My sophomore year of college, I trapped myself into a bad cycle. I was overextending myself as an activist—though at first enjoying it. The campaigns I was involved in and program I started up were important to me, and I knew I was doing good work. But my social life died for a period; I let friends slide by the wayside during several busy stretches. This led to people not asking me over, not because they didn’t want me there but because they assumed I was too busy to attend. I knew I was slipping away from the people I cared about, but for some reason I felt it would be desperate if I called them and asked to come over. So then I made myself busier, that way it didn’t matter if I didn’t have any invites for a Friday night, because…I had campaign work to catch up on anyway. Which led to less and less invitations. I pulled away, alienating myself from friends, instead seeing people only in meetings and late-night study sessions.
After dealing with a lot of health issues over the past few years, I understand that prioritizing that balance between work and play, between lunch-meetings and coffee with friends, is critical for me. I lived without that balance for far too long, and I know that attempting to find it is essential for sustaining myself as an activist and keeping myself healthy.
You know those friends who, no matter how much time has actually passed, once you’ve reconnected it’s like no time at all has gone by? Most of those friends, for me, come from my summer outdoor jobs. There is something about braving the elements out in the woods that seems to create a special bond. It’s typically during the summer that I become nostalgic for out-of-touch friends and put in the effort to reach out. Why don’t I make that effort, a critical part of the balance between work and play, the rest of the year?
This fall I decided to make that effort, to prioritize my friends alongside my work, with a letter-writing campaign. I love getting mail, but have been perpetually bad about sending it out—if I ever finished a letter, it wouldn’t go in an envelope; if it went in an envelope, that would sit around half-addressed for months…So I set a goal of writing a postcard or letter a day to friends and family.
Starting this campaign, I felt like my letter writing skills were inadequate. I didn’t grow up writing much more than thank-you notes, which always seemed like a chore. Plus, my generation’s ultimate resource—the internet—doesn’t provide much help (a Google search for “letter writing” brings up nothing but stylus guides resume, resignation, and fundraising letters; perhaps this is a dying art!) I’m slowly learning that every letter doesn’t have to be a big, grand production; what might seem mundane can often be great in letters (I love descriptions of the coffee shop or airport a letter is written from, perhaps just to feel closer to that person in space, if not in time). The point is, I’m realizing, to get writing.
I started this campaign to connect to others, to give my loved ones a bit of my time, but along the way I’m realizing how inherently valuable writing letters is for me. In some ways it’s a form of therapy, making me sort through my thoughts, what I’m fixating on, what is coming up in my life that I want to boast about or need to let out. In a world of “go, go, go” activism, jumping from one campaign to the next, writing letters helps me slow down a bit, every day, and take a breath. Writing letters is a way of catching up with myself, something that I find I all too often loose in the hustle of activism.
Not that I’m actually meeting the goal of writing a letter-a-day. That was a bit lofty, in hindsight. So I’m also learning more about how to be graceful with myself and give myself some allowance and space for mistakes.
In a world of online communication, and in trying to have deep and meaningful connections across the virtual world, I think it’s important to ground myself with the original form of communication across distance. This letter-writing campaign doesn’t necessarily affect my activism in any direct way, but I feel incredibly good about what it is doing to sustain and balance me. I feel connected. I am taking time for myself and for the people I care about. And maybe that is activism enough, in and of itself.
Plus, who doesn’t like to get surprises in the mail?
As a side-note, I want to share two things related to letter writing. First, there is a fabulous story from the podcast Radiolab about finding and tracing a mysterious batch of letters all addressed to Ella Chase. Worth a listen regardless of any interest in letters, because Radiolab is awesome and
Second, there is a new program by The Rumpus called Letters in the Mail. For $5 a month, you sign up to receive a weekly letter from a collection of famous authors. While I’m a bit mixed about the idea of paying for mail, the message of the program (encouraging “correspondence that’s more inspiring than an endless stream of text messages and status updates”) I am fully behind.