Handwritten Letters: The Art of Being Here

There is ice on the ground, we are trapped in the house, and all I want to do is write letters. I have always done it.


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As a teen, I had a pen pal assigned to me because I wrote in to the children’s show, “Big Blue Marble.” I watched the show religiously from the time I was 7 until I was about 14. My pen pal, Angela Papathansiou, wrote to me from Greece. After I begged my mother for stamps or money to cover the postage, I began my vigil of watching the mail carrier every day anticipating Angela’s reply. I can’t remember when or why Angela and I stopped writing. Maybe we became teenagers and thought we were too grown for it. I loved hearing about her family and the things she thought about our U.S. culture and the world.



Angela was not my only outlet for letter writing. I wrote to Aunt Willie, my paternal grandmother’s sister, in Tacoma, Washington. There were letters to Aunt Marion, my maternal grandmother’s sister-in-law, in Hampton, Virginia. I wrote cards to family members when any big event, good or bad, unfolded. My cousin Tia, who lived in Queens, New York, and also grew up to be one of my best friends, received letters from me on the regular. Recently, she read one of the letters back to me. I was on a Greyhound (or Trailways) bus, either heading to or returning from Washington, D.C. I described the snoring, smelly man who made that trip miserable and memorable. We laughed for hours at all of my description.


At night after I finished homework, I wrote to friends at school, and they actually wrote me back. We imagined we were already grown, married, living in different states, with children and fascinating lives. Of course, the men we married in our little minds were either the elusive celebrities of our day or the boys we crushed on in our classes. I’ve always wondered how much of what we imagined actually came true.


When my brother left for basic training in the U.S. Marine Corps, the writing continued. I had no idea what this kind of training meant, and I was probably as nervous about it as he was. I figured if I would write to him and get something back, then he was safe, and all was right in the world. I also wrote one of our childhood friends, Doug, whom we both informally adopted as our brother. Doug had lost his mother as a young boy and his father was not involved in his life. He and his siblings lived with his grandmother. Doug joined the Marines at the same time as my brother, but he had some troubled times and served a sentence in prison. I kept writing to him. It was a way to help both of us remember our good times together. It kept him focused on coming home.


Letters have been such an important part of the way I sort feelings, mark growth and celebrate milestones in my life. Sometimes, I don’t mail the letters. I just write them to process what I’m thinking or feeling. There is a letter to my father that has been sitting on a clipboard for about three months now. I will not likely mail it to him. I just needed to say some things and stop carrying them around in my chest. I have similar letters to old boyfriends, former friends, other family members and people who made headlines and whom I know I would never see face-to-face.




Part of me wishes I had saved all the letters I wrote and received back over my lifetime. They are a good glance back at where I’ve been. Another part of me is okay with the comfort that comes from the mere act of letter writing. It is a way to be in a moment and mark it for someone else, invite them into your world at the time and ask them to look around.


This ritual of pushing your hand across a page and saying something … it has saved me so many times. Beyond the literary works that I create as a writer, it is a way to continually say, “I am here, and here is how I am living.”


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