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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