To believe in love again — pristine and pure and still protected by sunny optimism — one need only observe Mason Starry. The 23-year-old communications major at the University of St. Thomas sits mesmerized in his chair, largely unaware that the room is filling up with fellow students.
He lingers over a letter held tenderly in his hands. It’s from his girlfriend, Emma Sievers, who is studying in Australia.
There is nothing elegant about the paper; its three pages have been ripped from a notebook. No fancy quill pen. The writing is in pencil.
Sievers shares her gratitude at the serendipitous moment they met last summer, and how lucky she felt. She hopes he will consider traveling with her.
“I’m not even going to throw away the envelope,” Starry says. The envelope contains her name.
Fellow scribes: I bring good news.
The love letter is not lost, even among millennials.
Sometimes, the romantic sentiment takes modern forms, such as an inside joke wrapped up as a text, or a red-lipped emoji.
But you might also want to invest in fountain pens and wax seals.
“I text her, too, but a lot of things can be missed,” Starry said. “There’s a whole different value, sitting down and writing on a sheet of paper. When I get a letter from her, seeing how she’s thinking, it’s so much more genuine.”
Starry’s sweet assessment is no surprise to Michelle Janning. The sociology professor at Whitman College in Washington state spoke recently to a packed room of college students about her research on why love letters matter, even in the digital age.
And they do matter.
“Most people believe that the art of writing love letters is fading away, but that’s not true,” said Janning, whose talk was sponsored by St. Thomas’ Family Studies Program and its Healthy Relationship series.
In 2014, Janning studied more than 800 people, ranging in age from 18 to 89. She asked about traditional paper letters, notes and cards, e-mail, texts “and Snapchat, just for fun.”
Did they write love letters using any of these formats? Did they receive them? If so, did they save them, and how?
Reflecting on these questions, she believes, helps us give meaning to our relationships over time, what to nurture and what to avoid.
Her findings also confirm that we would be unwise to make assumptions when it comes to love.
“It’s complicated,” said the good social scientist.
All age groups save love letters, Janning said. Some respondents kept love letters from as far back as the 1930s. Not surprisingly, younger people are more likely to save heartfelt notes in digital forms, such as a folder created to hold special texts or e-mails.
Women are more likely to save love letters, but to store them away in what Janning calls a “cool” location, such as a box high up in a closet.
She guesses that this is due to women’s compunction to embrace projects, to organize. “You open the box and share something that is precious, like a treasure chest,” said Janning, who keeps her husband’s love letters in a different place from other savables, “because that’s the relationship that matters most to me.”
But listen up:
Men revisit their saved love letters more often than women do, “perhaps because they keep them in more accessible spaces.” Janning calls these spaces, which are closer to where they work or sleep, “heated” locations. She has a theory about this, too.
“There’s interesting research about men falling hard and fast,” she said. “Looking at the letters more often can represent that. Maybe a quieter, less demonstrative way of understanding that the relationship is really meaningful can make men feel secure.”
All of this is a long way of saying that you, and you, are not off the hook.
You can find lots of help for how to write a love letter on the Internet, and even templates to confess your love:
“We’re made for each other!” “I’d like to get to know you better.” “I want to spend the rest of my life with you!”
Templates also are available to remind us of what can happen if we don’t pay attention over the long haul.
“We need to see a marriage counselor.” “Goodbye forever.”
Sad, but maybe not true. Perhaps couples who are faltering only need tangible proof that love — albeit battered and imperfect as it might have grown — endures still.
So, declare your love already, in pencil or quill.
Follow Gail on Twitter: @grosenblum