Mar 26, 2018

a love letter to penpals

Last spring, I decided to sort through a pile of letters and postcards. They've arrived in my letterbox one-by-one, over the last ten years. The letters have been outgrowing their home, the shelves of my writing desk. It'd been a long winter, which started with losing someone I loved. Of all the many spring cleaning jobs, this seemed like the warmest — clean shit up, and reminisce...

There were a medley of postcards from a summer romance, written during the stopover on her flight back home. A birthday card from a parent who isn't here anymore. Newlywed photos of a couple that have split. Postmarks from Stockholm, Portland, Amsterdam, London, New York, Tokyo, Chang Mai, Calgary, Oxford, Berlin. Devonport (still counts as overseas, right?), Palmy, Invercargill.

Before I binned any of the letters (as a cleanse it wasn't very successful, I only dropped ten) I took pics of them and sent the jpg's to their senders. One of these Penpals gave me enthusiastic permission to biff her letter. Another is currently working at the Swedish Opera, after dabbling in Floristry. Ashley didn't reply, I think her life has blown up since she used to send me parcels — she has a book deal, averages 400 likes on Insta, and recently featured on Goop.
I made an extra effort to repay Renée, who had sent me fifteen hand-decorated mix CD's over the years. I put together a compilation of my favourite songs from her mixes, and sent it to her home in Amsterdam. I didn't ask her if she still had the same address, I wanted it to be a surprise. A few months later social media told me she's living on the west coast of America now. Just because I'm still here doesn't mean everyone else is in the same place.

Is there anything more thrilling than a well-traveled package in your letterbox? Alas, I don’t get much mail anymore, and not just because there's a mail thief doing the rounds. Are our twenties a halcyon time for getting and giving mail? Because of all the traveling and mingling, and having time to write? Or has Tech killed the Letterbox Star? Digi comms makes it easier to reach out, but mail is special, because it requires Old School thought and effort. A bridge between the two of you.

It's a rare person who can sustain that Penpal dedication. One of the postcards is from Zoe, who I met online. Zoe is a gem, a conscientious and caring. Her postcard lives on my fridge. Image up, and beautiful, tightly-packed handwriting on the back.
Maybe she's was born with it? When Zoe was a tween, on the Kapiti Coast back in 2001, she had 45 concurrent Penpals. She'd come home, get her daily mail, and write three letters back. She said her Penpals were mostly 'Petpals', chatting about cats. Zo's Penpals included a group of Kyoto friends who were all writing to her.
Anastasia is another OG Penpal, who demonstrates a young penpal's sweetness. At age 10, she was in Moscow was writing to Emelie in Paris. When her class visited Paris, a year later, she clocked every street sign, in case it was Emelie's.

I can pinpoint when the world was flipping from sentimental into digital, and we tried to combine the two. People would post enigmatic song lyrics as their Facebook update. In 2006 a Londoner made this postcard so his Gran could send him an email...

Two of the postcards in the stack are from Sally. When we met in 2009 she couldn't get any new messages on her Nokia. She had run out of space because she wasn't ready to delete an ex's txts. Her aesthetic was 'Ugly/Beautiful — think Mick Jagger!', she said. A point of view lost on most selfies.
Around 2009 a group of 100 people, would send mix CDs to each other, across the World. Jono, one of the swappers, had recently lost all of his mp3's when his computer was stolen. So Garrity,  the organiser of the music swap, arranged for everyone to ship new music to him. Garrity and Jono live in Melbourne now, and regularly regale audiences with how they met.

My biggest chunk of postcards are from two friends in London. They were my besties in Auckland, before they left in 2010. Rozzy is the most popular person I know; she has more friends than she can be friends with. Before my 30th birthday that year, Rozzy bluntly said to me, "you won't have many invites to send, but they're all to quality people." I'm only interersted in Penpal-level people ;)
In 2010 I could pick up my landline and say, 'Hi Claire!', because she was the only caller. She is back here now, and she's been so busy (moving / operation / family / job / house sale) that I've only seen her three times in the last year. C'est la vie.
During a meltdown this month, I emailed them a few snaps from the last night of the King's Arms, the cauldron in which our friendship was fired. I missed Rozzy when she was back in January, but finding all her postcards now brought her back to me.

Somewhere in the Pile there's a hand-delivered Xmas card from an ex. She wished me summer as exciting as the crazy summer, but didn't leave a return address.

Even two mins of effort will be noticed. This Post-it got saved.

Can you spare the hours it takes to make some mail? If you are really against the clock, there's an industry of mail professionals on the internet. Blind date with a book sends mystery literature. Ship your frenemies glitter. Potato Pal prints your friend's face on a potato. Reddit also pairs up people for a gift swap.

Some gifted Penpals don't even do it with mail. The day after I met Rebecca, who features prominently in the Postcard Stack, I found flowers on my car. She had a moody flatmate, so she hid Rose Quartz under her bed, to heal their heart! Rebecca's mum has been having radiotherapy lately. Rebecca dresses her three year-old daughter in a tutu, and encourages her to dance in the hospital waiting room. This week they made bunches of flowers for all the people in the clinic.

Open an envelope, stick some stamps, and send something to your Penpal. It'll make their days. The day they get it. And if they're sentimental, the days they retrace their steps, too.

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