I’ve been writing letters my whole life. As kids my sister and I would send mail to each other, leaving notes in the Itty Bitty Bins that we kept at the threshold to our bedrooms. It was top secret communication that passed under my mother’s spectacularly wide reaching radar. Those posted letters were our Pig Latin.
Later, when we moved interstate mail would be sent to friends left behind. The curly haired boy from class. The long-limbed neighbour who always wrote back.
I sent fan mail to Ann M. Martin and letters to a pen-pal named Esther in Uganda. When I fought with friends I would apologise via a typed missive, which I would solemnly deliver to them during recess. It was as though I trusted my hand rather than my mouth to be honest. My hand had a direct connection with my heart whereas my mouth was hooked up to my brain, which could be unreliable.
More recently, I’m the author of 230 letters written during the past 11 months. With only a month to go it looks likely I’ll hit my target of one letter per weekday for a year; my goal when I started out in late July, 2014. The reasons for starting were manifold: I wanted to connect with mentors; I hoped to receive mail; I was spending too much time in front of a screen. But most of all, I was lonely.
I had, once more, moved interstate and away from friends and thought that letters might assuage the loneliness. The mailbox; a metaphor for my heart. That’s why at the end of the week it felt so good to drop five stamped, neatly addressed letters into the red box and hear them scatter as they hit the bottom. It was the sound of a fuller heart. Or sometimes they would fall upon other mail and the sound would be muffled, just a tempered whoomp.
My letters would sail through that opening and land in a world of things made of paper. They’d travel, get sorted, encounter machines and heavy canvas bags and airports and somehow only days later arrive at their destination. This still strikes me as magic.
For the price of a stamp my words travel the world.
So I set out writing letters with Flat Stanley as my spirit animal and Australia Post my dealer. In the last 11 months I’ve written to family, friends, writers, artists, comedians, doctors, boys I’ve dated and podcast hosts.
My mail has ended up all around the world. Two letters flew to Toronto, Canada. One to Trinidad; a couple to Tasmania; some to Melbourne, Sydney, Alice Springs and Singapore. One to Spain, one to Italy, one to France and one to the Ecuadorian embassy in the UK. I’ve posted mail to Wisconsin, California, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Mexico, Florida, New York, Baltimore, Arizona, Illinois, Tennessee and Virginia.
I enquired about Sir David Attenborough’s favourite bird. Nineteen days later — our letters spanning two continents on opposite sides of the world — he let me know it’s the Vogelkop bowerbird (a fine choice).
I wrote to my high school art teacher.
I wrote to Maria Bamford’s sister, who is so delightfully lovely that I now have two favourite Bamfords.
I wrote to a publisher and suggested that they give a writer friend a book deal. They invited her to pitch.
I picked an address at random from the White Pages and posted a note to A.E Williams of Geebung, Queensland.
After Serial ended I wrote to Adnan Syed.
I struck up a friendship with a friend-of-a-friend who lives remotely, works as a Sergeant in the Australian army, and writes back in a chicken scrawl that renders every tenth word indecipherable. His letters are like comprehension tests where the answer could either be digression or didgeridoo.
I wrote to a friend’s kids in Edinburgh. My friend took a picture of the kids holding the mail, their freckled, wide faces looked like they were about to implode with happiness.
By the time the year is over I will have spent over $300 in postage.
I do it because letters are my superpower.
They allow me to speak to anyone in the world. It might be a bit naive to think I have a direct line but I’ve found again and again people listen to letters.
When I wrote to Chapelli Cycles and asked them for a new bike, they said ok, let’s trade. A bike for a mural in our new store. And Tom and Pablo let me paint their walls with colours called Calm Day and Blue Emerald and Pale Buttercup.
And there’s the lovely ritual of letters. Of writing them and receiving them. Of folding, tearing, stamping, signing. When something comes in the post I don’t open it straight away. I slip it into my bag and save it for later; during a break from work or while sitting outside, watching the chickens make their final scratches in the ground as evening nears.
Sometimes the saved-up letter has saved me. One night, driving home from work I spotted an injured wallaby on the side of the road. On his side, his little torso strained away from the tarmac as he tried to stand up. I pulled over, getting a blanket from the boot and covering him carefully as cars — blindingly bright and careening down the country road — passed us by. I called the animal ambulance and told them I suspected the wallaby was paralysed. Too busy to come to the scene they agreed it was probably best to euthanise. The police are able do this, they said, just wait for the cops to arrive.
So, I waited. Sitting in my car, I watched a lumpy blanket as it moved intermittently and hoped that I didn’t have to witness a wallaby getting shot. I reached into my bag to pull out my phone but instead found a letter I’d stashed earlier. A letter from a young girl who lives on a boat called the Seamonkey.
Previously I’d written to her and asked: did she liked animals?
Was she a fan of drawing, like her mum?
And what about reading?
If so, we were practically the same person I had joked. I had her little letter with me as I sat in the car and waited for the police to show up to shoot a wallaby wrapped in a promotional picnic blanket.
She’d drawn tiny pictures of imagined characters — her mind critters she called them. She’d written to me in coloured pencil, each line a different shade. And then came the kicker: she chastened me: ‘dumb-dumb! Of course I love animals!’ Of course she did; kids love animals. I vowed not to ask such inane questions in the future. I tucked the letter away again, all the bits and pieces she’d included: lolly wrappers, patterned paper and doodles on cardboard packaging.
The police arrived, they didn’t know what to do. I told them the animal ambulance dispatcher had suggested they would shoot the wallaby. Two middle-aged men baulked at me. They weren’t going to shoot the poor thing. They too were animal lovers. Look at the little guy, one policeman said, no way I could shoot him. But still, they didn’t know what to do.
I told them to open the car door and in one smooth movement I picked up the wallaby and put him in the back seat of the police car. They drove off, the policemen and the wallaby. And in the other direction I drove off. Just myself and a little letter that felt perfectly timed and perfectly calibrated to insert itself in that moment.
My world is more connected because of letters. It’s sturdier, as though it’s made of stuff that’s tangible rather than pixels and texts that float along invisible wires. It’s more grounded. Jonathan Franzen doesn’t just exist as a very popular and curmudgeonly author, he is the grateful recipient of a hand-cut, lino-printed card that bears a picture of a corella. It’s a world where people sign off with Love From and not Kind Regards. It’s a world of pens and patience and sometimes: sleuthing, as I trawl the internet to find an illusive address.
Not everyone writes me back. From 220 letters I’ve had 30 replies land in my letterbox. Sometimes I’m still as lonely as ever. Occasionally I have felt as though I’m shouting into a vacuum that sucks my words away, leaving only empty space — without even the dignity of an echo to prove I exist.
But where the letters have lead me is rich. In six weeks time— after my year of letters is finished, after I’ve written, stamped and addressed the 260th letter — I shall board the Seamonkey. I will be travelling with the kid who loves animals and her family as they make their way from Darwin to Indonesia.
When people ask who I’m travelling with I tell them it’s someone I met via mail. Someone who saw a picture of a letter I’d sent and who decided to sign her child up to receive a letter from me. Someone who trusted me enough to let me write to her kid. People think it’s crazy. They think I’m crazy. But I’m not crazy, I just believe in the power of perfectly calibrated correspondence.