Sending your home address to a stranger on the internet is a known bad idea. Yet, two months ago, that was precisely what I did. Fortunately, rather than suffer unpleasant consequences, I only came away richer in friendship.
When my boyfriend and I moved into our rented flat in Derby, nobody had checked the mail in months. We pried out the previous tenants crushed wads of marketing leaflets, Private and Confidential letters, and red, threatening notices from the TV licensing authority. It was a small job sifting through unwanted correspondences. We contacted the most recently-departed inhabitant when letters looked urgent and a large portion of the post was tossed into the bin.
I seldom get mail these days. Anything of importance is sent via an email or app notification and it makes sense: the communication is instant. A message from my energy supplier tells me that my prices have increased; my banking app lets me know whenever money enters and leaves my account. In the face of digital technology, sending a letter is archaic, taking days rather than the instant gratification of seconds.
There is, however, a beauty to long stretches of time and unfilled gaps; especially in a world where everything is ready for immediate consumption. As information moves quickly, I’ve begun to embrace a slower side to life. Every few weeks I’ll find an envelope waiting for me by our letterbox. The envelope will be beautifully decorated, my name written in a calligraphic flourish. Inside will be a letter from Maya*, who two months ago had been a stranger.
“The greatest value of a letter lies in its considered response. Though online messages can be equally sincere, their ability to be deleted or rewritten suggests they can never promise the same candour.”
I reached out to Maya in March after she posted in the r/penpals group on Reddit. I’d joined because after spending a year and a half in Derby, I hadn’t made any new friends. Even though I was introverted, the extent to which I was withdrawing from the world was beginning to impact on my mental health.
Most of my social interaction came from work and on weekends, I stayed indoors. Originally, my boyfriend suggested that I should join a community group which I ignored. So with the passage of time, I realised having a penfriend meant I could establish a gentler kind of friendship that suited my personality.
Maya was looking for someone she could write to and swap bits of stationery with. She was 24, enjoyed keeping a bullet journal and liked watching TV shows. Hey there! I wrote. I saw your post and would love to be a penpal. I told Maya a little about myself and the hobbies I enjoyed. It took a few days to gain her trust. Initially, Maya wasn’t comfortable having me as a penfriend. My Reddit account was in its infancy and I hadn’t built up an extensive posting history so understandably, she had the thought that I could’ve been anyone, someone dangerous perhaps. I was disappointed. In hopes that we could reconnect, I gave her my other social media handles.
A few days later she messaged me back. Let’s be penpals!
Maya puts an extraordinary amount of care into her letters. I am constantly touched by the attention to detail, enjoying her doodles and postscript notes. These are the personal, quirky touches that make each letter special. Often there will be a smaller envelope tucked flat inside. It will be cut from patterned paper, like pale lavender against a field of wildflowers, which houses stickers, washi tape, post-it notes and other miniature treasures.
“Opening up to a stranger may seem careless, but like all healthy relationships, it’s important to set boundaries and have strong communication. I felt secure in the knowledge that Maya was placing her trust in me, as I was also a stranger to her.”
I try my best to include my own drawings, which are scratched out in fountain pen ink. Yet sometimes I feel a stab of shame at my seemingly ungrateful reciprocation – my unintelligible, scrawling handwriting and the random stashes of stationery enclosed with my replies. Still, when Maya writes back with her words filled with gratitude, these feelings vanish. Over time our relationship has let me accept that my handwriting doesn’t need to be neat nor do my offerings of stationery have to be unique from the ones I last sent.
Alongside our letters, we also send each other questions. Initially, they were about our respective lives. Do you have any brothers and sisters? Where did you grow up? Nowadays, the questions have mellowed into ones coloured with humour. What animal would cause the most chaos if it were the size of Big Ben?
Opening up to a stranger may seem careless, but like all healthy relationships, it’s important to set boundaries and have strong communication. I felt secure in the knowledge that Maya was placing her trust in me, as I was also a stranger to her. I never ask Maya more than is asked of me.
“There is a certain tranquility in the drawn-out pauses between our letters. Writing back and forth to Maya means that our conversation unfolds evenly over weeks, rather than having intermittent strings of words rapidly ring through on a screen.”
Confiding in someone I had never met before made me feel vulnerable at first. However, since writing is an act that is meditative as it is intimate, I was soon grateful for the opportunity for self-reflection it provided. Writing has always soothed me whenever my mind felt unanchored, and answering questions about myself meant could focus my thoughts. The experience of writing to a penfriend is additionally enriching, not least because there is a reassuring voice at the end of my letter, instead of my own circling thoughts.
Personally, I feel the greatest value of a letter lies in its considered response. Though online messages can be equally sincere, their ability to be deleted or rewritten suggests they can never promise the same candour. Replying to Maya allows me to switch off from the outside world. I don’t scroll through the news on my phone and I keep my laptop closed. With no distractions, I can dedicate this time to our friendship.
Since lockdown began, I’ve found that there is a certain tranquility in the drawn-out pauses between our letters. Writing back and forth to Maya means that our conversation unfolds evenly over weeks, rather than having intermittent strings of words rapidly ring through on a screen. There isn’t the anxiety of wondering if the other person is getting frustrated at your delay in replying. When I send a letter it encourages me to be patient, because, despite the wonderful services of the Royal Mail, a meaningful answer takes time.
Writing to a penfriend is like a slow dance, where neither one of you is in any hurry. In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, it is comforting to know that despite the restrictions of lockdown and the distance separating me from those I care about, I have someone I can invariably turn to. Each letter from Maya is a gift, and I have kept every envelope.