, who lives in Maryville, Tenn. (pop. 27,465).
The correspondence began in 1984 after a job change forced Birkeland’s family to leave Byron, Minn. (pop. 4,914), where both women lived at the time. The separation initially was difficult for the friends, who first met in 1975 when their children were young. However, their daily letters kept them connected, and over time became therapeutic.
“It feels so wonderful to share things with her,” Beck says. “There’s a feeling of unloading a burden. If you’re having a bad day, you can get it out in the letter.”
The pen pals keep every correspondence, which can range from a quick postcard to a 10-page letter. One day, they plan to pass on their letters to their children.
“In spite of the fact that our husbands have frequently suggested a shredder as a fitting gift,” Birkeland quips, “we continue to treasure the trove of handwritten letters which, in this day and age, are quickly becoming a thing of the past.”
“Who knows?” Beck adds. “Maybe we’ll even turn our letters into a book and call it ‘Between Friends.’”
Eleanor Erickson’s love of journaling blossomed in 1982 while attending summer camp following her eighth-grade school year.
She opened her Mead marble composition book and began filling the pages with the angst of a 13-year-old girl. “A kid had been kicked out of camp, and I turned to paper and pen to capture what I was feeling,” she recalls.
The entry was to be the first of thousands that she wrote sporadically over the years until 2001, when she began the practice of journaling every day. Now 41 and working as a hotel manager in Southport, N.C. (pop. 2,833), Erickson keeps her old composition books on a shelf in her bedroom and instead chronicles her daily life in a leather-bound journal.
“My journal has become a safe place where I can go and work through stuff,” she says. “I don’t worry about grammar or punctuation—it’s so freeing—and it’s nice to have every day of 10 years of my life chronicled. That includes the entirety of my son’s life and most of my marriage. It’s pretty awesome.”
Typically, Erickson writes at night in her bed just before falling asleep. Sometimes she details her entire day; other times she just jots down a sentence or two. “I write about things that bring me joy or sadness, or I may write about the weather,” she says. “It’s just important that I keep writing every day.”
While also embracing Facebook, blogging and Twitter, she says nothing replaces the feeling she gets when she reads her journal. “I can go back and read my Twitter timeline, but I’m never going to be able to pick it up and hold it in my hands and see how my handwriting has changed over the years or see the tear stains on the pages. You’ll never get that from your computer.”