Get thee to a post box and show someone you care
As of this month, we’re a year deep in the slow-boiling shit soup of the coronavirus pandemic. Twelve months of hokey-cokeying our way through lockdowns have left many of us isolated, scared, grieving, strung-out, financially vulnerable, disillusioned, angry and just plain bored.
We find connection where we can–in the supermarket, on a video call–but if the encounter isn’t laced with the stress of spreading the virus, then it’s a 2D pretend-a-thon where each caller tries their best not to look like they’d rather eat their computer than look at it for another second.
So, what better way to navigate these strange waters than in the tried and tested vessel used by studious eremites, star-crossed lovers, or lonely teenagers seeking some international companionship in a pen friend s’il vous plait.
I’m talking about letters.
“Letter writing is the only device combining solitude with good company.” — Lord Byron
The oldest surviving letter is written on papyrus and dates back to 230 AD. It is a beautifully mundane message between two brothers and a reminder that, despite all our trappings of modernity, we’re largely the same boring ding-dongs we’ve always been.
The letter begins, “I, Arrianus, salute you, praying that all is as well as possible in your life.” It continues to ask after his brother Paulus’s family and pass on love from their mother. A highlight is the request: “But send me the fish liver sauce too, whichever you think is good.”
It’s sort of gorgeous in that it isn’t revolutionary. It doesn’t speak of glory or conquest. It isn’t haughty. It’s just one ancient dude, Arrianus, wishing his brother Paulus well and jonesing for some fish sauce.
We’ve always written letters to check in on each other.
A quiet and patient power
Writing a letter is an exercise in vulnerability. You are committing your thoughts to paper then sending it to the recipient with no chance to immediately explain, mitigate or excuse. If handwriting your letter, you are also vulnerable to errors: one slip of an over-eager hand, and you’re suddenly struggling to make that errant “r” look like the “t” it was supposed to be. No delete button, your mistake just sits there, disguised with a shy little scribble.
Letters call for time and focus. It’s an act of patience and what you’re giving the recipient is your time. And God, if that isn’t precious.
“A letter is never ill-timed; it never interrupts. Instead it waits for us to find the opportune minute, the quiet moment to savor the message.” — Lois Wyse
This winter, while my mother and I were in isolation, I received a letter from my friend’s daughter. She wrote a poem and drew some pictures. I called my mum into the kitchen and read it to her aloud. She took it from me and let her eyes drift over the page, drinking in the big, looping letters and darts of colour. “Isn’t that amazing?” she said, astonished. And isn’t that amazing? A child with a set of markers created magic at a kitchen table miles from her.
Letter writing isn’t just good for the recipient either. The mental health benefits of writing are well-documented. If we’re feeling anxious, jotting our thoughts down can help us process them. Your epistle to a loved one can be therapeutic, just in the very act of putting pen to paper.
To whom it may concern
The letter can be to a parent or caregiver. Sure, a card on Mother’s Day is nice, but think about the spontaneity of a letter, how joyful it can be to receive one: An envelope that isn’t brown! Maybe they will re-read your letter again and again, and somehow, they’ll feel a little closer to you.
Maybe you’ve noticed a friend is feeling down on social media. Maybe they’re going through a big change: a break-up, a baby, moving house, changing job. Your letter might not save their world, but it might save their day.
Maybe, lying in bed one night, you remember a teacher you admired. Where are they now? How are they now? Maybe they taught you how to write letters (correspondence) or letters (ABCs); gave you the power to create meaning just by organising lines on a page.
Maybe you binge-watched a show for that one performance. Does that actor have an agency you can write to? Thank them for getting you through some lonely hours? Theatres are closed, the arts are struggling. Maybe that actor needs your letter more than you know.
Maybe the letter is to someone who isn’t here any more. Maybe the letter is less about greeting them and more about healing you. Maybe you can meet them again in between the lines, sit with them a while and remember.
Maybe the letter is to you. Maybe you write it and receive it. Maybe write it to you as a child, maybe write it to the you of the future. Keep it for another day when all of this feels more distant.
So sit down. Write. Your pen, as Seamus Heaney said, digs. Unearth some feeling. Just a letter. The work of a quiet moment.
A letter speaks of journey and of permanence. Effort. Thought. It is a token of care you can hold in your hand; fold in your wallet and unfold until the edges crease like laugh lines.
Write one this week. Be soppy and silly, meandering and mundane (like our fish sauce-loving brother, Arrianus). Appreciate the weight of it before you drop it into the post box. Think of the sound it will make when it hits the carpet beneath the letterbox or when the thumb slips beneath the seal; the simple, childish pleasure of tearing open a gift.
Know that your letter will mean something, and that whether there’s a RSVP or not, you will always get something in return.