I Wrote Everywhere, Man

(A fuller, edited version of this post appears on npr.org)

The letters addressed and ready for delivery. My first letters were affixed with Santa stamps because that’s all I had left.

On the first day, I wrote to folks in Santa Ana CA, Austin, St. Louis, Flushing NY, Spokane Valley and Tucson. On the next day I wrote to an 11-year old who was born in Plano, where I grew up. I wrote to a USPS letter carrier from Minnesota who requested a letter for himself. By the time I was finished writing letters to any random social media follower of mine requested one, I wrote fifty letters to people I’d never met, addressed to recipients in almost every US state, excepting Alaska and the Dakotas.

When they requested letters, people mentioned little bits about themselves: That they live in my old stomping grounds (Austin, or St. Louis). They mentioned their cats, or kids, or dogs. They mentioned listening to me when I broadcasted from Seoul. They mostly asked if it was too late to request a letter.

It surprised me how many people wanted a random letter from a stranger, but they were clearly as eager to connect as I was, during this disorienting global pandemic and what’s amounted to a national state of emergency. At least three of the letter requesters were my longtime friends. They can call me anytime, but wanted a letter all the same.

Our lives are upended and uncontrollable, yet contained by the walls of our homes. So when I wrote, I asked how they were doing in isolation. Were they scared and uncertain, like me? How did they fill their days? Find joy? I asked many people what they learned about themselves during this difficult period.

I am someone who is “very online,” so it’s much easier to bang out a tweet that reaches far more than one person at a time. Or I could have simply sent personalized emails to everyone who asked. But sitting down to compose a letter by hand, address an envelope and stamp it came with extra intention. It felt like a way to show an old-fashioned kind of caring, without costing more than a stamp.

Ultimately we’re stripped to our most primal longings to survive these days, and survival for humans means connection and communion where we can find it. Especially when my generation is the loneliest — a quarter of millennials said in a YouGov survey that they have no acquaintances, 22 percent reported having no close friends. And that was before this crisis hit.

It made personalizing these letters important to me. I wanted to be explicit in signaling the letters came from a real human, not a bot. When I ran out of my personal stationery, I found my four-year-old daughter Isa’s doodles in a notebook and wrote my letters on those pages.

When I ran out of my personal stationery, I tried to maintain a personal touch by writing on pages of kid doodles.

I didn’t share quotes or poems or parables, as I sometimes do when I send cards or letters to friends. Instead I wrote about the rhythms and happenings of my days. I wrote about Isa singing full-throated the entire time she was on the back of a tandem bike with her dad. I wrote about how happy my neighbors are to see each other and how we delight in shouted conversations from across the street. I wrote about how lonely I feel, even though I’m quarantined in a house full of the loudness of small children.

And how writing these letters filled up my emotional tank, even though we didn’t know one another.

A letter than got to the other side, complete with the Santa stamp

I never expected replies. The satisfaction for me was in writing to people and knowing they’d receive something weird and rare. But the replies ended up being the best part. When the recipients got them in the mail, some of them didn’t wait to write back by hand. They sent me direct messages on social media with photos of themselves and the letters now in their possession.

Oscar in Santa Ana said, “Handwritten anything is so special these days.” Robert in Austin quipped, “I got your note today in the mail and my wife was like, ‘Someone named Elise wrote you from California 🤨’ and I was like ‘Oh [expletive], do I have a secret lover I don’t know about?'”

He went on to tell me how he and his wife were three days out from the arrival of their baby, and that they were on their way to pick up Texas BBQ-Asian fusion takeout.

In the following weeks, Howard sent a letter by mail with a photo of the new baby and a personalized koozie with his phone number on it. He said he read a book once in which the author asked, “What if we really loved our neighbor as ourselves?” The author put his phone number in the back of the book. Howard was inspired and emulated the move with his number on the koozie to “make myself available to people and the world feel smaller.”

In addition to the tweeted and texted photos, I received dozens of handwritten replies. They came from Eldersburg, Md. And Kirkland, Wash. Tucson. Flushing, N.Y. Kearney, Mo. Fort Collins, Colo.

People wrote me about leaning into their hobbies and how they’re spending their time — starting gardens, going on daily walks and sewing masks to donate to hospitals. Some of the replies were typed and printed out, with a Post-it note appended: “I ended up having so much to say, I typed it.”

I got dozens of handwritten replies. Some of them were typed and printed out, with a post-it appended: “I ended up having so much to say, I typed it.” One couple from Arizona sent me, along with their letter, two national park brochures of the parks they live near, to help with my homeschooling of my children. A high school freshman wrote me back, sharing her love of playing guitar, singing and acting, but admitting no one at school even knows because “high school is hard. There’s so much pressure to have a high social status.”

A lot of letters included wishes for what comes out of this crisis. The one consistent hope was that the slower pace, deeper intention and attention we’re paying to each other can continue in the next phase of our living history.

So many of the feelings my pen pals shared with me mirrored my own. I wrote to them originally to process my fears and anxieties during this time. In the end, the respondents helped me remember the clarifying thing about this pandemic — that we’re all part of one community of humans. For the duration of this crucible, and beyond, we should celebrate that which makes us most human: perspective, surprise and connection. Letters to strangers — and from strangers — can satisfy all three.

Robert in Austin, who received my letter and wrote back to share the news he and his wife were having a baby in three days

Great, or The Greatest, “Fan” Mail?

I have been working in journalism for my entire adult life and while most of the time the engagement with our listeners, readers and viewers is totally awesome, every once in awhile I get hostile feedback with picayune complaints that invariably include a personal dig. This absurdly rude type of “reader mail” has uniformly come from men. And it always includes some patronizing, preachy component.

There was that voicemail about jail versus prison, in 2015:

Last week, I got another classic one that I had to share with folks, because it was a) so absurd that it circled around to being funny b) the sender entered his name as “First Name Last Name” c) his email was an excite.com address and d) it so amused Friend Reeve that he spent his precious time helping compose a long-ass response (which I edited considerably before sending).

Here’s the listener note, which was, I kid you not, triggered by the fact I say “You bet” instead of “You’re welcome” sometimes.

And here’s the director’s cut response, of which only about five percent wound up in the actual response.

Dear [EMAIL ADDRESS REDACTED],

I’m sorry to hear that you have emailed management repeatedly and have yet to receive a response. As a reporter, I know how frustrating it can be to reach out and not know if your message was received. Somewhere in Kim Jong Un’s inbox, there is probably a whole folder of my unanswered interview requests. So, I hope you didn’t lose any sleep wondering, “Did she get my message?”  You bet I did!

You’ll have to bear with me, Gnarlee. Usually I am pretty casual. But since I know you’re a stickler for these sorts of things, I looked up the top ten email manners tips on EmilyPost.com, and I intend to follow them very closely as I write this response.

The first tip is to always respond, and to try and do so within 24 hours. Check! The second is to use the subject line to alert the receiver to the substance of the email, relieving them of any suspense. As you can see, I have done that. I hope you were not kept in suspense too long. I know you are very sensitive!

The third tip, which I think is a very good one, is to “consider using an address book function that doesn’t list all recipients in the ‘to’ header.” Accordingly, I have bcced numerous people on this email. The fourth — and I bet you can appreciate how relevant this was, Gnarlee! — is to not respond when you are “hot under the collar.” I followed the internet’s advice, and I let this sit for awhile before deciding that I would, in fact, send it.

Tips five, seven, nine and ten don’t really have any bearing on our correspondence. Tip eight is to keep it professional, by which they mean don’t talk about personal stuff. I would imagine following the standard letter-writing format I learned at Babler Elementary School — like making sure you have a salutation and a closing, using proper punctuation,  and things like that — could also fall under the idea of “keeping it professional.” So, even though I notice this was not a priority for you, I have made sure to do that, because as I said, I really want this email to demonstrate basic manners.

Finally, Gnarlee, that brings us to tip six. And I fear that this is where this whole project might fall apart, because tip six is “know your audience.” And even though your email clearly identifies you as “Full Name,” I feel like I just don’t know you, Gnarlee. And I feel like you don’t know me. And that makes this difficult. For all I know, your upbringing was completely different from mine. It’s also likely that our current lives don’t look all that similar (unless, of course, you are also a one-woman foreign bureau for NPR — in which case, way to go!). So unfortunately, though as you can see I came pretty close, I fear I may not be able to adhere to all of the top ten etiquette guidelines. Not because of any deficiency in my education, but just because they turned out to be a bit too rigid for our current context. No doubt, this has disappointed you, Gnarlee. I am sorry for that. The last thing I would want to do would be to write an email just to needlessly upset you.

My pleasure,

Elise

The New Yorker food writer Helen Rosner put it well, when she explained why she shares this kind of stuff:

“The biggest thing: I think it’s important for people who don’t get (or send?!) notes like these to see what the costs are for publicly being a certain type of person. Journalists need to see this, because while lots of us get stuff like this, PLENTY MORE don’t. And for many who do, the hostility is not gendered/racist/intimately personal in this way. It’s also important for journalist/public actors who DO get these notes to know they’re not alone. If you’re getting garbage hurled at you, know you aren’t the only one.”