This Is Us

How Pen Pals Are Saving Me

For me, the single best thing about this last year — a year of unrivaled loss, sadness, rage, and anxiety — has been the mail. Corresponding with strangers has been bringing happiness, fulfillment, and a sort of peace that’s lacking elsewhere in this untethered world. It’s as if these missives from afar are somehow anchoring me in place, rooting me in my own life, and forcing me to slow down, pay attention.

I tentatively joined writer Rachel Syme’s #penpalooza early last summer — early in the pandemic — if only just to “feel something,” as the kids say. Rachel’s Twitter is a riot of joy, with book recs, playlists, bath talk, and a Perfume Genie (in which she guides you to the scent of your poetic desires). There are deep dives on tea, fashion, film, and shopping. It’s a perfect mix of intellectual observation, culture guidance, and buzzy gossip. Rachel is our cruise director, entertaining us on the high plague seas. By creating Penpalooza — a pen pal exchange where people sign up to send and receive letters to and from strangers — she has connected more than 10,000 of us from over 50 countries in this season of isolation. And we are all better for it, in so many ways.

Pen pals, prior to this diversion, meant childhood to me. Bored girls and a few boys, kitty cat stickers, and traced cartoons. As a young teen, I had a Japanese pen pal, Chieko. She sent me tissue-thin letters written in perfect looping cursive, with animals and anime characters carefully drawn in the margins. She spoke mostly of endless schoolwork, and it was clear that writing to me was enforced English practice — we were matched by our schools. Her English was better than mine, and her letters were far more beautiful. I saved every one.

Even if nothing but the words, it always feels like a gift.

I was skeptical of this recent project — me, fiftysomething and treading water, feeling as if there’s not much new to say. But the pandemic’s unique combination of sequestered boredom and constant panic convinced me to toss my hat in the pen pal ring. What was there to lose? I would invest only as much as I want and help the beleaguered post office in the process.

It began inauspiciously. I was ghosted by both the stranger with my address and the one I wrote my first letter to. And then, comically, I received a response from a third person that was a polite rejection — a cute card that basically said, “Thanks but I’ve no time for you now.” After these false starts, though, I found my pen pal groove. I matched with a few through the project and have convinced some virtual friends to join me in the mailbox. It’s the most satisfying, delicious fun I’ve had in ages.

Writing letters, it turns out, is fun. Even when I can’t write my work, I write letters. Where journaling is a chore, a letter is a break. A letter can be anything you’re in the mood for — description, complaint, questions, lists. It can tell a story or a joke or a stream of consciousness rant. Some of my letters are typed and printed; some are scrawled out in loopy longhand, slanting up one side of the paper. Some are both! Some are pages long and some are postcard notes. There are asides and exclamations; we write of cocktails and dinner, books, and politics. I speak myself, my space, my landscape to the page and then send it into the unknown. We write ourselves in letters — who we’d like to be, our best selves, but also, if it feels safe, our timid tender small selves.

And then there’s the physical fact of the letter: What does it smell like? What sort of paper is it? What stamps are these? What treasure has been slipped into the folded papers? A bookmark, a postcard, stickers, stamps, recipes — even if nothing but the words, it always feels like a gift. I’ve sent all these things, printed out poems, and decorated recipe cards. I’ve discovered washi tape and, yes, kitty cat stickers.

And stationery, my god, I’ve fallen into a stationery hole, and it is a wonderland. I have 100 Postcards from Penguin (a gift from a pal) and gorgeous Mary Delaney cards. Etsy is a treasure chest of letter supplies, and museum stores are bursting with beautiful options. And, finally, the envelope — the wrapping — is yet another canvas.

I have pulled the loveliest things from the mailbox, sometimes on the darkest days, and it is an indescribable joy. Just the handwriting of another can brighten a mood. Some pals paint charming images on the envelope; some use elegant calligraphy and wax seals. Some are stamp collectors. I am a clumsy novice, but my envelopes have personality, thanks to a fat book of stickers and a box of washi tape. It may be a somewhat loud and chaotic personality, but I’m having fun and putting some color in someone else’s mail.

We are writing history, documenting the moment, if only in meals and moods and weather reports.

In these Zoom times of fast chat, snail mail is saving me. I’ve lamented the lost art of letter writing but done nothing about it — until now. The payoff is in the heady mix of hope and patience; the waiting is the thing. “Patience is a conquering virtue,” wrote Chaucer. There is much to conquer, at the moment, and practicing the lost and necessary art of patience feels somehow like strength training. Writing to pen pals is not like writing to old friends, picked up conversations with inside references. It’s a slow introduction of sorts, a sidling up to new connections, sharing your best self but also testing the edges. And waiting for it. We have, it turns out, so much shared experience.

I have, on the bedside shelf, a big fat book entitled Women’s Letters and another called Between Friends: A Year in Letters. Just two examples of thousands of letters throughout time. They are filled with the grand and the mundane, tales of war hospitals and peacetime walks, fond memories and hopes for the future, meals and weather, tales of drama and whispered pillow talk. They were — we are — writing history, documenting the moment, if only in meals and moods and weather reports. We are writing hard evidence of the grinding struggle of this era.

We study letters from history, like old snapshots, and learn from them. What did they eat? How did they feel? What did they share or obscure? While I am getting in touch with my neglected tween self with stickers and cute papers, I am also creating my own snapshot, a midlife woman in a New York plague winter. We are connecting, in spite of our isolation, calling out to one another from our distant quarantine corners.

Are you all right over there?

Not really, but here’s a good book and a cocktail recipe! Love your stamps!

Pen pals are a habit that will stay with me, I think, well beyond our shared pandemic experience. I am making bright, creative friends all over the world, and it is reminding me of the value of connection, and the comfort of shared experience. If the isolation is getting to you, slip a little note in an envelope and wing it to a stranger — you never know what will come back.

Write it down.

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