October 29, 2020

You Should Start Writing Letters

The first letter arrived dated March 31, 2020. It was from a close childhood friend, later turned college roommate, with whom I regularly keep in touch via instant texts, FaceTimes and phone calls, as most 20-somethings do.

“The sun has set on our 15th day of quarantine/social distancing,” my friend wrote, his chicken scratch still familiar from our days in grade school. “Isn’t it crazy how quickly this has become the new normal?”

He’d alerted me that the letter was coming in a text: After many days of nonstop Zoom calls for work, the last thing he wanted to do was look at another screen to catch up. Plus, he said, writing a letter could be a fun creative exercise to break up the monotony.

So I wrote back. And then I wrote to another friend and another, and lately not a week has gone by when there hasn’t been a letter to respond to. In most of these exchanges, there seems to exist this unspoken code of slightly formal, performative language meant to evoke the past. My childhood friend’s first message, for instance, included a florid analysis of John Keats’s maritime isolation off the coast of typhus-plagued Naples in 1820.

“There’s something about the ambience of the room,” he wrote. “The gentle fire, the nautical aura, the fact that I’m writing a note — it makes me feel like a captain off on an expedition in a foreign land, writing back home.”

It adds to a sense of emotion and escape, yet hardly detracts from the ability to write candidly about our wide range of current experiences. I’ve written about bird feeders, good movies and family; I’ve read friends’ letters about fishing and homesickness and Gabriel García Márquez’s “Love in the Time of Cholera,” in which the young Florentino Ariza writes thousands of love letters during an epidemic in Colombia.

Frequent correspondence by mail is fairly new to me. When I was in fifth grade, we had a pen-pals program with a class in Australia, but when the school year ended, my pal and I fell out of touch. Anytime I travel afar, I try to write to my family; somehow I always tend to get home before my letters do.

But like so many other things in this otherwise-terrifying global quarantine, I’ve found writing letters to be wonderful in the simplest of ways. For each one, I sit at our dining room table for the better part of an hour, away from my phone and computer, with only a sheet or two of blank white printer paper in front of me. I’m hardly able to keep a regular journal without it feeling like a chore, but writing to someone else is sending a fresh entry off into the world without ever having to look at it again.

In return, I’ll be left with something far more interesting than a mundane account of my own pandemic days: a patchwork of pages that were sent to me by others, each one fresher than the next.

It’s been deeply comforting to think that whatever I am writing will soon be in the hands of someone else, especially in a time of so much physical distancing. I’ve sent letters as far as Argentina and South Korea, and as near as only a few blocks from my door. Some of the handwriting I’ve seen, like mine, has been laughably illegible; other letters are aesthetically works of art. One friend, an international student isolating on an otherwise-emptied college campus in New Jersey, enclosed a petal from a blossoming cherry tree. In these pages, I read the smiles I cannot see.

I’m not alone in finding comfort in letter-writing these days. A recent New York Times article reported on the rise in snail mail and handwritten messages; the practice seems to have caught on as people cope with grief from the pandemic. That I’ve only started writing letters now is ironic and sad, too, because the U.S. Postal Service is bleeding. The economic devastation of the pandemic could be the final blow that ends one of our nation’s oldest and most cherished institutions. While an increase in package volume during the first few months of the pandemic is providing temporary relief, no amount of letters we send can make up for the billions in federal funding that are needed to save it.

And yet, as with so many other things these days, I’m holding out hope. A Postal Service survey published in May suggested younger people in particular were more likely to want to send cards and letters during this time. Though that doesn’t mean a lot of us are actually doing it, part of me likes to think there’s some Florentino Ariza out there, writing impassioned letters to the girl he’s not permitted to see.

More likely, it’s because we’re missing our friends and classmates; we’re so badly aching for the simple physical connections that the coronavirus has taken away without a promise of near return. Perhaps it’s because a letter is an unhindered way of working through anxieties, thoughts and emotions during a period of nonstop information and tremendous grief. Perhaps it’s simply a break from a screen or just another way to mark the passage of time when the world seems to be on an indefinite hold.

In that sense, there are plenty of reasons to start writing letters now — not least because there’s something to be said for slowing down. “When I got your letter, the first thing I wanted to do was text you a picture … but I quickly caught myself,” another childhood friend wrote. “What an affront to letter-writing that would have been.” I smiled as I pulled out a blank sheet to start my response. I like to think I’ll keep this up for as long as I can, or at least as long as someone is willing to write back.

Jordan Salama (@jordansalama19) is a writer and the author of the forthcoming “Every Day the River Changes.”

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