Photo credit: Abigail Rollins
Photo credit: Abigail Rollins

Can We Talk About the Mail?

By Abigail Rollins

The highlight of my day is when the mail arrives. Not like there’s a ton of competition, I mean, this is still quarantine. All the same, the moment I hear my mailbox squeak open and shut is one I look forward to each day. As the neighborhood letter carrier exits my front porch, I call out “thank you!” and if they aren’t wearing headphones, they call back “you’re welcome!” It’s the most social interaction I’ll have with someone outside my home if I decide to put off going to the grocery store again. Sorting through cataloges I swear I’ve never requested and too many real estate mailers, I come across an envelope marked in familiar script. The loops and curves of my friends’ handwriting hold my name and address differently than other mail in the stack.

Life, at least for those like me whose psyches are now nearly fully immersed in their Instagram feeds, has developed a certain two dimensionality lately. Sending and receiving letters is grounding in ways digital communication can’t match; there’s the weight of pages in my hand, the sound of crinkling paper, the feeling of accomplishment when I place the stamp in exactly the right spot. Beyond that, it’s a way to connect with friends in material ways without pressure to immediately respond or be a version of yourself that you’ve curated online. 

When campus shut down last spring, I let my personality and attention span melt even further into social media. So much of life at that time was as traumatic as it was nebulous, and it was a struggle to stay directly connected with reality, as it was with people, even when I wanted to. But the thing about social media feeds is that they reflect what people most want to be seen about themselves. That’s only been intensified since so much of what we had to ground our self-perception has been put on indefinite pause. What would ordinarily be a casual DM can become incredibly personal very quickly, and it’s not easy to have the capacity for deep conversations these days, especially over instant messaging.

With letter writing, I don’t feel the same pressure to press everything I’ve been feeling into an envelope. I can offer up a version of myself that’s more contemplative than usual, and I can take time to focus on details of my life that mean something without meaning everything. I write about what the weather looks like from my window. I jot down a playlist of songs that have made me smile lately. I share a bizarre story about a neighborhood squirrel that had a heart attack in my yard last week. Letters are a balance between the lighthearted and intimate. Showing someone my handwriting feels oddly vulnerable. There’s no backspace key and no way to hide spelling errors or rewrite something poorly phrased without scribbling it out in a very obvious messy way. My thoughts and errors are made physical with letters, but it feels special to send them off as they are to people I can trust to hold them safe for a while.

Snail mail is also an act of memory making. I love sending little keepsakes along with letters. I keep up a small collection of pressed flowers, quick watercolor sketches, and photographs to send out. This light crafting gives me an excuse to step away from doom scrolling and/or responsibilities for a while and instead focus on material objects that mean something to me. Letters and keepsakes between pen pals are kept for a long time after they’re sent. Even if they mark only the mundane– a Polaroid of a thriving Monstera, a page about caterpillars cocooning in the garden out back, a flower from a walk around the block– what we send to each other exists as memories of this time.

The whole year is nearly over, and it feels like so much time has been lost rather than spent. It’s unsettling, to say the least. With what looks to be at least another year of masks, working from home, and Zoom calls, I fear losing meaning and parts of myself in all this time. It should mean something, shouldn’t it? We don’t have the same sense of occasion or time passed, but we can maybe make this time significant by documenting small parts of it—details that mean nothing, but when you put them together, maybe mean more than we know right now.