I Started Writing Letters Last Year to Feel Close to People Again — and I’m Not Going to Stop

updated May 14, 2021
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Last spring, I felt disconnected from family and friends. It was a common side-effect of the pandemic, and of shelter-in-place orders that suddenly limited my world to my immediate household and placed everything else on an immediate, indefinite hold. 

The ability to get together with friends, fly home to see loved ones, or dine in a restaurant seemed to vanish overnight, and purchasing groceries or attending a gym class were now considered “risky activities.” I spent days at home tuned into the news, wondering what was going to happen next, and loss and grief felt like a large umbrella shadowing my day-to-day. Yes, I’d text or call my mom, sister, and friends on the phone, but because in-person interactions completely stopped, the connections felt stale and obligatory. I missed the impromptu coffee chats with friends at the end of a workday, the anticipation of making plans for dinners, and postponed celebrations, like my daughter’s graduation and my nephew’s first birthday.  

It became paramount for me to connect with my friends instead of lingering on my grief — if I didn’t, I worried I would isolate myself further. I immediately looked for new ways to maintain my friendships. I surprised friends that I never called in the past and left messages on their voicemails. For several weeks, I organized Zoom calls with girl pals. These interactions always seem to feel incomplete or not enough. 

Eventually, I turned to writing old-fashioned letters, a hobby I’d loved when I was younger. Back then, many of my letters and postcards were addressed to family in India, as well to friends who routinely traveled abroad. I remember the excitement of running down my driveway to open the mailbox, grabbing a pile of bills, and spying the one envelope with different-looking stamps and cursive handwriting. I’d walk into my room, tear open the letter, and read it twice within minutes. If the letter was from my grandfather, I would study his neat script — he’d write the entire letter in Gujarati to my mom, and reserve the last portion of the letter to me, in English. In return, I’d pen a few lines to my grandfather and watch my mom slip the letter in the mail. 

As the pandemic continued through April, I started writing letters to feel close to people. I’d found pretty stationery, a nice pen, and small quotes I wanted to insert into each envelope, and sent an email to friends asking which of them would like to receive a letter from me.

I was eager to connect in a way that could potentially have meaning for the sender and the recipient — after all, there is an indescribable anticipation that arrives when you are expecting a letter and a palpable satisfaction when penning your words to someone you care about. I wasn’t alone, either: In June of last year, a number of people spoke with the New York Times about writing letters to loved ones and strangers alike. When I wrote my letters to friends, I didn’t ask for a response in return but requested they write a letter to someone else in their life and pass the message forward. 

Despite my instructions, I received letters in return — thoughtful, wonderful letters that had been lovingly composed by my friends and family. People took time to pick out special stationery and wrote several pages telling me how they were coping in the pandemic. Some talked about how it had been so many years since they wrote a letter and they were grateful for the opportunity to put words on the page. Some friends shared successes and others, bright spots in a painful year. Still others revealed parts of their lives that they might not have discussed over a digital connection. 

When I received these letters in the mail, I’d also feel a ray of joy that lingered throughout the day, which is a kind of happiness that I don’t feel when reading a text thread or a slew of emails. Letter-writing made me feel connected to people in a way I had forgotten over time. 

The pandemic has felt unusual in a number of ways, including this one: Suddenly, I was paying closer attention to the quiet. Typically, during “normal times,” my phone pinged a million times a day with texts and emails, a cycle that had become impersonal and unsatisfying for me. But as life slowed, I noticed a shift. I’d still reach for my phone as soon as I woke up and would talk to people via email or text, but we weren’t actually saying anything substantive. Now I had a chance to redirect my time and engage in more meaningful conversations. 

Sitting down at my desk, I liked reflecting on what feeling I wanted to convey to people I was writing. In some letters, I’d share what a day in the pandemic looked like for me and my daughter; in others, I’d share book recommendations and movies we watched. As I wrote the letters, I tried to make the process more about the person who was receiving the letter than about myself by thinking about a recent memory I shared with that person. I liked how my conversations in the letters rose organically and slowly, and became an unfiltered dialogue with the person receiving the letter. 

By shifting the way I communicate through letters, I automatically spent less time on my phone. This felt refreshing, especially in the early days of the pandemic, when the news cycle was nonstop and there was so much uncertainty about what would happen next. When I spent an afternoon writing letters and not turning to the phone, I noticed my anxiety and restlessness moving to the periphery — almost as if writing letters became a form of meditation.

I also liked the idea of giving and receiving something tangible, especially in a time of vast uncertainty. If you delete a text, it is gone from your screen, and unless you took a screenshot or saved it some way, there is no evidence that you connected with the person on the other side of the message. With sending or receiving letters, there is a tangible and physical memory of your connection. You can hold a letter in your hands and revisit the words when you need affirmation, and even a glance at the handwriting on the envelope might make you feel a range of emotions. A few friends even told me that they were planning on keeping the letter I sent in a keepsake box because they wanted to cherish and revisit the memory of our conversation. I felt honored and grateful that my letter meant so much to them. 

Since letter writing is personal and intimate, it naturally evolved into a gratitude practice for me and served as a place of refuge especially during darker days of the pandemic. I’d often find myself reminiscing about a cherished encounter and then sharing all of the emotions the nostalgia offered me. I’m not certain I’d necessarily mention this kind of memory in a text, email, or in person. Even though I wasn’t connecting with my friends in person, I was grateful to have the ability to share a part of myself. 

I don’t plan to abandon letter-writing in 2021. It has been so satisfying to communicate in a meaningful way with my friends and family, and I want to leave the space open for more in-depth dialogue with my loved ones — about what we’ve learned from the pandemic, how we’re navigating the uncertain future and everything in between. Letters are places I can revisit, they allow me to relive a fun memory while feeling the texture of the paper, words, and sentiments. They serve as an invitation to a personal and more intimate connection, and I wouldn’t give that up for the world.