“For the Present is the point at which time touches eternity.”
―C.S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters
“I love you, and I love you, and I want to find out what that means together.”
―Amal El-Mohtar & Max Gladstone, This Is How You Lose the Time War
A letter is a time capsule. A physical doorway to a single moment in time. It is memory personified.
In a past life (only a decade ago) I was a full-time historian. I spent hours sifting through the correspondence of people long dead, and understood their lives through these small glimpses into their shared realities. I would observe through aging paper what it was like to care for one another during wars, during jail sentences, during long distance relationships. John and Abigail Adams wrote one another enough letters to be collected in literal volumes. So did Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Robert Browning. Correspondence to a loved one is an art form that we had lost, I thought.
Until 2020, and the worldwide pandemic, when I was reminded that the art of the love letter was not lost at all, it was merely a device which was best used in times of longing.
The first letter he ever wrote to me was addressed to “Elsa, sword wielder.” I know this because I’ve kept every letter he sent me, tucked in a letter holder on my desk, and because that memory is photographic, as though my mind knew it was important.
The letter itself came in a cream envelope, addressed in bright green ink which made me think of Virginia Woolf. Even though I’d never seen his handwriting before, I knew the letter had to be from him. Not just because of the form of address (though that made me smile) but because the form of address was so clearly from someone who was fond of me.
He wrote in tiny script that I had to crack out the magnifying glass for, on the back of a card printed from a photo he took of the Writers Rock on Iona. That card is tacked up on my bulletin board, but from time to time I take it down and read the text. It’s not a love letter, but it was so clearly written by someone who understood the references that I would get and found them charming rather than annoying. He understood where I was coming from, which allowed me to unfurl.
In epistolary stories like This is How You Lose the Time War, Sorcery & Cecelia, The Moonstone, and The Screwtape Letters, the audience is left with introspection and the unpacking of experiences by the “writer” to understand the story. Each narrative piece unfurls the motion of the lives that we follow, and we can see that in real lives too.
On December 1st, 2019 my marriage ended. My ex-husband informed me of this fact. I know this because we both made Facebook posts on the same day. Mine was a grownup post, a request for privacy and a version of the story that was for public consumption.
His was a joke about a horse walking into a bar.
Like an epistolary novel, I’ll leave you to make your own conclusions about what that means.
The divorce had been coming for a long time—and like in a story told in letters, the time dilation is intense. I can only rely upon my journals, selfies, and chat records with friends to chart my unhappiness and to understand the context of my memory.
In The Screwtape Letters by C.S. Lewis, we get to see into a world that we otherwise wouldn’t get a glimpse of: because of course humans aren’t supposed to know how demons are meant to tempt us. In this Christian text, we are given a view of one human’s path in life, and one demon’s failure to bring him to Hell.
It is very easy to observe failure in epistolary narratives because we have the view of the outsider. As Wormwood fails, the audience knows why because they are in on the ultimate joke: The audience desired his failure (well, a Christian audience anyway, I sort of root for demons generally…)
Letters are confidences. They are private and intimate discourse between individuals, and they are tools for authors (and for people looking at their own lives) to remember and to share truths.
Like how the letters from Barrett Browning betray her chronic illness, or Abigail Adams’s demonstrate the needs of women during the revolution, my own marginalia show the things I tried to hide with the text. My own subtext shows how difficult things had become.
But there are other forms of epistolary narrative. They are harder to pull off in some ways, because when the audience is rooting for failure, they can find it on every page. But when you want us to cheer for the characters in question, when the narrative is less predictable (because what is less predictable than love?) well…the stakes for the writer, reader, and subject change.
“Will you share your life with me for the next ten minutes?” asks the male lead in The Last Five Years during the only duet of the entire musical. Ten minutes can feel very short or very long, depending on who you spend them with. Ten minutes in a doctor’s waiting room? An eternity. Ten minutes sitting quietly with someone you love? The blink of an eye. Ten minutes as yourself? Priceless.
When you ask someone to share ten minutes with you, it’s an easy ask, it’s the following ten-minute increments that begin to matter.
Shared time becomes an act of choice when viewed through this lens, it’s a gift. Not in the way that you think, we do many things in ten-minute increments through inertia, but this is the deliberate choice to spend time with someone you care about, or spend that time on them that matters.
Ten minutes can be squeezed in after Rosh Hashanah services during the children’s naptime, or for a quick hug between meetings on a day when my divorce negotiations became unbearable. Ten minutes can be found.
Dating in your thirties is an exercise in understanding that every ten minutes that you spend could be spent doing something else. Maybe that seems like an obvious thing to mention, but I think for many people they go about their days not thinking about how time functions for them—as a historian I know that time is different now in the 21st century than it was even a hundred years ago. There is an immediacy to our culture that has taken a blow since the advent of COVID-19.
I have to pick how I spend each of my ten minutes very carefully. I’m a Deafblind woman, I manage my health conditions, a full-time freelance job, and this year I was also managing a divorce. I’m dating a father of two who lives half a city away, with a full-time job and his own writing practice. Plus, it’s 2020. We’ve been living in a world that feels like every five minutes there’s a new crisis, and every ten they’ve multiplied by degrees.
Falling in love through ten minutes, through forty-minute walks after dark in parks, through snatched weeknight dates after the children are in bed, it would all be relatively normal (I suspect) in the Before Times, when busyness was a commonality.
But it was when we started snatching ten-minute increments at our writing desks, lifting fountain pens to stationary paper and sending our thoughts to one another that I think things shifted.
We had been dating for six months when the first letter arrived. Four of those months were in the first lockdown, ten minutes on a park bench watching the stars on a cold April night, twenty minutes in that same park watching surveillance helicopters, a series of flirtations via text message between Zoom calls.
But that first letter reminded me how very much I liked him. It landed in my mailbox on a bright June day in Seattle, while protests raged a few blocks away. Through the summer and into fall and winter the letters continued. Quick paced (though not always quick to arrive, as we both watched our mailboxes, hoping a decaying postal service would come through), both of us using deliberately chosen stationary, theming our ink colors, and finding new forms of address that confused the postal service and felt like a form of flirtation all their own. Elsa Death Bredon Wimsey, Dame Elsa, Mr. H. Vane, Poirot, Rupert Giles, we borrowed from fiction, from television, from each other’s personal quirks. These letters are precious to me, because they are one of the ways we fell in love. They gave us extra minutes to share who we were—and sometimes it was almost easier to write down what I felt than to speak to him. I’m a writer, and my best foot is forward with a pen in my hand.
With each letter a little bit more of myself came back, with each literary reference I was able to show my cards, and each time he responded with a reference just as obscure as my own, I felt safe enough to be myself. To be the person I am, and who I had been before my marriage had made me hide inside of a different persona.
With that first letter he inspired me to go rooting through my storage unit to find the stationary I had packed in a box six months earlier in New Jersey, when I was a woman remembering what her own soul felt like again. I hadn’t written a letter in months, I’d barely even cracked my fancy pens out for my bullet journal. The divorce had been hard on me, harder than I’d expected. But even before the divorce I had been made to feel embarrassed by who I was. A woman who loved the feel of a good pen in her hand (why did I need a fancy pen, he would always ask, usually laughing.)
I felt like an Austen heroine, like Lizzie Bennett getting another letter (he even sent me one with her name on it.)
That first letter tripped something over in my mind, I found myself giddy with the idea that I had met an equal. Someone who could trade not just literary references, but snark in equal measure. Who could flirt with gifs until I was put in check mate (a rare occurrence). Who took joy in finding words I did not know, purely because he loved the written word as much as I did.
Like Jonathan and Mina Harker, we were able to close the distance that the pandemic imposed upon us through the written word. Even if we were only a few miles apart, rather than hundreds of miles and countries, the sustenance that our love fed on was the written word.
It’s old fashioned to write love letters, most people in my generation laugh when I say that we’re writing to one another. But letters and communication through distance is not as old fashioned as all that: we see video communication through The Martian, and when I read Mary Robinette Kowal’s Lady Astronaut series, I couldn’t help but see us in the encrypted interstellar love letters written by Elma and Nathan.
Yes, we’re in old fashioned times. A first date these days might be going out walking together, keeping an appropriate distance. A curtsy is a more appropriate greeting than a handshake, or a hug. We are in a time of longing. Letters from the past show that people often had to spend time apart, remembering each other through the process of a letter. And every time a new letter with his spidery handwriting appears in my mailbox a smile lights up my face, my heart skips a beat or two, and my pace quickens back to my desk so I can carefully open the letter and see what he had to say this time.
They aren’t always love letters, though there is love in each of them, the careful crafting of each missive written in the snatches of time that we have to spend at our respective writing desks. He has children, I have a busy freelance career that often makes for long days spent thinking. But each time a letter comes, I carry it to my desk and I take a minute to read, even if I won’t be able to reply until much later in the day.
More ten-minute increments spent at our writing desks, more shared moments, though they be asynchronous: a letter read between job interviews, or written between line edit chapters is still a letter, a shared moment.
I carve out ten minutes, then twenty, then 114 ten-minute increments, then 228…we find days, we find hours, we find time.
Those letters are ways to share our time when we can’t be present in each others’ lives in the same way.
Readers access the emotions of characters through letter writing, like in The Handmaid’s Tale, or the love letters of Griffin & Sabine. The intimacy of the letter allows characters to be more direct with their emotions, because a letter is only meant for one reader.
Any person writing a letter today is coping with the reality that the world is forever changed, that the affection they share with someone is built on a foundation of a time that has changed them permanently. That moving forward in a relationship built in 2020 is one that is built out of hardy material. (Not my idea, but his. Shared here because the truth feels important to note.)
Each letter is a piece of time, an archival document of affection at a time when the world feels changed. It is a piece of a person’s soul, or a character’s. It is a plot point—a way to tell the story.
The last letter I wrote him in 2020 will not be the end of our correspondence. If I’m honest, I could see myself writing him letters for the rest of my life. I can see myself picking up a pen and sending him a letter in a year, a year after that, five years after that. I can see myself carefully selecting inks and stationery in ten years.
The letters are a promise of sorts, they’re a space where for a moment we are only thinking of one another in the space of our excessively busy lives.
A letter is timeless. Like Lewis himself says, it touches eternity. It is that moment, that emotion, that feeling, captured by paper and ink and left indelibly in the hands of time.
In fact, letters let us travel through time and through emotion.
© 2022 Elsa Sjunneson