My coffee mug has a cartoon depicting a psychiatrist in his office chair. On the couch is Santa Claus, the patient.

Mr. Claus has this one-liner, printed around the coffee mug: “Sometimes I don’t read my mail.”

Not the funniest cartoon, perhaps, but it speaks to what I and many others do. We write letters to friends and relatives, sometimes a public official or Santa Claus, without any great expectation of them responding in kind. 

Here’s one that landed in my email box tonight: “Thank you for the Christmas card. I’ve been busy and haven’t had time to respond. Work is going well. Still trying to write in ways that make county government interesting. That can get tough at times, but I think I’m doing better.”

The writer, whose name is Baker, was one of the finest journalism students I ever had in class. He loved sports almost as much as he loved to write, He became sports editor, then executive editor of our college newspaper. Over the years since Baker graduated we’ve kept in touch through letters. He likes email; I’m old school and pound typewriter keys to convey my thoughts on the page.

Makes no difference what the format is. It’s about using language to exchange our different perspectives, random ideas and experiences. Ultimately, it maintains a friendship, which is golden.

If my friends write back to me, it may be months or even years later. No problem. Many of us correspond because we have a crazy urge to let the world know—or a tiny corner of that world anyway—that we’re still alive and kicking (and quite possibly screaming). 

For most people, the best way to improve the world is often the smallest. Tell someone how important to you they are, and be honest in the telling. Don’t sugarcoat it.

As the New Year approaches, I suggest that people write to somebody you care about. Tell them what’s going on in your life, and be sure to ask how they’re doing, knowing they might never answer in a written reply. They might call you up, and regale you with a good story or they might not respond at all. Correspondence, supposed to be a two-way street, is in my experience mostly a single lane of traffic. 

Not always, of course.

A friend of mine, recently diagnosed with cancer, ended his sobering letter with an eloquent description of living in the moment:

“So I look and watch a lot from whatever vantage I can get. Sometimes, it’s the warmth of the front porch protected from the wind on a sunny day with a book or two at hand and sometimes not reading at all and gazing off into the distance with nowhere to be and nowhere to go…”

Before Dan sent his letter, our correspondence over the years had dwindled to an occasional postcard or Christmas card. His latest prompted me to crank out a response on my old manual typewriter that reflected my concern for his health and hope for a successful treatment.

In the space of two months, our correspondence accelerated to the point that we pretty much know what’s going on with each other at any given time. He briefly mentions a medical weapon in his fight against cancer, choosing instead to highlight aspects of his still vibrant life and asking how things are going in mine. 

Another friend almost never writes back but that doesn’t keep me from peppering him with rather mundane news: my wife likes our new dog far more than she or I ever expected, and it’s been snowing like crazy up here in the mountains, and I’m thinking of getting a tattoo on my left cheek.  

Whenever he does feel inspired to write back, Mike announces at the top of the page, “This is my quarterly report…”

I have to laugh. He’s grown so tired of opening mail from Fraser, Colorado, that guilt prompts him to scrawl a quick screed and mail that baby with good riddance. His letters describe his work—three part-time jobs—family vacations, and his exercise regimen at the ripe old age of 78.

Honestly, I feel like a kid under the Christmas tree whenever an envelope appears in my post office box that isn’t a bill or junk. 

A few years ago, I sent a postcard to one of my college professors. We’d lost contact after I graduated decades ago. My note said something like, “You probably don’t remember me but thanks for making a difference in my life.”

Two weeks later, a long letter arrived in my mailbox. It began, “Why of course I remember you…” He noted that age was catching up with him, that he faced serious physical ailments, but his faculties remained sharp and he kept active in his community. 

Finally, my most inspirational teacher wrote at the age of 85, it’s never too late to receive a letter from a student who disappeared off radar long ago. 

Another thing about Baker, my own former student. He happens to have been born with cerebral palsy, and struggles to walk without lurching—something most of us take for granted. I believe this issue delayed Baker, an excellent college student, from finding meaningful employment for years after his graduation.

We wrote back and forth sharing his tribulations and hopeful moments. Finally, a wise person hired him to work as a communications specialist in county government. That was years ago. He not only writes for a paycheck, Baker writes to his old professor.

His email concluded tonight, “It’s hard to write every day at work and then in my free time, but I’ll try and get back to it.”

He knows I’ll look forward to reading his next installment.