Age of Awareness
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Age of Awareness

Penpals, write! How writing to strangers connects us to community.

I’m gazing into a postcard of the mountains of Massachusetts, a bookmark with an Emily Dickinson quote in my other hand: ‘It’s all I have to bring today…’ the quote says. But there’s more. Before me are four pages of a handwritten letter, from a stranger in Birmingham, Alabama. For privacy reasons, I won’t be sharing what my new penpal told me of her life, but I know I urgently need to write back to her.

On a white and turquoise tablecloth, my first letter is laid out. It includes a postcard of mountains, a bookmark of green fields and a Frida Kahlo transfer.

Letter writing has become a way for people to connect during lockdown. Penpaloooza was started by New Yorker writer and editor, Rachel Syme, with an Instagram call-out that has grown from an initial 100 participants, to more than 4000 people, writing letters, collecting stamps, sourcing small gifts and sharing words. There are writers in more than 30 countries, and people post their treasures at the hashtag #Penpalooza.

When my first piece of mail arrived, the excitement I felt was beyond reason. The pure thrill of a package, holding pieces of a person–a bookmark, a sticker and words–was quite simply intoxicating. Across a two month period, this connection had taken shape and taken flight across the globe. From my letter sent from the southern coast in August, to its receipt in the USA in September, and the return missive arriving here in October, we have reached hands, hearts and pens across the globe.

An envelope decorated with old wrapping paper is posted in a red Australia Post letterbox
Black calligraphy on the back of an envelope says ‘howdy!’
Howdy from Washington, DC.
An old atlas shows a map of Alabama and Georgia. The colours are yellow, beige and green.

Part of the thrill is hope. A hope for connection and a vote for our postal services, especially at this time while both Australia Post and the US Postal Service are bearing the heavy load of lockdown, and in the USA, the pressures of an election. Will the letter make it? Will our words be read? So much invested in such an initial unknown. As Penpalooza founder Syme says in ‘Finding Pen Pals in a Pandemic’: ‘Even under the best of circumstances, there’s a delay, a period where the letter is an object of hope, in transit between the present and the future.’

As I read the letter, I scurry to grab the old atlas. In it, the country is shown by population density, a fact which seems to take on even more pertinent meaning in this period of pandemic. How close are we? How many of us might get the virus? And how connected can we be when we are made to stay apart?

The letters don’t just contain the words; people have begun sending illustrations, postcards and vintage stamps. The envelopes are decorated with washi tape, notes written on pages cut from picture books and cards made from an atlas. One artist has created a Penpalooza sticker. I’ve just ordered some, along with a collection of old Australian bird and sea creature stamps to send to distant penpals.

Many of those participating remark on Twitter that they could never have imagined spending nights with stamp sets, stationery and coloured pencils.

Neither could I, but I now have a box filled with assorted paper, stickers, stamps and cutouts.

What is it about the letter? Having found Penpalooza, I soon discovered a number of other letter writing groups, and couldn’t stop myself from signing up. Author Jon McGregor started a letter writing project for his students, The Letters Page, which has continued to flood him with mail. In a BBC article, he says “I think people are looking back to letters and letter writing as a general reawakening of things which are hand-made or unique in some way and have a personal touch.”’

The Handwritten Letter Appreciation Society are just celebrating their third birthday. Some of the aspects within their manifesto are:

“We pledge to keep handwritten letters alive by encouraging people to carry on writing them. We see a person’s handwriting as a thing of beauty. Along with handwriting we feel all stationery and the Postal Service are wondrous things and something to be used regularly.”

There’s also Postcrossing, where I have signed up for random postcards. Started in 2005 by Paulo Magalhães, “Postcrossing’s goal is to connect people across the world through postcards,” the site says. Each user has an ID and each postcard is registered; people upload pictures of postcards when they are sent and received.

A postcard of an old green car sits on a turquoise and white tablecloth
My first Postcrossing card, sent to MA, USA

I take my writing stuff to the St Kilda Botanic Gardens, and write to my penpal with my back resting against the bark of a tree. There are people in lockdown Melbourne gathered in circles, rugs pulled in on the grass. The ants begin to crawl into my hair as a dog in front of me plays with a massive ball of ice as big as his head. I write to my penpal of these things. Does she feel the scrape of my tree trunk, if I ask her to imagine it? Does she see the dog? Does her head itch from the ants?

In my return mail to Alabama I send a copy of an 1853 map of the Southern coast, a postcard of a beach and an origami heart made by my daughter. These pieces tell of a sunken wreck, my connection to the ocean and the stories embedded in another cycle of life. I’m adding some layers to the topography, with the hope my penpal sees my landscape; our landscape.

A hand-drawn coastal map shows shipwrecks in Port Phillip, 1853

Recently, the Letterbox Project was launched by Connected Australia, a letter exchange project to counter isolation and loneliness by matching volunteer writers with residents in aged care and disability homes. There are already 6000 people wanting to share stories, connecting at a time when we are forced to keep our distance. The response was so overwhelming, I’m still waiting to be matched up after registering weeks ago. For now, I’ll keep writing to my few new penpals, holding onto hope.

A yellow origami heart sits on a turquoise and white tablecloth of yellow and white flowers.
Wax seal on back of orange envelope
A pastel-coloured envelope addressed to Tiffany is strewn with stamps of birds and sea creatures.
Sending old stamps of birds and sea creatures
An envelope heading to Washington has three wombat stamps on it. I am posting it into an Australia Post letterbox

This piece was first published in The Guardian, Wednesday November 4, 2020

Read more about Penpalooza, including some quotes and images from me, in this piece by David Blank online at CNN.

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Anna Sublet

Curious reader and undercover scribbler. Published in The Guardian, The Age, Australian Traveller, Footy Almanac, The New York Times.