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QUESTION FOR you - when was the last time you actually sat down and wrote a letter?

Caught you, didn't I?So - you've been on the phone again? Or the Internet, for goodness sake? Instant communication with the unseen and the unknown?

Time to repent.

I've been thinking about the lost treasure of letters, partly because I have a big chunk of family history invested in letters I wrote to my parents and other family members while I lived in the East.

Early on, it occured to me that those letters would free me from the burden of keeping a journal. So I made copies of them and put them in a binder.

Oh, I know - they aren't as good as a journal, but they're certainly better than nothing. And they are definitely better than a phone call.

I realize we have many emergency needs for phone calls, but the preservation process is not served by a phone call - unless someone was spying on you and bugged your phone.

Otherwise, that conversation went out into the air and was unceremoniously lost forever.

Besides, off-the-cuff conversation is almost never as interesting as carefully crafted sentences placed on paper that can be saved and passed on to others.

On the phone we express ourselves poorly, fall into repetition, forget what we intended to say - and sometimes, when it's over, regret all of it.

If we write a letter - on a computer or typewriter - or even form the letters on paper with our own pen - there is some careful thought applied.

We think about what we're doing, and we build structured paragraphs, being careful to use complete sentences that may even have a literate quality.

If you doubt me, take the trouble to read through the compiled letters that John Adams and Thomas Jefferson wrote to each other from 1777 to 1826.

Those classic documents are a treasure today, mainly because the two founding fathers considered their correspondence an integral part of their daily lives.

The letter-writing process gives us a chance for catharsis, and the product is always appreciated by the receiver, who is bound to be complimented that you spent the time to write two or three pages that can be savored.

That person can chuckle, cry, re-read a favorite portion - then read it to someone else.

All who hear it will be impressed with your wit and style.

Chances are it will hardly ever be misconstrued, like a phone conversation.

"What did he say?"

"Oh, let's see - I should have taken notes. Uhhh - he said that he was going to Oregon next week - or was it Washington? He said to tell you he really enjoyed seeing you last week."

"What did he say exactly?"

"Uhhh, sorry - I just don't remember."

The conversation is gone.

Most important, that letter can become an invaluable part of a family history.

Children and grandchildren can read it and get to know the relative they miss or didn't know in person. Portions of it may even be used to write a book of the person's life.

The same thing applies, of course, to journals, notebooks and other records we may be tempted to throw away but would provide fascinating insight about our lives.

Hang on to them.

Given a choice between writing or dialing, always sit down and pen something historic.

I can't believe that even Alexander Graham Bell would approve of our society embracing the phone so completely that we let letter writing become a lost art.