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When was the last time you sat down with pen and paper and hand wrote a letter? The art of penmanship and scribbling down your thoughts in a journal or sending them on to someone is not as commonly practiced among "Englishers" (non-Amish) as it once was.
Cell phones and the internet have made connecting with friends and family as easy as a click of a button. A person could be over a thousand miles away but it can be hard to tell when their response to your last text message was within the second.
In a culture where technology is very minimal and the simplest forms of communication still exist, it is no surprise that letter writing is still a prominent form of communication among Amish communities. Amish families are often quite large and spread out. For the Old Order Amish, letters are one of the few ways in which Amish families can stay in touch with each other.
Forums and chat rooms are great ways for those of us with modern technologies to share common interests and swap trade secrets with others and not even leave the house. While the Amish approach isn't as instantaneous, they too have a way of keeping up on the latest trends and topics in other Amish communities.
Circle letters tend to have a common interest on everything from adoption, to teaching, to history, to family deaths and illnesses and even hosta collections. As a retired school teacher, one Old Order Amish man - who wished to remain anonymous - has written in several different circle letters.
But how do the Amish find these circle letter groups to become a part of?
A popular Old Order Amish newspaper, Die Botschaft (a Pennsylvania Dutch term for "The Message"), is a weekly paper written by unpaid Old Order Amish and Mennonite "scribes." These scribes write down happenings in their communities.
The classified section of the newspaper often has a listing or two of invitations to join a circle letter. The listing will have the name of the person wishing to start the circle letter along with the topic of interest. All those interested in participating in the circle letter send their name and address to address listed in the paper.
Sometimes a circle letter can generate an abundance of interest. A circle letter invite for Amish men and boys who were or are school teachers had so much response it had to be divided into three separate groups, explained the Amish man.
A list of names and addresses of all those interested in being a part of a circle letter are printed up and the first letter in the group is drafted. The letter along with the list of addresses is sent on to the next person in the list.
As the letter is passed along from person to person, a new letter is inserted sharing their thoughts and knowledge on the subject matter. On average, a circle letter will have general shared news on a topic but sometimes a person may wish to comment directly to another person within the letter.
With letters on special collections, such as hosta collections, a circle letter could cover anything from tips on growing and maintaining the plants to actually arranging to swap plants.
More serious letters about family illness and death may be focused more on sharing stories of heartache and how to cope. It can be a support group of sorts for those dealing with these issues.
Depending on where a person falls on the list, they could be receiving an envelope filled with dozens of letters from each person in the group. Each letter is labeled with the Amish person's name and a number as a way to keep the letters in order.
It is important to keep these letters moving amongst the circle once it is started. Sometimes there is even a penalty for holding on to the letters for longer than a week before sending them on. This penalty can be something like paying the postage for the next few people within the group.
After a letter has come full circle, the original author of the letter may remove their old letter and write a new one. These letters can go on for years and can travel as close as a street or two away while others travel nationwide.
The Amish man said that he is a part of one circle letter that travels to nine different states and another letter that has been exchanging hands for 24 years. Some of these people he has never met.
While one can get to know a person pretty well through their letters, some circle letters have reunions. Everyone who is a part of a circle letter can plan to meet and talk for the first time face to face.
"It can be interesting to finally meet these people and find out you may have actually attended similar Amish events and never known it," said the Amish man.
Circle letters can be an important part of the Amish community. In a way it is an Amish "chat line" of such and a way to keep in touch with other communities outside of their own.