In today's column, Sean Kirst shares the tale of a Western New Yorker who embraces the fading art of letter writing. Do you still write letters? Do you have a close friend or relative who does? Do you have a memorable story of a letter you wrote or received? Share these tales with Kirst by using your Facebook sign-in to leave a comment below, or by emailing him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Gerry Crinnin is reading all the stories about mysterious hackers who invade the emails of prominent Americans and institutions. He understands the growing fear of threatened privacy in this digital age, the idea that even your most intimate messages are never truly safe.
He is here to tell you: There is an answer.
This is what you do. You save every envelope and interesting piece of stationery that happens to come your way, and you keep them nearby, in a drawer. When you feel the urge, you grab a pen or a marker and write down your thoughts on a sheet of paper. Then you stick the message in an envelope, seal it and attach a 47 cent stamp, and you drop it into a blue metal box close to your home.
You can feel assured that the next person to touch and see your letter - the "hand that touched the hand that touched the hand," as Gerry puts it - will be the one intended to see it, and no one else.
“Check and mate,” Gerry said, which is what he says whenever he makes a point he cares about ….
Which is often.
“I don’t know if a hacker would even know what a letter is,” he said.
Gerry, 57, is a letter writer. He was a letter writer long before he retired from his full-time job last spring, after almost a quarter-century of teaching English at Jamestown Community College, where he still teaches part-time. The only email he maintains is his email for work, and he said he would never use it for any message intended to share a great personal truth or deep emotion.
It is “metaphysically impossible,” he said, to put your soul and passion into a text message or email. It begins with the reality that an email is never truly secure, that we all know embarrassing stories about emails sent accidentally to the wrong person, or recipients who mistakenly forwarded some deeply personal message about love or life to the wrong place.
That means an email becomes “nothing on nothing,” Gerry said, the product not of writing but of "word processing," reflections lost to memory as soon as someone reaches down and hits “delete.”
He is a teacher, a poet, a writer. He lives with his wife Kerstin in Fredonia, in Chautauqua County, where the clerks at the local post office recognize his face. He still writes at least 10 letters a week, and he's found time to write seven books of poetry. One, “The Half-Life of Letters,” is a collection of poems taken from letters sent to him when he was in the Navy.
Years later, when Gerry was at Brown University, he spilled coffee on one of those letters, essentially cutting it in half. He saw a kind of beauty in the half-sentences that survived, and he decided to turn them into poems, doing the same thing with all the letters in the pile. Read them now, he said, and you feel the youth of that long-gone correspondence, “the vibratory aspects” of college life at that time.
One line, two joined half-sentences, he especially loves: “I was just a cigarette, listening to art.”
It goes to his point: A letter captures and preserves who you are, at distinct moments in life, and reading them again becomes self-revelation. His mother, Marian Crinnin, died last spring at 91, in Syracuse. She and Gerry wrote back and forth all the time, just as Marian corresponded in detailed longhand with her husband Fred, when he was on the battlefield in World War II.
Among the things Marian, a widow, left behind: A stack of Gerry’s letters, collected over the years. His sister Kathleen, one of eight siblings, recalls how their mom would always leave Gerry’s most recent letter on a kitchen counter, so everyone could see it. Marian, for instance, held onto this one: Gerry dated the letter Dec. 5, 2003, and the envelope contained images of his children, Max and Charlotte.
“I send these photos to you out of bewilderment," Gerry wrote. "Are these angelic beings really related to me?”
He drew two lines, for emphasis, underneath the final word.
Without the letter, the wonder of that moment would be lost, forever gone.
“You feel the words longer," Gerry said. "They’re right in your hands.”
He knows letter writing, today, is a dying art. Gerry’s son Max – also a soulful guy - is studying to be a doctor. Gerry carries a simple throwback flip phone, and declines to send text messages. That means people have to call and actually talk to him, as Max did a few years ago just after the young man started college, when he called his dad to ask for some help:
When you send a letter, the son asked, where do you put the return address on the envelope?
It made Gerry smile, even if he believes this truth: Letters still make sense. Their purpose grows in value. The whole furor over WikiLeaks and purloined emails only underlines his case. All of us, when we write emails or even private Facebook messages, understand the words we're tapping out are not really secure. With one slip of the finger, they could become big trouble.
That often causes us to hold back, to keep some truths inside us. What is lost is the reason scholars collect the notes and letters of famous people:
In those letters, you get a real sense of their core.
Ask Gerry why letter writing is important, and he tells this story: In the late 1970s, as a young guy in the Navy serving in the Philippines, “I met a girl, called home and said, ‘Dad, I’m going to marry her.’” He made the call while swept up in rapture, less than 24 hours after he spoke to the young woman for the first time. Gerry said his father listened, then replied in a calm voice:
“OK. I’m going to write a letter, with some questions. Just promise you’ll wait for it, and ask yourself if you can answer them.”
Gerry agreed. He and the young woman decided to wait for the letter, and they changed their minds about getting married long before it arrived.
Once it did, Gerry admits:
His father asked wise questions.
Somewhere, Gerry said, he believes he has that letter. He’s kept hundreds upon hundreds of them. Every now and then, he goes through and winnows the stack. Yet to Gerry, those old letters are better signposts of the past than even photographs ....
Because letters, if written from the gut, are snapshots of what you feel and who you are.
While each new week seems to bring reports of startling revelations from hijacked emails, Gerry remains faithful to a slower yet more secure means of communication, every message protected by the envelope around it. His sister and the other Crinnin siblings are far more digital. “We do a lot of Facebook, texting or email,” Kathleen said.
Still, Gerry’s passion makes life easy for them at Christmas, or his birthday.
If you want to make him happy, buy the guy a book of stamps.
Sean Kirst is a contributing columnist for The Buffalo News. If you still write letters, or you know someone who does, he’d like to hear from you. Leave a comment below or send a message – a digital one – at email@example.com. You can read more of Kirst's work in this archive.
Story topics: Sean Kirst