It’s September 1998. I’ve just graduated high school and left home for the very first time to volunteer as a Gap student on the Isle of Man, a tiny little island (32 miles long by 11 miles wide) in the middle of the Irish Sea. When I first heard that I had been accepted to a placement there I thought, “cool, a tropical island full of men!” It was neither, and yet it really is a spectacular place, with quaint glens, lovely beaches, incredible ruins and castles, zero unemployment, tailless cats, four horned sheep and as many pubs as people.
I left a tight-knit group of high school friends that summer for the unknown. These friends were an integral part of my daily life, part of what made me feel like myself as a 17-year-old and they were essential to my happiness. Although I was more than ready for an adventure after I graduated and had decided to defer my university start date for a year in order to go on this trip, I wasn’t prepared for the isolation and loneliness I felt once I was torn from my comfortable family life and hilarious group of friends. It was around this time that everyone I knew got their first Hotmail e-mail addresses. I proudly still have mine and even managed to avoid picking a questionable handle like “spicegirslover” or “foxyvixen69.” So, e-mail did exist but I remember vividly the ordeal that was going online in those days. I would get the chance maybe once a week to use a computer and would sit patiently as the dial-up connection slowly came to life and then if I was lucky I could send out an e-mail to my parents.
So, it was only natural that snail mail became my lifeline to home, to friends, to anything familiar. Not that this was new to me. My first memory of writing letters came from a grade five class project. We were assigned pen pals in Quebec and we had to send them photos of ourselves and strike up a correspondence. I was in French immersion so the idea was for us to write to them in French and for them to respond in English. I wrote to my pen pal for quite a while and then managed to find other pen pals through the horse community. I wrote to a horse crazy girl with a fancy stable and fancy horse in Ontario for years. I believe her name was Julia. We’d write long five-page letters about our horses, horseback riding and anything else related to horses. I loved it. Then in high school I made a bunch of friends through the International Club and suddenly had people in Japan and all over Europe to write to.
My friend Tona and I wrote voraciously to each other, and in addition to our regular correspondence she sent me hilarious stalker-mail, with letters carefully cut out from magazines and glued onto blank pages. These amused me the most. I’d receive letters that simply said, “Big Brother is Watching You”, or “We know where you are.” And I was glad that she did.
Since the internet and social media have taken over a whole new world has opened up to us in terms of communication. The last time I lived abroad I could Skype with people and see the faces of those I missed and loved whenever I wanted to – time difference aside anyway. It makes everyone feel a lot closer and this is amazing. Having said that, for me, nothing really replaces a thoughtful letter, carefully drafted, stamped and mailed. It doesn’t even have to be a letter. I love postcards, cards, packages and any other fun surprise than can come through the mail. But there is something special about a letter because it’s slow and careful and requires a real effort to write and then to send. Every time I receive a piece of personal mail I imagine the steps that the sender took. I picture them choosing the paper or card, taking the time to sit down to write, thinking about their life and mine and our connection, placing the finished product in an envelope and maybe finding some stickers to add some flair. Then there’s the addressing, the stamp, the finding of the mailbox. It’s an act of love and kindness. Whenever I open up that mailbox and drop another letter in I like to imagine that I’ll be making someone’s day a little brighter.
Within my first weeks of living in Toronto my oldest niece, Sophie, who just turned 10, wrote me a lovely hand written letter for the very first time. To say that I was over the moon would be a wild understatement. It was like Christmas day for letter writing nerds. Then, when Zeke’s youngest daughter, Molly, was out here for her visit over spring break we went into one of Toronto’s many funky paper stores and she bought a wax seal and an assortment of wax. This was how she chose to use her spending money from her grandparents, much to my delight. A couple of weeks later Zeke and I received a beautiful letter in the mail from Molly, but sadly the wax seal had been torn off in transit. I remember sitting down with the letter, coffee in hand and soaking it in, getting a glimpse into her mind and her life and feeling a sweet connection that I reveled in.
So I decided to honour this beautiful art form during National Letter Writing Month with a 30 day snail mail challenge. I’ve been collecting gorgeous cards and stationery since I arrived in Toronto and in order to maintain the balance of cards in and cards out I thought I should amp up my output. It’s only April 10th but so far I’ve managed to send out 19 cards/postcards/letters. What can I say, I like a challenge.