For the Love of Mail: Letter Writing
in a Pandemic

Lauren Markham on the Daily Magic of the US Postal System

My favorite activity, my only faithful daily ritual, is to check the mail. My husband pokes fun, but whenever I’m not traveling he lovingly leaves the task to me. These days, it goes without saying, I’m always home. And while time has become a confounding concept of late (What day is it? How many weeks have gone by? How many months? How often have I cooked this exact same meal?), one reliable marker of pandemic time passing is that once a day the mail arrives, and once a day I go outside to lift the mailbox’s creeky lid. Some days something interesting comes, most days it does not. But every day there’s the possibility of arrival.

What is it that I’m waiting for? Some days I’m expecting a check from one of the various, and inevitably delayed, writing commissions I’m owed. Some days I’m expecting a package—a book, my new toothbrush head, one of the several floral onesies I’ve purchased on Etsy in the past few months in order to brighten my mood and rid my mornings of the burden of too much choice (a jumpsuit is the energy bar of clothing: efficient, a complete outfit unto itself.) But most of all, I’m hoping for a letter, that old fashioned language of love.

My correspondence with loved ones, and particularly fellow artists, is what has kept me aloft in recent months in this era of devastating loss. Their letters, postcards and care packages have reminded me that there is still real, thrumming life out there, on the other side of my door, through the toxic smoke of the California wildfires and the haze of so much uncertainty, and that there is a reason to keep writing.

*

If you think about it, the postal service sounds like a project cooked up by Miranda July. Okay, here’s how this is going to work: you write a letter to a beloved. You put it in an envelope onto which you write your beloved’s name followed by a special code related to where that person lives. There’s a sticker that you’re going to have to buy—only a few places have them—and you must place this sticker on the top right hand corner of the envelope (some of these stickers affix automatically, others you must lick with your tongue). Then you take the encoded, stickered letter and walk around your neighborhood for a while until you find a blue metal box, which will just be sitting there on a corner somewhere, waiting. You slip the letter into the blue box and close the hatch. Your letter will be safe there for a while. Eventually, someone in an official uniform will come to pickup the contents of the blue box, including your letter and many others like it—all these messages on their singular, baffling journeys. The person in uniform will book your letter a plane ticket or load it onto a truck. Within a few days, rain or shine or snow or sleet, your letter will arrive in the hands of your beloved—even if your beloved is very, very far away. 

In reality, the US Postal Service is a vast operation employing more than 600,000 people and relying on machines, complex transit networks, and considerable federal funding to ensure that anywhere a package needs to go, it will be delivered.

The USPS began in 1775 with Benjamin Franklin as its first postmaster general. It didn’t issue stamps until 1848; before that, the postmaster would calculate the postage for each parcel based on the number of pages enclosed, and write it in by hand. (Until 1855 postage could be paid either by the sender prior to a parcel’s mailing or by the recipient upon arrival—kind of like calling collect, but with a letter.) Over the years the mail was delivered using horse drawn carriage, electric motorcar, Harley Davidson, bicycle, a motorbike called “The Flying Merkel,” sleds pulled through the snow. Like midwives of correspondence, postal workers have long made sure the mail gets where it needs to go. (Except perhaps William Faulkner; before he was fired from his job at a Mississippi post office, he was known to deposit a person’s mail directly into the garbage can.)

My correspondence with loved ones, and particularly fellow artists, is what has kept me aloft in recent months in this era of devastating loss.

It’s nice the unsung heroes of the postal service are finally getting their due. My uncle, now a retired mailman, spent his whole career walking through the outskirts of Reno delivering people’s mail: their paychecks, their medicines, their US census forms, their tax documents, their love letters, their draft papers. I always thought postal workers like Bunk were real-life tooth fairies or Santa Clauses: people whose jobs gave them wings.

In trying to destroy the United States Postal Service, the current administration isn’t only imperiling a critical public service and attempting to rig the election and further erode what’s left of our trembling democracy. They’re also stripping one more precious layer of magic from the world. Without a little bit of everyday magic, it’s going to be all the more difficult to survive. Or to write. Or for the world to unfold in ways that are unexpected, that we can only imagine.

To mail a letter is to send something out in the world with a faith that it will reach its destination. Writing is the same way. We write with hope that our work, like a letter, will find its way to where it needs to go.

*

Ever since I was a kid, I have faithfully kept journals and written letters. My best self has always existed on the page.

When I was 17, my best friend Lindsay gave me a leather journal case. On it, an abstracted human figure reaches its long arms up toward a full moon in a star-spotted sky. “I saw this figure,” she wrote in a letter to me that accompanied the gift, “this shining worshipper of high ideals and natural miracles, and I immediately thought of you.”

Every year I buy a new notebook and slip it into the cover’s skin. I still keep Lindsay’s letter that accompanied the journal, along with many other letters from the past 20 years, tucked into the folds. Letters from friends who lived far away; letters from boyfriends and love interests; letters from my grandparents. A letter from my mom, when I was 20, telling me she had been diagnosed with breast cancer—the same disease that had killed her and Bunk’s mother before I was born.

“I want to blame someone, somehow,” she wrote, “but at the end of the day what I really want is to live a lot longer so I can hang out with you.” She did live a lot longer, thank goodness; she’s still alive. And so is that grief-stricken desire of hers, forever sealed in that letter that I’ll never throw away.

Over the years the mail was delivered using horse drawn carriage, electric motorcar, Harley Davidson, bicycle, a motorbike called “The Flying Merkel,” sleds pulled through the snow.

As I enter middle age, I realize it’s rather predictable to be so preoccupied with the analog and the passing of time. But I can’t help it. I love the physicality of all my notebooks and letters, those stowaways of the bygone. In their physicality lies a risk; if my house were to catch fire, for example, they would certainly burn. This precariousness makes the letters and notebooks all the more sacred. They are singular; you can’t store them on some cloud.

For a while, long email correspondence offered a similar allure to letters. But the instantaneousness of it always felt like a cheat; a bing in the inbox wasn’t the same as receiving a physical object at the end of its long journey. Increasingly, email became the territory of logistics and commerce, less room for the slow sorcery of correspondence. Perhaps an ex-boyfriend put it best in a letter he wrote me in 2006. “I think daily of writing an email, but I feel there’s something more concrete and therapeutic about a letter.”

In high school, I fell in love with a boy via the mail. We saw each other every day but, though we took long walks and read together in the city’s parks and rode our bikes through cow fields, we barely spoke. It was confusing, how little we had to say to one another in the daylight, how much we had to say on the page. “I just want to go around opening doors,” he wrote to me when we were apart later that summer, of his thirst to truly live. “I feel like the world is so huge and my mind is being blown away so often that, well, I’m just missing stuff.” I remember being so moved by these words; I felt the exact same way. We were so hungry for correspondence, hungry for the world.

To love, writes Rilke in Letters to a Young Poet, is the ultimate human task. “That is why young people, who are beginners at everything, are not yet capable of love. It is something they must learn.” My old letters are, if nothing else, proof of this.

“Reading this over,” one ex wrote me in a letter a few months after we’d graduated college and split for good, “I don’t really want to send it to you for a few reasons I guess. One, I don’t even really know if you’ll read it” (of course I read it—a letter from the boy who had snapped my heart in two) “or how you’ll feel to receive news from me” (I remember it felt like a stunned bird had reawakened, frantic, inside my ribcage). “Two, this letter is so factual and boring and dry. I guess that’s partly why all those past letters went unsent.” But it mattered less what was in the letter than having received it at all. A record of his boring days? I treasured it. And now, after all this time, a record of his boring days is a record of my former life—an echo, a mirror.

These days, and I know I’m not alone in this, I find myself reading Petrarch’s letters from the Bubonic Plague, as if they could offer insight into how to live.

For in these old letters written to me, clues of who I was—what was happening in my life, what my longings were, my preoccupations, the questions I posed and the answers I sought—lurk between the lines like rain shadows.

*

Some of literature’s most treasured artifacts are letters. It seems artists have always used the postal service to urge one another on and feel less alone.

“Now I have finally had the chance to read Ceremony,” James Wright wrote to Leslie Marmon Silko in 1978, “and I am moved to tell you how much the book means to me.” It seemed inadequate, he wrote, to just call it a “great book.” “I think I am trying to say that my very life means more to me than it would have meant if you hadn’t written Ceremony.”

This began a long correspondence between the two writers. “I just fed the rooster a blackened banana I found in the refrigerator,” Silko began an early letter. She was afraid the rooster wasn’t getting enough to eat, but maybe it was his meanness, she considered, that was really killing him. She spent several pages writing about the roosters she’d known growing up, the stories her grandmother used to tell about the nasty old rooster that wouldn’t die.

“I never know what will happen when I write a letter,” Silko writes. “I hadn’t intended to go off with rooster stories when really I wanted to tell you how happy I was to hear from you again.” For the next two years Silko and Wright exchanged work, discussed their triumphs and fears. In 1980, after many letters written, the two had plans to meet in Arizona. Instead, Wright was diagnosed with terminal cancer. They met in his hospital room. Their relationship had been full and brimming, but in the end it was almost entirely on the page.

Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet is perhaps one of the best-known literary exchanges, for it tells all young artists (and us old ones, too) some things they need to know. “Being an artist,” wrote Rilke to 19-year-old Franz Xaver Kappus, “means: not numbering and counting, but ripening like a tree, which doesn’t force its sap, and stands confidently in the storms of spring, not afraid that afterward summer may not come. It does come.”

These days, because I live with the man I love, most of my correspondence is with other writers. There are practical questions we ask one another: “But how to write a book and support myself? This damn puzzle I can’t seem to work.” Care packages when someone’s feeling low: “Fuck racism, hooray for cheese!” And survival strategies: “The way I put my energy into moving forward is by mostly trying to ground into my present situation—the only way I know how to survive.” Postcards from our travels, those tiny ephemera slipping through space and time. We write each other good news and memories; we send one another our books. (“An early copy of Heart Spring Mountain,” my friend Robin wrote me in a note accompanying the galleys of her luminous novel. “Makes me think of our visit in fall 2011, and your drive down those Irene-damaged highways.”)

“I read Katherine Mansfield’s notebooks when I was having difficulties last year,” writes Yi Yun Li.

“Dear friend, from my life I write to you in your life,” Mansfield wrote in one entry. I cried when I read the line. It reminds me of the boy from years ago, who could not stop sending the design of his dreams in his letters. It reminds me too why I do not want to stop writing: the books one writes—past and present and future—are they not trying to say the same thing: dear friend, from my life I write to you in your life. What a long way it is from one life to another: yet why write if not for that distance, if things can be let go, every before replaced by an after.

I’d been meaning to read this essay by Li for a while but didn’t until recently, when a young writer I’ve been corresponding with sent it my way. Some things arrive at just the right time. “I guess something I’m really struggling with,” the young writer wrote to me, “is the truth that you grow and get better but the writing stays frozen in time. In the best case it is a time capsule but in the worst case it is just like something standing against the good and necessary motion of things.”

We write each other good news and memories; we send one another our books.

Like I did, this young writer wants so badly to figure things out and to be on the other side of his unknowing. I remember that feeling, and all the letters I wrote in search of clues for how to manifest, how to be. Perhaps the best I could offer this young man is to send him something from Rilke: “You are so young, so much before all beginning, and I would like to beg you, dear Sir, as well as I can, to have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves as if they were locked rooms or books written in a very foreign language.”

“One does sometimes have the strange feeling,” writes Stephen Mitchell in his introduction to Letters to a Young Poet, “that Rilke is writing, across time, directly to his younger self, that desperate, miserable boy.” Perhaps all letters are both a message to someone else, but also to ourselves.

*

These days, and I know I’m not alone in this, I find myself reading Petrarch’s letters from the Bubonic Plague, as if they could offer insight into how to live, instructions on how we might psychically survive these bleak and murderous times.

“Where are now our sweet friends,” Petrarch wrote, “where their beloved faces, their soothing words, their mild and pleasing company? What thunderbolt has devoured these joys, what earthquake overthrown them, what storm submerged them, what abyss opened to swallow them? We were close together; now we are almost alone.”

Note the almost—we are not entirely alone, only almost. The letter is what allows the almost to be.

My best friend is supposed to have her baby any day now. It’s been a rough pregnancy, and it’s a difficult time to be gestating new life and readying a place for it in the world. In lieu of a zoom baby shower (zooms and baby showers being two things we’d both agreed we’d had more than enough of for a lifetime) another friend and I organized a shower of letters.

“Write the future baby a note,” we instructed their friends and family, “and put it in the mail.” What do you want the baby to know about what’s happening in the world as it grows and gets ready to be born? What do you hope for the baby? What do you want the baby to know about their parents? Do you want to share a blessing? Do you have a funny story you’d like to tell? Do you want to offer the baby some counsel about the business of being alive? Every day during the month of July my friend, huge with baby, murky with grief, got to walk outside to her mailbox, open it, and find inside a treasure, a future time capsule.

“Oh happy people of the future who have not known these miseries and perchance will class our testimony with the fables,” writes Petrarch in one letter. “We have, indeed, deserved these [punishments] and even greater…; may our posterity not also merit the same.” I told the baby that I couldn’t wait to see what the world would become with them in it.

The gift of anticipation is that what you’re waiting for takes time to arrive. Years before, the silent teenage boy had written to me about the future. “I want you to know,” he wrote, “that if you’re ever feeling like being frustrated about something, or really excited, or just wanting someone to care about something as much as you do—I’m here. I’m always up for hearing about all this. And dreams are good, too.” What more can we ask of one another, what more can we offer?

We need the post office for concrete and basic things. But we also need its magical deliverance of dispatches from far-off places that make us feel only almost alone—I’m alive, I’m still alive, I feel there is still some future up ahead, and at this moment I’m thinking of you.

Lauren Markham
Lauren Markham
Lauren Markham is a writer based in California whose work has appeared in outlets such as Guernica, Harper's, Freeman's, The New York Review of Books, and VQR, where she is a contributing editor. Lauren is the author of The Far Away Brothers: Two Young Migrants and the Making of an American Life, which was awarded the Northern California Book Award, The California Book Award Silver Medal, and the Ridenhour Prize. She teaches in the MFA programs at Ashland University and the University of San Francisco.





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