The art of letter writing

Graphic by Jewel HT

During that pivotal second Thursday of March 2020, I was living my metropolitan dream in Toronto. To mimic a cliché, it was as if in an instant the city slipped with such delicate ease into a manic frenzy of pandemic-related fear, especially visible from the empty aisles of every grocery store. Within one week, I had relocated to my parent’s house, shifted my internship at Queen’s Park online and said goodbye to my roommates after a chaotic three days in which the six of us left the city. 

One of my roommates was a French girl named Juliette on foreign exchange at the University of Toronto. She was soft-spoken and perpetually shy, yet part of a bumbling sorority, and seemingly always with one foot out of our bright blue Cabbagetown apartment door. 

By the time of her sudden departure back to France, an unexplainable camaraderie had developed between us, perhaps from the jarring halt of our experience together or from the overwhelmingly gloomy notion that things would never be the same again. A trauma bond of sorts.

We were in tears as we loaded her suitcases into a taxi headed for the airport and I slipped some hand sanitizer in her pocket as we hugged goodbye.

In the age of social media and instant communication, I was not worried about losing touch, but melancholy that our friendship would inevitably fade. Relationships no longer supported by proximity quickly become awkward as topics evaporate, life moves too fast to provide context, and memory serves as the only paradoxical reminder of a time no longer accessible. 

So, we decided we would write letters to each other. She left me her address, and we tried our hardest not to message each other as we waited for the mail to arrive. 

I wrote my first letter to Juliette sitting in candlelight, listening to an Alice Coltrane record, with a fountain pen in one hand, and a London Fog in the other. Once the letter was written, I slipped the carefully folded deckle-edged sheets into a handmade gray envelope, which I wrapped in twine and stamped with a cerulean blue wax seal embossed with a hummingbird. 

Through our correspondence, Juliette’s otherwise shy nature faded, and we bonded even more by vividly detailing our lives and thoughts. 

Social media may provide a certain level of anonymity, but in handwritten letters, there is nowhere to hide; and yet, no better place to disappear. To write by hand is an act of intimate honesty. On a particularly tough day, my slanted and sloppy handwriting gives away my mood as much as the letters in which my words sit pristinely next to each other. Yet, there is a certain freedom in knowing that by the time I receive Juliette’s response, I will simply have forgotten what I wrote and cannot judge myself for a moment that has passed, or one that I cannot scroll upwards on my phone to see. 

Each time I write to Juliette my mind races ahead of my pen and the pages fill themselves with all the various details of my life I wait to share with her. She has become one of my best friends, who I love with the kind of earnestness that wouldn’t be possible if we were simply texting. Since our exchange began, I’ve become more present in my daily life as details I would often ignore are now instrumental to my recounts, since the underlying context established through instant communication is no longer present. I collect my observations with newfound excitement. I buzz at the idea of reading her experiences and often imagine what she must be doing or feeling: like having a piece of my consciousness existing entirely on its own.

Every weekday morning, I awake with restless excitement at the prospect of her letter being delivered. By now, I have frequented the post office enough that the woman at the counter remembers me and provides me with welcome details about her children. 

I fundamentally believe that the joy of corresponding through handwritten letters should be experienced at least once by each person who has lost touch with non-digital communication. 

Write to your loved ones. Show them that you’ve taken the time to think of them, share with them occurrences that in other contexts would feel arbitrary, and give them a reason to check their mail for more than bills, advertisements, or impulse online purchases.