The Art of the Letter - When Mail was So Much More

August 01, 2016

The Art of the Letter - When Mail was So Much More

When I was ten or eleven, I had a pen pal. I don't remember her name, but she came from Michigan (for a girl living in Puerto Rico, Michigan was pretty exotic). I got her through a TV show, one of the rare American shows we received before cable TV changed everything.

Every Saturday at the end of this show, an address was listed where you could send in your name and address and the producers would match you up with some other little dreamer somewhere who imagined the glories of undying friendship begun with the exchange of letters.

I do remember the excitement of receiving the name and address of my very own pen pal. I remember bugging my Mom for the right paper, the right pen, the right envelope, as if paper weight and color would ensure our compatibility. 
Mail Art - Envelope Art - Alligator Face Mask by David McKee

We wrote back and forth for a few months and, in the beginning at least, having my very own pen pal was the highlight of my existence. Every day I'd rush home from school to check the mail box. When a letter did arrive, I'd read it and re-read it and then spend hours agonizing over my response.

Eventually, more and more with the arrival of each new letter, I began to find writing to my pen pal more of a chore than a pleasure. In all honesty, my lack of interest was in direct response to her increased ignorance. Or, maybe her ignorance did not increase. Maybe she simply became more comfortable with showing it.

Coqui Envelope from GDTS Too

(envelope courtesy of GDTStoo)

For me, living in Puerto Rico was normal, there wasn't anything odd or different or exciting about it. Apparently, to my pen pal at least, it was just one step removed from living on the African plains, or Mars.

The lies began to invade my letters slowly. A toucan pet here, a thatched hut home there. I trudged twelve miles - barefoot - through the dust to the closest post box to pick up her letters and to drop off my own. Missionaries taught me English and I'd be happy to weave her a palm frond skirt if she'd just tell me her size. My last letter talked about the lions that roared at the edge of our village and that once dragged off a baby left momentarily unattended by the stream where we went to do our laundry.

It is rare nowadays for me to get anything interesting in the mail. My usual fare, what there is of it, consists of bills and the odd coupon postcard from a local store or restaurant. Boring.

Fish Envelope from The Graceful Envelope | Kat Mariaca Studio | Envelope Art

Pen pal aside, I remember the good-old-days before text messaging and email - before emojis became an entire conversation - when people actually wrote, gasp, letters. Real honest-to-goodness letters that brought writer and reader together, that strengthened bonds and refreshed memories.

I remember when a trip to the mailbox was filled with anticipation and excitement, when a letter addressed to me demanded ceremony and solitude. I'd put on music, find a quiet corner, curl up in a favorite chair, anything to draw out the experience of having a letter to open and read, to relish.

Sometimes, if I was especially lucky, the sender would have decorated the envelope, nothing fancy, maybe just a small doodle, or different ink colors for my name and address. Those were especially special - they meant that the sender continued to think about me and to spend time on me even after the envelope was sealed. 

Stamp Stacker Envelope - Kat Mariaca Studio Envelope Art

Maybe my love of real letters is a form of nostalgia, maybe I'd hate to write them if I had no other recourse at connection. Maybe they'd become just one more chore to plow through, like the letters to my long ago pen pal had become.

Maybe. But still.

Still, I miss the back and forth, the forced thoughtfulness that writing a real letter requires. Writing a letter is not something you do while you're multitasking away, checking Facebook, snapping the latest selfie, posting a recipe to Pinterest, or, God forbid, driving a car. It is one of those now-rare activities that slows time down around you, that requires some small level of preparation and a greater level of thought.

Maybe it's time for me to find a new pen pal.

(Cover art from

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