Before we go any further, I must confess my odd fascination with mail carriers.
It’s easy to take the product of their work for granted: The mail just shows up in your box six times per week and you don’t have to think about how it got there.
I’ve always thought about how it got there. I’ve always found comfort in the fact that, whatever else might be going on in life, the mail is always on the way. There’s something wonderful and reassuring about the regularity of it. The ritual of anticipating and receiving it.
Too, I’ve always imagined that the work of mail-carrying must turn its practitioners into low-level Zen masters, walking the same route and wearing the same outfit day after day as the world changes around them. With boots (or sensible walking shoes, as the case may be) on the ground, looking at the same things day after day, they must notice things that occasional, drive-by visitors don’t. They must see changes in neighborhoods, in houses, in volume and type of parcels being delivered to particular properties, in return addresses. If they’re paying attention, they must know a lot about us. They must know a lot about life and all its cycles.
Or maybe they’re just sticking stuff in boxes from 9 to 5, paying little mind to anything, lacking all skills of observation and reflection. I like to imagine not.
With the rise of email and online billing, the content of postal mail has changed. Now it’s mostly advertising. I understand that this might diminish some people’s appreciation for the profession, even if it has done little to diminish my own. Little surprise, then, that I have to go back to the early 1900s – when mail played a much more central role in communication – to find someone holding letters and the people who carry them in the proper esteem. At the Smithsonian Institution’s National Postal Museum, there’s an inscription of “The Letter” by Dr. Charles W. Eliot, a former president of Harvard University:
Messenger of Sympathy and Love
Servant of Parted Friends
Consoler of the Lonely
Bond of the Scattered Family
Enlarger of the Common Life
Carrier of News and Knowledge
Instrument of Trade and Industry
Promoter of Mutual Acquaintance
Of Peace and of Goodwill Among Men and Nations
Now that’s more like it.
I call this my metaphysical mailperson song.