Pandemic Pen Pal
I didn’t think it was possible for me to become more introverted and then, in the same way it takes just one snowflake to become a snowstorm, the pandemic interrupted our lives. The pandemic has made me even more introverted, which I didn’t think was possible. Like a lot of you might be doing right now, I’m daydreaming about all the things I’ll be able to do once this is over — hug my friends without a worry, pretend to write in a coffee shop, and listen to all the albums my favorite artists released in an actual venue and not my purple and pink childhood bedroom. But while I’m filling up all my time doing that, I’m still grieving the potential that was lost.
Being stuck inside has limited our options to connect with new people. It’s forced us to find ways to distract ourselves from pretty much everything. There were Zoom happy hours and hangouts that required us to spend time outdoors and six feet apart from each other. I had never used Netflix Party before, but there it was to fill the void and temporarily mimic the feeling of experiencing something for the first time. There were a lot of firsts this past year. But do you want to know which one never got old? Writing letters.
I had always been jealous of the people in elementary school who had an international pen pal. Not only do you get to meet someone from across the world, but you can look back at those letters the same way you read a journal years after you’ve completed it. My escapist tendencies thrive on reading what my past selves were occupied with and emotional about, and I think a childhood pen pal would’ve shared those same feelings of angst and confusion about growing up.
Meeting people over pen and paper was one positive that came out of the pandemic, especially for people seeking connection. I found Penpalooza, a pen pal exchange that started in spring 2020 by writer Rachel Syme, this past February through Twitter. Social media quickly became the place to get connected with a pen pal or outlets seeking people who, like me, always wanted to become one. After a strict no-visitor rule was imposed at Victorian Senior Care, an assisted living home in North Carolina, seniors posted photos of themselves on Facebook. Luckily, the posts went viral and proved that pen pals were a successful way to combat isolation and connect with people, safely and from a distance. Pen pals entered the conversation of prison abolition at Black and Pink, an Omaha-based prison abolitionist organization with a pen pal program specifically for writing to incarcerated LGBTQ+ people. In a system that is extremely dehumanizing, especially to LGBTQ+ individuals, pen pals offer comfort and can serve as “a means of harm reduction,” according to Black and Pink. Black and Pink’s program is one of many pen pal exchanges out there for writing to incarcerated people, along with WriteaPrisoner.com and National Capital Crime Assistance Network.
The most recent example I’ve seen of international pen pals was in The Queen’s Gambit, which was between the main character’s mother and her lifelong pen pal who lived in Mexico. That exchange lasted for several decades and they went that long without meeting each other, too. It’s no wonder we’ve reserved writing letters for romance and for couples yearning for each other from a distance. But it makes perfect sense to me why we think that way — letters are a space to be intimate and vulnerable with each other. Even just receiving that perfectly crafted and packaged letter is intimate.
As romantic as the whole process is, writing letters can be weird. When I’m out in public I do not like being perceived, but having a pen pal defeats that entire purpose. Writing to a complete stranger demands that you be perceived and if you don’t want to commit to the process, what’s the point? I also find it weird that you can just tell this person whatever you want. They don’t really have a choice if they want to hear about what I ate for dinner the other night, or that I binged watched Twilight for the first time since it came out, or what everyone in my family’s zodiac signs are. I’m the one with the choices here and vice versa.
Thankfully, my pen pal happens to be my long-lost twin. I wrote the first letter, so it wasn’t until I received hers that I learned that 1.) we are basically the same person and 2.) the universe is maybe looking out for me after all. How did the universe (i.e. Penpalooza) know we were going to make a beautiful match in pen pal heaven?
I wasn’t surprised we were both writers. I bet a fair percentage of the people who signed up for this exchange are writers because, you guessed it, there’s a lot of writing involved and more importantly, writing about yourself. At first, it was difficult to write about myself. Then it started feeling like writing in a journal — a recorded account of my daily musings where I feel comfortable enough to not hold back. The version of myself that lives inside my journal never gets an audience, but if it felt that my pen pal embodied the same trust I had in my journal, then I could share anything with her.
We started getting into specifics. We’re both 23; both went to school in the Midwest (which naturally meant we bonded over Midwestern winters); have considered/pursued journalism as a career; have an unhealthy obsession with HAIM and Taylor Swift (and several more artists); sang in our high school choirs; are big musical theater nerds; and are huge fans of the astrology account @notallgeminis. Each time I read a similarity between us I’d tell my sister, who quickly became a third correspondent in this pen pal exchange for that reason.
Although we have so much in common, there are a few things that set us apart. While I’m in the Chicago suburbs with my family, my pen pal lives with her partner in Berkeley, where they moved two months before the pandemic started. I’ve never been in a relationship, and my pen pal and her partner met on their second day of freshman orientation. When I read each letter, I picture us in my favorite pre-pandemic settings — seated across from each other at a cafe or sitting outside while the warm sun comforts our skin. Writing letters can’t replace the excitement in your friends’ voices when they tell you about how real their dream about grasping and cradling the moon felt. Lucky for us, writing letters does carry the excitement of meeting someone new and wanting to know every single detail about them.
So what else did we decide to share with each other? I mentioned the most spiritual experience I’ve ever had — listening to HAIM sing “Night So Long” at the Greek Theatre in the rain while everyone illuminated the venue with their phone flashlights. She told me about the short films she’s made that have premiered at festivals and that her acapella group in college was called the Acapelicans, which I absolutely love.
During a time when I’ve felt isolated from a lot of friends, my pen pal has reminded me of how much I do like and need human connection, despite how much more introverted I am now. I owe it to my pen pal for keeping me sane, and I hope she feels the same way.
I don’t know what our plans are or what will eventually happen to our pen pal friendship. That’s another thing about the pandemic — I’ve learned it’s okay not to have the answers to everything. It’s okay not to plan out every second of your life. But what I do know right now is that I have a letter to respond to.
About the Author
Elly is a Latinx writer and journalist based in Chicago. She is a graduate of Northwestern University, where she studied journalism and English, and her work has appeared in Hypertext Magazine, PALABRITAS, The Chicago Reporter, and North by Northwestern. In her free time, Elly enjoys writing fiction and personal essays and reading coming-of-age novels — her favorites include I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter by Erika L. Sánchez and The Perks of Being A Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky — and one day she hopes to publish her own.
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