We’ve entered month three of quarantine over in my neck of the woods. While coping strategies differ among my friends, family, and peers, it seems that we’ve all found some solace by delving into hobbies that maybe we didn’t have a lot of time for pre-COVID. My particular hobby — my passion — of choice is letter writing. I’m talking handwriting, stamps, address books, envelopes, stationery, the post office, all of it. I really can’t get enough these days.
Call me old fashioned, but in a time where physical distance is imperative, I think it’s more important than ever to stay emotionally connected. Of course, I am grateful for the communicative technology I have at my fingertips. My loved ones are only a text or phone call away on any given day. It’s convenient and efficient for sure. However, I find that Snail Mail adds a unique and deeper layer of meaning to my relationships. It’s almost romantic. It’s definitely timeless, too. I mean, there’s a reason traditional post correspondence has survived these hundreds of years through technological innovation, right?
Allow me to tell you about my relationship with letter writing. If you’re interested by the end in throwing your hat into the snail mail ring, I’ve also drafted a beginners guide to help you out.
MY FIRST PEN PAL
When I was a kid, I lived in the Bronx in an apartment building owned by my maternal grandparents. My dad was a full-time musician and my mom worked as a legal secretary, so my grandmother, Margaret, was my primary caregiver during the work week. She lived in the apartment one floor below us, so it was a short commute to daycare every day. I spent most mornings watching Zoobilee Zoo and flipping through grandma’s collection of People Magazine back issues. In the afternoon, I would doodle on large sheets of sketch paper my grandfather had piled up in storage. On one occasion, grandma handed me one of grandpa’s beers from the fridge, mistaking it for a can of Yoo-Hoo. It’s my absolute favorite story to retell at holiday gatherings, especially as my grandmother vehemently denies ever doing it.
Naturally, spending lots of time with my grandmother brought us close together. I loved her very much as a kid, and that love has only grown into adulthood with me. But I think what really solidified our bond were the correspondences we exchanged after my family moved away. We left the Bronx when I was six years old, and relocated to a condo in New Jersey. It was then that my grandmother transitioned from my babysitter to my first ever pen pal.
I don’t quite remember when the letters started coming, but they came routinely. Margaret would write to me often on the same, peach colored stationery with the same red pen. She wrote in exquisitely neat handwriting and in all capital letters. The loops in her ‘O’s and ‘R’s never quite closed. Every note ended with a postscript about how grandpa sent his love, too, even while bedridden. She’d also include a handful of word scramble puzzles she’d clip from the local newspaper. Solving those was another one of our daycare pastimes. Perhaps my favorite one.
In her letters, grandma liked to ask me questions. How is the new house? How is your little brother? Are you two playing a lot? She checked in about school, about piano lessons, and about neighborhood friends. She told me how much she missed me and how she hoped I’d be coming to visit soon. You know, as if it were up to me. At the end of each letter, she’d urge me to write back soon. And I always did, because that was the responsible thing to do. My mom would help me address my envelops and pick out special stamps for the occasion. I remember admiring her handwriting, too — fluid, flawless script that I equated to the epitome of grace. It was later the bane of my existence because I could never forge it accurately on permission slips I’d forgotten to get signed.
Just as I don’t remember how the corresponding began, I don’t remember how it ended, either. I suppose I got older, and so did my grandparents. My grandfather was in poor health for much of the time I knew him, and he eventually passed away in 2006. Grandma’s health started faltering soon after, both physically and mentally. Writing letters evolved into making phone calls. Those were easier for her to handle and remember. Then, in 2015, my grandmother came to live with us in New Jersey. Letters were replaced entirely then by long chats in the kitchen and movie nights out on our screened-in porch. We continued to bond through laughter, late night talks, and meals together instead.
LESSONS IN LETTER WRITING
My original pen pal had retired, but my love of letter writing only blossomed, sowed from seeds my grandmother had carefully planted. School was a big help, too — my watering can, you might say.
First, I attended school at a time where computers weren’t commonplace in the classroom yet. Yes, we were taught how to use one and how to type, but we were also formally educated in handwriting. In fact, I was required to learn cursive in third grade, and to write exclusively in cursive once I’d become proficient in it. Secondly, my elementary school had a ‘post office’ where you could send letters to different students or faculty. Older students got to volunteer as carriers and deliver the mail each week. Every hallway was given a street name, and every classroom had a unique address.
It didn’t take long for me to write to everyone I could think of — my best friends in neighboring classrooms, my favorite teachers, the lunch ladies who made pizza Fridays extra fun. I even wrote to my principal a few times, usually asking if I could borrow the gym to put on a play or throw some kind of party. She always politely declined my proposals, routinely citing that Mr. Motusesky would have no place to teach gymnastics if I commandeered the space.
I had more pen pals in school, too. In 5th grade, I was paired with a high schooler who would write me encouraging letters about the future of my student career. He’d answer any questions I had about what it was like, what he was learning, and what I should prepare for. Once I got to high school myself, I found myself in a 10th grade American Literature class with a teacher from hell. I loathed her for a variety of reasons, but she redeemed herself a little by setting up a letter exchange with students she would be working with in Turkey over the summer. My pen pal was an artist and sent me sketches that always blew me away. We talked a lot about school and not liking it much. We also talked about books and movies and pop culture, and liking all that much better. Even after the school year ended, we kept in touch for a few more months. I warned him about the teacher he was getting, and he didn’t disappoint with updates about her horrible attitude.
My reach only expanded from there. While I cite college as one of the loneliest times in my life — I lacked direction, I was in an unhappy relationship, and most of my high school friends had gone to school out of state– I stumbled upon a vibrant community on the internet. Specifically, I fell in with a bunch of nerds who loved the same things I did. We listened to the same music, liked the same movies, read the same comics, and played the same video games. My particular areas of expertise were Batman and, later, the BioShock franchise.
The great thing about the internet is that it can introduce you to amazing people. The downside is that, more often than not, they live hundreds, if not thousands of miles away. Such was the case for me. From my lonely little bedroom in the suburbs of Jersey, I suddenly had connections in California, Colorado, Michigan, Ohio, Illinois, Texas, and Hawaii. As the years rolled by, I made more friends in England, Ireland, Russia, and South Africa. Australia followed suit, then Canada. I had threads connecting me to places all over the world, stretching out from fingers and my heart any time I felt alone. Two things hit me then. One, I was very lucky to be living in a wondrous age of communication technology.
Two, I was going to need more stamps.
Writing letters to these ‘internet’ friends — I just call them friends now — became commonplace quickly. More, it became an explicit joy during a very difficult time in my life. I would spend hours working on handmade cards, decorating handwritten letters, and crafting little gifts. It certainly helped to pass the time as an insomniac, and it gave me something productive to channel my anxiety and creativity into. As a member of an online role playing community, I wrote my letters both in and out of character, which opened the floodgates to designing custom stationery and curating handwriting fonts. Sometimes I would send out entire care packages of letters and paper-crafts from me and my characters, lovingly inked, aged, bundled, and decorated with stickers, stamps, and washi tape. I’m pretty sure I sent out more Christmas cards than my parents did year over year. The folks at my local post office came to know me by name and by the postage I’d routinely need to purchase.
Some of these friends have faded from my life while others remain. Many more have found their way in from Mississippi, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, Germany, and beyond. I have kept letters from all of them — I treasure my letters from all of them. I write more of them, too, week over week. I write to friends far and near, to relocated family, and to people I don’t even know on behalf of charitable causes. I send admissions of love, of appreciation, and of encouragement when they are needed. I participate in a global postcard exchange, and I’m part of two different letter-writing clubs online. I even bought a manual typewriter to explore new methods of writing. And, yes, admittedly, for the aesthetic.
THE RADICAL ART
As an adult, I hold letter writing in higher regard than I ever have. I have also learned so much through my experiences so far. For one thing, a letter is one of the most meaningful gifts you can give to another person. An expression of love, of friendship, of concern, or of mere acknowledgement is a powerful thing in any medium. But, to have it handwritten on something tangible, on something that someone has made the conscious choice to send to you– that’s just about the most precious thing I can think of. Why? Because letters are inherently born from thoughtfulness and effort. Even a phrase as simple as ‘I Love You’ or ‘I’m Thinking of You’ formalized in a letter gives it new life. It shows the recipient as much as it tells them. Plus, writing your thoughts down means you can’t easily take them back. There’s merit to the written word, and that means something extra when you share it with someone.
Two, it’s one of the most cost-effective gifts you can give to another person. The average domestic letter costs 55 cents to send through the United States Postal Service, and typically arrives to its recipient within 3–5 days. Stationery and envelops are among the cheapest office supplies you can find, too, and are endlessly customizable. On the other hand, international stamps average $1.20 apiece. That means you can physically transport a hand-crafted token of your affection for someone across the entire world for less than the price of a cup of coffee. I can’t speak for you, but this impresses me more than any technological innovation yet that I’ve been alive to see.
Three, it’s an exercise in some very important things. Gratitude. Patience. Delayed Gratification. Vulnerability. Empathy. The list goes on. Overall, taking the time to write and send a letter means you are practicing these things all at once. You are showing appreciation for a recipient, you are patiently waiting for them to receive it, and maybe even respond. You’re creating an emotional connection across distances great and small. There’s a lot to gain here just as much as there is to give. Plus, being on the receiving end of snail mail is a thrill in itself. Believe me, seeing something in your inbox that isn’t a bill, a summons, or junk will be a simple joy you will never get tired of.
My family has since departed from New Jersey, so my grandmother and I are separated by distance again. She’s 93 now, and has little penchant for writing, but I’ve returned to our tradition of mailing her letters. I send her one every few weeks, just because. I ask her about the things she’s watching on television, or if she has any Old Hollywood movie recommendations for me. I tell her I miss her and that I’ll be visiting as soon as I can. Those word scramble puzzle are out of print, but I draw on the envelopes with a little more finesse than I did on grandpa’s sketch paper.
My mom says she’s always thrilled to receive my mail. I tell her, “Not as thrilled as I am to send it!”
Feeling inspired? Check out my beginner’s guide to letter writing here.