On handwritten letters & solitude

One thing that always gives me goosebumps of glowing thrill: handwritten letters.

Call me cheesy if you will, but imagine holding the tangible traces of a person on a piece of paper, knowing that they’ve thought of you, as much to spend time drafting and sending a little bit of themselves to you. Handwritten letters, then, are the manifestation of humanness—the sensitivity of self and otherness, the yearning for connection, the courage of an open heart, and the practice of therapy. It is also the embrace of vulnerability: isn’t it so damn scary to put yourself out there and expect reciprocity? What can be compensated for words that never resonate, thoughts never heard, care never returned? But you do it anyways, because it can even be scarier to eat away your thoughts alone. 

One afternoon, I came home from university and saw a little postcard in front of my door—an old, black and white image of two young women sitting on a bench at 59th street, University of Chicago. They were chatting in a carefree and joyful manner, and around them glowed grace and intellectuality. On the back of the postcard, lines after lines of grounded letters appeared in blue ink. I recognized the handwriting right away. We were close friends in middle school, not the kind of “best friends” that spend a lot of time and energy together, but we shared our hopes and dreams. Over the years, even though we parted in person, between us still exists a latent mutual understanding and constant support. She understands me then and now, and we watch each other grow at a respectful, modest distance. She started writing to me during our time in college; her letters always came at such a spontaneous yet right time, whenever I was stressed out the most. They reminded me of who I was, am, and want to be. It’s like having a patrona who preserves your teenage dreams and present confidences. She always begins the letters with stories about her current life, what’s been on her mind, what’s bothering or inspiring her, and she never forgets to alternate pure philosophies in between paragraphs. In this letter, she put at the end: “Take care of the small things and bigger things will take care of themselves, that’s Emily Dickinson, I think.” It’s just so heartwarming and enjoyable to read a young woman’s mind and heart. Her words flew enthusiastically and naturally as if we were speaking face to face. It feels good to have someone confide in you and to be able to confide back in them. Writing to her has been my way to therapy among the madness of intellectual pursuit and maturity.

Chi
The beautiful postcard

Handwritten letter is not only a therapeutic way to maintain but also create new, spontaneous connections that de-entitles us from our egotism. Last semester, my partner and I put anonymous handwritten letters into random people’s mailboxes as a “secret pen pal” activity for my class. Set aside all anxieties about what I wrote and how my handwriting looked could convey about me to the other person, I went for it and just gave them a true, wordy and weird picture of myself. Two people wrote back to my partner, how amazing, but I wasn’t that lucky. No one wrote back to me, and one even returned to me exactly the letter I sent to them. It felt like refusal. I was wondering if it was just me being too creepy and weird in the letters. Later in the followed-up emails, they said that it was nice to read the letters but they were too “caught up in things” to write back.

That made me think about something more grave yet intangible: how we lived nowadays in a cycle of running and producing, seeking the fast and convenient, and how we chose to prioritize things based on certain level of commitment. We were college students, not even employees in the real world, but somehow it was incredibly difficult to spare time doing something “random” and “silly.” It’s just more convenient to draft an email, send a text, shoot a voice message––totally understandable and relatable. Yet, if we stopped for just a few minutes and make a detour from our normal routine, what would’ve happened differently? Is there any harm in experimenting with randomness and opening up to someone new? We are living in a “fast and furious” culture. We subconsciously create an idea of time for ourselves—a constructed idea of urgency and productivity—and at the same time, a sense of guarded social circle and vulnerability. When someone random tells us something personal, we immediately puts our guards up: “Wow, back off a little” and are intimidated by the potentiality of commitment. We don’t want to open up to the unfamiliar; we don’t want to waste our time and energy on something we have not yet seen the purpose of. Maybe it is also a cultural thing that a certain collective has stronger request for personal space and considers anonymous handwritten letters disruptive. Maybe it is technology that opens us up to “the global village” and at the same time puts us into self-sustained, well-equipped suitcases with all the necessary social components in a portable device. Whatever the causes were, I had an epiphany about my peers’ and my own living and socializing habits: though subtly, we were somehow curating our own habitual solitude.

Out of all the people that I sent letters to, I had a coffee break with one. It was really awesome and pleasant because we learned interesting things about each other. I personally was so relieved to just take a long walk through the woods, sip some good coffee and chat about random things with a person I didn’t know, who turned out to be so freaking cool. Yesterday, I found a word that could precisely describe how I felt at that moment and now as I’m currently figuring myself out though spontaneous friend making in a strange city: sonder (n.), the realization that each random passerby is living a life as vivid and complex as your own. I wouldn’t have realized it had I not come to a new environment where I could reflect and learn to live slower. I feel grateful for my friend’s handwritten letters, especially the one that came at my door all the way from the U.S. It gave my day a beautiful pause, and myself a warm caress. Reading her thoughts, I realized that sometimes we became so entitled to our routines and businesses that we subconsciously regarded ourselves as the belly buttons of the universe. We want to finish the tasks, and thus consume every moment in a swallow, so fast and furious that we pass by complex and interesting living creatures who can enrich our lives and help us see more of ourselves. We move past spontaneous connections along the ride, we forget to wave back at certain friendly beckons and forget to give more random acts of kindness.

That, my friends, might as well be an imminent shadow of our modern solitude.

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