The Joy of Correspondence (In Praise of Snail Mail)

When I quit my job a few years ago, I had some specific goals for the year I was going to take off. I planned to read as much as I wanted to, and I wanted to learn to cook from scratch (beans and whole grains, soups and such). I wanted to learn more about medicinal herbs and make some simple remedies, preferably from my own herbs. And I wanted to start a blog.

I did not have correspondence on my radar. However, correspondence has become a major part of my life over the last few years, a huge unexpected joy.

It started with the haiku project in 2013. Write a haiku a day, put it on a postcard and send it to a friend. My Montana friend gracefully agreed to be the recipient of said postcards, and I decided to try to do a postcard a day for a year. I missed only a very few days, and I’m still doing it.

A friend in Colorado read about the project and started her own version of a postcard project with a variety of recipients (some receiving daily postcards and some receiving weekly postcards). I was one of the weekly recipients (and some weeks I received more than one). I am still one of the weekly recipients (we postcard project people clearly are not quitters), and she started her project back in August of 2014.

Fast forward to the fall of 2015. I started having serious computer problems. Email longer than a few sentences became untenable. It took a few months to figure out, but in the meantime, I was losing touch with some of my out-of-town friends, including Jami in Colorado.

So I started sending letters and cards via snail mail. This might seem extreme, but when it is taking two or three days to send an email, snail mail begins to look quite inviting. And I had an entire drawer full of cards that I had collected or received as gifts over the years, so there was no expense except postage. (Oh, and the obsession I developed with finding fun writing pens—you may not realize it, but sometimes you need to use different kinds of pens on different kinds of paper. Slippery paper requires special care.)

Jami (Colorado) almost immediately asked if I wanted to move completely (almost) from email to snail mail for the duration of my computer problem. Yes! And so it began.

With a weekly postcard and a weekly letter or card from Jami, plus occasional mail from other friends that responded in kind, getting the mail became much more fun. And the more fun it became, the more I wrote. The computer got fixed, and Jami and I continued our snail mail correspondence and still do. But now, it’s more like three or four cards a week (blank notecards that we usually write on both sides and the back), and it’s come to the point where I’m more likely to get something personal in the mail on a given day than not. And it’s not just Jami. I have several friends in town who send occasional cards and notes, and just today I got a postcard from a friend visiting Hawaii.

Sometimes I run across a funny in the newspaper that makes me think of a friend, and I clip it and send it to them with a note in a card (and it usually ends up being a longish note, because these are friends, and there are always things to say; also, smaller cards can be used if you are feeling somewhat less verbose on a given day).

I have one friend that I like to send scandalous postcards to because they make her burst out laughing when she finds them in the mailbox.

The payback? The payback is pure joy. First, I love writing (hence blog), so there’s that. But writing to close friends is more personal than the blog, and it can help me process feelings simply by writing them down, which is very grounding, so that’s a second thing.

Third, I get to support the U.S. mail system, which I think is one of the best things in this country. (And it also gives me an excuse to buy lots of the fun stamps the post office puts out, which I am tempted to count as number four but I won’t.)

Fourth, it brings joy into other people’s lives (a funny postcard, a poem, various goings-on, updates on important things like cooking successes and failures)—it singles a person out, and that means something; when the card is from a friend, you know it was chosen specifically for you; the words are written only to you. This primitive act of finding just the right card (or stationery), writing it, putting it in the envelope and addressing it (which of course means finding the address book), stamping it, and dropping it in the mailbox—somehow this primitive act does so much more than email. (I’m not sure which end experiences the greatest benefit, but I’m guessing the writer.)

Fifth, if you’re lucky, you might find a bit more personal mail on your porch floor (or wherever your snail mail lands). It’s fun. You pick it up, hold it in your hands. Read it (or tear it open and then read it), and if it’s a card, you often prop it up so you can enjoy it—usually for several days. (When’s the last time you propped up an email?)

Sixth, even if you don’t get more snail mail, you might strengthen relationships. I copied Jami’s weekly postcard idea and started sending a weekly postcard to my niece. This has led to a lot more correspondence (via text and email) and we’re both learning more about each other, which is a lot of fun.

Seventh, the correspondence can also be a form of artistic expression (especially with postcards). On my best days, the postcard picture reflects the haiku, and on the very best days, the stamp does too.

If this is new to you and you’re intrigued, you might want to consider starting small. Dig out some old postcards you got on vacation; send a note to a friend you’ve lost touch with.

Or perhaps you jump in with both feet and start your own project. A weekly postcard to an aunt or an old high school friend. A monthly riddle to your family….

If you like to write, you might be surprised at how much fun this can be. Addicting, really. Don’t say you weren’t warned.

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New Year’s Resolutions

I like making New Year’s resolutions. I find them a good way to set goals, try new things, and sometimes, induce new habits. I usually try to do three, in different areas of my life. Last year I resolved to: (1) send a weekly postcard to the Minnesota Senate majority leader, (2) give May baskets to several of my neighbors, and (3) get back to blogging (I had not blogged for months).

Overall I did quite well. For the political postcard project, I sent the majority leader a total of 57 postcards. In addition, I added another senator (on a couple of key health committees) in late July, and sent her 18 postcards.

I did indeed do May baskets (and plan to do again this year, but now May baskets are moving more into tradition rather than resolution). As for blogging, I had resolved (parenthetically) to blog weekly. That didn’t happen, but I did post more regularly, and I will be satisfied enough with that.

Here are my resolutions for 2018:

  1. Expand personal correspondence. I enjoyed the political postcard project, and I again wanted to do something with postcards, but I wanted to take a break from politics. So I decided to send my niece a weekly postcard. I tend to be abysmal at email, but find I have a bit of a gift for snail mail; and with the wide assortment of postcards I’ve accumulated over the years of the haiku project (yes, I’m still doing it), I can send a variety of sometimes beautiful, or funny, interesting, and even potentially scandalous cards. She has already received the first postcard and is quite excited about the whole thing. I’m also going to try to establish correspondence with an author. But I realize that it could well be that a person who writes for a living might not be inclined to find writing in their off time a relaxing/enjoyable thing. But I am giving it a try, and the card is in the mail. I’ll let you know if I hear back.
  1. Work out (yoga, walk, weights) at least twice a week. Yes, I know it’s a low bar, but I want to be realistic. This way, I might at least establish a bit of discipline. I have been known to work out five times a week and track it and everything—for about three weeks, but then I lose discipline. I can always do more than two (and I expect I will, especially in spring and fall when I love to walk), but I like having this low bar as a bit of a work-out safety net.
  1. Do at least one novel thing a month with my spouse. I got this idea from an excellent book I read in December, Life Reimagined, by Barbara Bradley Hagerty, which I hope to blog about sometime soon (so many ideas for posts of late!). I’m starting to compile a list of novel things for us to choose from. My ideas include play mini-golf, take a class together (a cooking class, perhaps?), try a new cuisine (Somali?), attend a Supreme Court case, Explore Brooklyn (we are going to NYC for a wedding in August), visit the prairie (southwestern Minnesota has some gorgeous prairie lands), tour one of the huge mansions on Summit Avenue when there’s an open house, go on a paddleboat ride down the Mississippi, walk in the rain on purpose. Nothing hugely weird, just things we’ve never done together (and for many of them, things we’ve never done at all, or at least not for decades). Suggestions are welcome. The more we have to choose from, the better. And after all, we aren’t limited to one a month. This could be a very fruitful resolution.

Any New Year’s resolutions out there that anyone cares to share? (I love to post mine, because it strengthens my resolve. Also, I’m pretty sure no one but me is keeping track.)

Happy New Year to you! Wishing you good books, good friends, and a lot of laughter in the coming year.

Postcard Project, What?

I got several questions after my Postcard Project Mid-Year Summary, most commonly about the content of the postcards and especially about the suggestions. I decided that rather than reply to each query in kind, I’d write a post in response.

[Brief recap: At the start of the year, I, a liberal in Minneapolis, began a weekly postcard project, writing to our new Senate Majority Leader, Paul Gazelka, a Republican from northern Minnesota; in late summer I added Republican Senator Julie Rosen to the project. So far, I’ve sent more than 60 postcards, most to Gazelka, but 10+ to Rosen.]

Here are some of the things I’ve suggested:

Early on (possibly in January) I suggested a statewide survey, specifically looking at concerns of urban and rural residents. Much is said about the urban/rural divide in Minnesota, but I think a bit of it might be manufactured in our state Capitol. Certainly there are issues (e.g., grass buffers for farmers, mining near the Boundary Waters—but even these are not completely rural/urban). But who knows? Anyone who has filled out a questionnaire from a political party knows how badly the questionnaires are designed. I am talking about a survey done by a reputable firm with a track record (local, please), that would actually help us understand where we agree and where we disagree. I suggested either the survey center at the University of Minnesota, or Wilder Research (fairly well-known in Minnesota and respected on both sides of the aisle). For funding (since I am sure that would be a concern) I suggested that one of our many local foundations might foot the bill.

It is amazing how much you can get on one postcard.

This is an issue that has my heart, because I have a foot in both worlds: I grew up in rural Minnesota and visit frequently. I always loved going to “The Cities” when I was growing up. Pretty much everyone I knew did. It was a bit special. People back home still go to The Cities—to shop, for sporting events and entertainment (I ran into my second cousin, from my hometown, at the Guthrie Theater not so very long ago). I think rural Minnesotans want and value a vibrant Twin Cities. And I think most urban Minnesotans want strong rural areas. After all, where do most of us go over the weekend?

I think this is being exploited as a divisive issue by politicians, and I want to get to the bottom of it. (As you can imagine, I’ve written more than one postcard about this issue.) Ok, I will stop that long song.

I also asked the senators to consider a tiered minimum wage in Minnesota. This was after Minneapolis started talking about a $15/hour minimum wage and the Legislature tried to legislate that the minimum wage had to be statewide (wanting to avoid a patchwork quilt of minimum wage rates across the state, which I think is quite reasonable). But a lot of things are more expensive in the city. A minimum wage of $15 makes a lot of sense in Minneapolis. Maybe not so much in my hometown, where I could get a much bigger and newer house for a lot less money.

Additional suggestions, including several in the healthcare arena, since I’m in that special class of people that purchases individual health insurance: Expand MinnesotaCare (our excellent statewide health insurance program for low-income people) so that people on the individual market can buy into it; allow people on the individual market to join the state health system; and consider something like credit unions, but healthcare unions (I am not sure exactly how the model would transfer, but it seems like someone smarter than I might be able to figure it out).

Also, I asked them to consider increasing the gas tax (because who would notice after two weeks?) to facilitate road repair; support a bill that would ban hand-held devices (e.g., phones and razors) while driving; and to please follow the single-subject rule (which is in the Minnesota Constitution) that no bill can address more than one subject. It makes legislation so transparent, and it would have avoided so much of the mess that our (MN) government is currently in (to wit: a standoff between the governor and the legislature).

I was also asked if I’ve heard back. Yes, I’ve heard from Senator Gazelka twice, once in response to my initial email introduction (he responded via email) and a few weeks into the project, I received a letter responding to the first three (or so) postcards. Very briefly, but my points were noted, and he acknowledged an area or two of agreement. I’ve not heard from him since, but I’ve decided to treat that letter as an indication that he is at least reading the postcards. I like to think this. Even if he isn’t, probably someone is—a mail carrier, an office worker.

And even if no one reads them, they’ve helped me. They’ve goaded me into thinking about things differently. I’ve expanded my horizons, learned how to think outside the box (or maybe I’ve gotten out of a box?) and perhaps become a little more creative.

Not bad for a postcard project.

Postcard Project Mid-Year Report (Belated)

At the start of the year, tired and frustrated with partisan politics, I decided to write a postcard every week to the Minnesota Republican Senate Majority Leader, who seems to be an amiable, well-intentioned man. My intent was not to rile or rage, but simply to impart my opinion in a respectful manner. He is a conservative from a small (but fun) town in northern Minnesota. I am a liberal in Minneapolis.

He had said he wanted to build bridges and work in a bipartisan manner. I, too, want to build bridges and work in a bipartisan manner. Hence, the postcard project. I thought if he received a thoughtful, well-reasoned (and occasionally entertaining) postcard from a liberal every week, that it perhaps might move the needle a little, if not in terms of beliefs or values, at least in how we view the person across the aisle.

And move the needle it did. But surprise surprise, not his needle—my needle. Totally unanticipated outcome from this project.

Being a person of moderate intelligence, I knew that if I simply wrote vituperative postcards, they would not get the kind of attention I was seeking. That’s not my style, anyway. I’d rather entertain, I’d rather educate, I’d rather provide suggestions that seem to at least have a possibility of being considered, even if only for a moment. And as I got more into the postcard project, I started reading much more closely about state politics. Because of course it helps if you know what you’re talking about when you’re writing weekly missives to a senator.

Of course I’m always looking for news in the paper about my guy, but I read everything. And I notice this huge difference across the Republican party. Why this surprises me, I do not know, but there are as many ways of being a Republican as there are of being a Democrat. There are Republicans who are environmentalists; there are Evangelicals that are earth stewards (yes!). There is common ground to be found.

I am starting to understand a lot of conservative principles. And while this understanding has not changed my values, it is making me increasingly aware of places where our goals might be similar, but we approach it in such different ways we don’t see our commonalities.

Yes, wow, can you believe it? All this from a postcard project? But wait, there’s more! Towards the end of July, I realized I was learning so much that I decided to add another Republican to my postcard fold—head of the finance committee and very involved in healthcare policy (which I am super concerned about). So far I have sent her 9 postcards. I’ve sent the Senate Majority Leader 50 (50! Clearly not a postcard a week, but rather “a minimum of a postcard a week.”). I had no idea how compelling and fun this project would be.

I like to think they enjoy getting the postcards. I have a huge assortment (birds, cooking, various artists, botanicals, WPA posters, science fiction, other bookish postcards), and I try to tie the postcard image/picture to the message. Sometimes they’re a wee bit funny, and I like to think that every once in a while they evoke at least a smile.