Appreciating the Ancient Art of Snail Mail

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When you’re down in the dumps and a trip to the mailbox reveals a handwritten letter tucked among the bills, you know your day is looking up to be better than it has been. Whether it’s a holiday greeting, postcard, pen pal or message from the abyss, you surely get a smile on your face. There’s something special about snail mail, comfort in the knowledge that someone took time to use pen and paper, lick a stamp and drop you a line the old fashioned way, in a day and age when cyberspace is at our fingertips.

Prior to my gypsy wanderings, I try to sneak a peek at the numbers on my friends’ mailboxes and jot them down in my travel journal. That way my postcards are a surprise. But sometimes it’s not that easy. Sometimes I’m sending postcards to people I haven’t seen or thought about in years. A random email or Facebook message asking for their address leaves them wondering and anticipating; their excitement and gratitude in pulling my chicken scratch out of their mailbox a week later is not lessened by the lacking element of surprise. How could it be? They hold in their hand concrete evidence in this seemingly broken world that we’re somehow still connected.

Travel teaches you, reminds you, to make new friends but keep the old. People come and go in our lives. What we make of their entrances and departures is up to us.

When the neighbor girl I babysat moved away during my teenage years, we sent each other a letter every few months for a couple years. Then we grew up and life got in the way.

After a mission trip in Brazil building a school for kids, I sent some of the school children letters once a year for awhile, painstakingly using Google translator to turn my English into Portuguese, including photos recapping my year. Now they’re grown up, not quite children anymore.

Sometimes I write letters to strangers, people who are important to me but don’t even know who I am. For Lent one year, I made a list of 40 organizations that I believe are making a difference in this world. I cut the list into slips of paper and put the pieces in a bowl. Every day for 40 days I pulled an organization out of the bowl and wrote a thank you note. Surprisingly, many of the organizations replied, thanking me. Me, a drop in a sea of people, a stranger just trying to pay it forward. I may have made a difference in their day, maybe even their week, but these groups are making differences in people’s lives.

This Lenten promise humbled me. It spoke volumes of these organizations to send unexpected, personalized responses. It reaffirmed my experience that the little things are as important as the big things.

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I’ve followed the same Lenten promise with friends, family and associates in my life. I’ve inked the names of 40 individuals past and present who have shaped me into the person I am today, and I’ve sent them a scrawling note of my rambling gratitude. Recently, an old college roommate sent me a photo of the pages I’d mailed her. She said she was rifling through old stuff and came across it. We hadn’t talked in years. What a smile that put on my face, hearing from someone out of the blue.

And then I was reminded of the small collection of letters I’ve kept over the years. Some are tucked away in an envelope, a handful are scattered in the nooks and crannies of my car, a few are taped to my mirror, and still others are swimming in my Mary Poppins purse. They are notes I rediscover by happenstance; they are affirmations I seek out when I’m feeling blue; they are tangible memories of the has-beens and reminders of the could-bes.

Snail mail should never be taken for granted. It is one thing I miss when I’m a nomad, a denizen with no address, or a girl in the jungle, on an island, in an exotic locale with limited means of communication. I’m currently decluttering the “stuff” of my life, but my bundle of letters is not something I’m willing to rid my life of.

The next time you set off on a big adventure, blossom with new friendships. But never forget those who have already come and gone; remember those who have made you who you are today.

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