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Ode to a Lost Existence

By Mer Stern (2019)

Some may call people like me hopelessly nostalgic, stuck in the past. Others have gone another way and tried to manufacture and monetize collective nostalgia for their own commercial gain. I’m looking at you, Buzzfeed. But I am merely one human pondering the loss of an old way of life that became so suddenly a thing of the past. We are virtual beings now, we are pixels and code.


When I was a kid I would spend hours pacing around our dining room rug as I talked to my friends on the telephone. I would trace the intricate patterns of leaves and flowers with my toes, going over the corners again and again. I remember one afternoon in middle school as I dutifully patrolled the rust colored border, my best friend ecstatically shared the news that she officially had her first boyfriend. I stopped in my tracks by the window, trying to let that news sink in. After a moment, I remember telling her how awesome that was, while feeling a little uneasy and thinking to myself, is it really awesome, though? Boys are completely the worst. She gave me the play by play while I resumed my patrolling.


These days the majority of phone calls that I receive are from robots trying to convince me that I am the target of a federal investigation. In the rare occasions that someone I know actually calls me I immediately assume that something horrible must be happening. Luckily that is not usually the case, but that’s how jarring it has become to get calls now, at least without a plan or a warning text first.

But I have many fond memories of the good old days of the landline. From making plans, to patiently (for the most part) listening to a friend recite old middle school diary entries, to getting furious with and repeatedly hanging up on my high school boyfriend…the phone has heard it all. All the childhood chatter, the un-returned “I love yous” of it’s all condensed into texts, messages, or whatever else the kids are using these days. It’s definitely not the same. But at least I can count on evil robot woman to continue calling me 24/7. And clearly I have more important things to worry about anyway because as she said in her latest voicemail, I only have three days left to respond or it’s off to jail with me :)


In my parents’ house there is a weathered gray cabinet stuffed to the brim with old photographs. Piles of them are stacked on top of each other in ancient shoeboxes. No one ever looks at them, but they exist, a forgotten relic of the old order. One time I indulged my neat-freak self and attempted to finally organize them, and I think it nearly killed me. There was something so raw and painful about holding these moments in my hands, symbols of people that we used to be and things that used to matter in our lives. Some of the photos that I found were from before my time, but somehow that didn’t matter. There is no chronology to the boxes, and the memories are all scrambled. There was something about jumping through time that made it all harder. I eventually gave up and just let the past be.


But the more digital our lives become, the more I appreciate those old boxes, even if I don’t dare open them again.  They immortalize on film a time when we took photographs more thoughtfully, simply for the sake of remembering. We were more connected to the camera—we actually used cameras then. It was a personal and physical experience. Hearing the click of the shutter, feeling the viewfinder up against your eye, looking through that tiny box and somehow feeling like you were framing a secret little world that in that moment only you could see.


Back then we had the luxury of not constantly worrying how we would be perceived by the people in our lives—it was a much smaller group of people who we would probably put in that category. We didn’t have to worry that our photos would end up on social media for all the virtual world to see and judge. We could just say “cheese” and exist in that moment, move on to the next. And nothing had to become of the photos, they could be free to be seen by a thoughtfully chosen few or to gather dust in an old cabinet.


What is better than opening a letter addressed to you? Unless of course it’s a bill because you keep forgetting to go paperless. Or maybe it’s another unwanted credit card offer—how the hell did they get your address anyway? But no, I am talking about a real letter sent to you by a real human that you care about. And that person cared enough about you to take the time to track down paper, envelopes, stamps, and then to actually write something just for you and go find a mailbox (a mailbox!) and send it to you. What a concept. Birthday cards, letters from sleep away camp, manifesto drafts...anything was fair game. It was meant for you and it exists only to be read by you. Am I crazy or is that pretty intense? In a time when we can’t seem to respond to a simple text, this is pretty powerful stuff.


It feels significant to write a letter, too. To actually write something by hand, to feel the smoothness of the pen against paper. All of the imperfect marks, the accidental smudges that I try to disguise as flowers…it’s all part of the experience. I never liked the sour taste of the envelope’s adhesive, so I would use two pieces of scotch tape to seal it up instead. I love feeling the weight of a letter in my hands when it’s all ready to send off. It’s so light, but significant. I always worry a little bit that somehow the address will be wrong and my letter won’t get where it needs to go, but that only gives the whole activity a heightened sense of importance.


I think that my grandparents are the only people in my life who still send letters. The world has moved on, and that makes me sad. No more paper trail, what we are left with is this ever-shifting digital world that we have created. Now if you want to save something from being swept away in the data tornado that is our message threads you would have to take a screenshot, which just doesn’t compare at all, and comes with a certain amount of shame. But it’s the last proof of caring in the digital age, those little pixels are all that we have left to show that we are loved and valued. Clearly I need to find a pen pal or get a hobby, but until then I am doomed to keep sneaking screenshots. How I miss you, snail mail.


We certainly are losing something significant as these things become more and more obsolete. I don’t think that they are replaceable, but that makes me love them even more. The memories dance around my mind.

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