I keep them under my bed, the letters. I’ve had some of them for a couple of years. Others for 10 or 12. Or 25. There are the envelopes made of wallpaper, old textbook pages. The handmade valentine my brother gave me when I was eight. A birthday card from a childhood neighbor long gone.
They’re all there—stacked and packed like reams of paper into shoeboxes, plastic totes. Boxes and boxes of well-wishes and words, ink and confessions.
It’s true: I have an affinity for words and paper. The pens I write with are based on whether or not I can smell the ink, and my favorite books are used—you know, the ones that smell as if Kennedy is still in office. But it wasn’t until I attended a mail art class at Trade School Indianapolis that I—unconditionally and irrevocably—fell in love with letters.
“That’s great, Dawn,” you say. “Real nice. But what’s Trade School Indianapolis?”
Answer: It’s an alternative, self-organized school that runs on a barter system. It was established in 2012, where teachers propose classes and students barter for knowledge. If someone were to teach Microwave Cooking 101, he or she could—for example—barter for instant coffee or Pizza Rolls, triple-meat flavored.
So, what did I use to barter with for the first letter writing social I attended? Pencils, stationery, and stamps. And, in exchange for those items, I learned that you can mail someone a piece of cake. A pigeon. A flip-flop. I learned about naked mail—items you ship “as-is,” without packaging. And I realized that the reason I had boxes and boxes and boxes of letters was because someone—a lot of someones, really—had taken a moment to put pen to paper, stamp to envelope.
As British author and artist Nick Bantock said, “Letter writing is an excellent way of slowing down this lunatic helter skelter universe long enough to gather one’s thoughts.”
It’s true—the act of writing a letter, of turning feelings into words and thoughts into cohesive paragraphs—is personal. What’s more, you can send a letter for any number of reasons—one of my pen pals even made a list of 100 reasons to send snail mail. But, because of changes in technology and the growth of social media, we’ve grown accustomed to tweets and texts. We send e-cards instead of handwritten notes. Hell, we don’t even have to remember birthdays; Facebook does it for us.
Yes, we all love notifications. But emails and DMs don’t have the same kind of tangibility to them as letters do. Letters, especially the pages-long ones you read about in old novels, are romantic. Candid. Honest. Pensive. Poetic. And there is no limit as to how many times you can read them.
In his first letter to me, my significant other wrote, “I know we’re still just beginning, but we have a lot of life left to live and a lot of wrinkles to iron out … We’re both bat $#*! crazy, D—let’s be crazy together.”
Those are the words I read and reread when I feel lonely, when I’m looking for something to fill the miles between us. My hands smooth the pages he touched. My fingers trace his loopy “S”es.
It’s a piece of him, that letter. And reading it, as author Alexandra Stoddard said, is “… a great and all-too-rare privilege that can turn a private moment into an exalted experience.”
While the letter writing socials at Trade School Indianapolis focus on mail art, postal rules, and how to find pen pals, they also address things like the dos and don’ts of thank-yous, why you shouldn’t use red ink on envelopes, and how letters give shape to the person you are. For example, if your birthday wishes and inside jokes and annual holiday cards were to ever come together, they could say, “You’re an urbanite,” “You’re pretty nostalgic—sometimes painfully so,” or “You are really into cats.” In other words, letters can be the best memorial to your person.
So write on, friends. There’s a shoebox waiting to store your words.
Want to learn more about mail art? Trade School Indianapolis is hosting a Valentine’s Day-themed letter writing social on Feb. 8. If interested, you can sign up here. In the meantime, check out the Letter Writers Alliance, Uncustomary Art, and Month of Letters’s February challenge. Or send Dawn a letter, c/o Pivot. Or send a pigeon. Or flip-flop. Whatever. She’s cool with it.