The PenPal Project starts today! I’m so excited about this one, and I hope you’ll want to join in, or tell your friends. I’ll tell you all about it below, but you can skip over to the just-the-facts version right here.
In a recent post, I said something that’s kept returning to haunt me, pleasantly:
Letter-writing as a practice has a gravity that draws me. It’s that slowness, and the depth and focus it promotes. You can’t write a letter and also do something else. It’s both a physical and a mental activity, what Ursula K. LeGuin named handmind, which Alan Jacobs recently re-illuminated for me in his essay Handmind in Covidtide. It’s a perfect condition for the creation of that fully-immersed, flow state of being. And it’s so private—the space you shape in which to write a letter belongs to you alone, inspired by the memory and the imagining of the person to whom it’s addressed. Then you put a stamp on the finished letter and you give it away, a one-of-a-kind gift you made with your hands.
And when you get a letter…! New ideas, new perspectives, the handwriting and the careful thoughts of a friend or a stranger reaching out to you personally, across time and space. Sometimes they include lines from a favorite poem, or a whole new poem you’ve never read before, or stickers, or their own illustrations. You have no idea what will be inside this thing when you open it, but you know it will be a gift, made exactly for you.
I’ve dabbled in letters since childhood, starting with thank-you notes to relatives for birthday and graduation gifts, and cards to friends left behind when my family moved across the country. Email was normal by the time I left high school, so some of my letter-writing inclination went digital. Things were lost by this, and things were gained. As with many analog originals, I’ve been coming back toward letter-writing for a long time now. But my practice of it exists because of COVID.
Since the onset of the pandemic, and the correspondingly increased percentage of time spent at home, I’ve exchanged dozens of letters with at least a dozen friends. These folks are kindred spirits I met recently through online conversation, acquaintances I met years ago who’ve become friends through our letters, friends and family I expected to spend physical time with this year, and could not. I’ve also received a few short notes from people I don’t know—enclosed with the book or album I bought from them, for example.
Every one of these people, and every one of their letters, has been a gift. I’ve never created or received such an endless and nourishing string of presents in my life. I stand amazed.
2020 is not a good year. It is a year of grief, and we are reckoning with that. We must. But 2020 contains some unimaginably good things. Those are the bits I want to tend and grow as we create, and respond to, our common future.
I’m hearing the word “apocalypse” a lot this year. As in: daily, and several times each day. I’m saying it plenty myself. The connotation is “end of the world.” The direct translation is “uncovering” or “revelation.”
Reactions are rising, too; plenty of folks are inclined to dismiss (or, more kindly, to try to ameliorate) a too-dramatic or hopeless interpretation of events.
But this time does have the feeling of an ending—and a beginning. And it’s certainly an ongoing revelation: of injustice, of imbalance, of damage, of creativity, of love. How all of this unfolds into our world’s next age is still, at least partially, up to us.
Up to us collectively, though: that’s the catch. And the catch behind that one: each of us can only act individually. You can’t force collective will. I can look at American federal politics, say, (and its terrifying local manifestations), and conclude that the collective will is pushing my country in a direction I grieve to witness—and there’s nothing my vote or my “it’s complicated” style of understanding can do about that.
I’d be wrong, though, to conclude that I am powerless. Of course I don’t know what effect my actions will have. I may never know that. But they will have one, or more than one. So I can point them toward my values, and toward community—the collective—and place a little hope in that.
And that’s what The PenPal Project is about. It’s an open invitation to participate in the gift exchange, the deep and slow companionship, that is letter-writing.
It’s also an invitation to value art—mine, in this case, which is a stand-in for everyone’s—in a concrete and physical way.
Poets—you may know this—are rarely paid. If and when that pay does come, it isn’t a living wage. It isn’t even enough to support the time and money a poet spends writing and studying and submitting. I’ve made exactly $50 from my poetry this year—or rather, I will have made $50. That check will come when the poem it’s paying for is actually printed. I have literally no idea when that will be. Meantime, I’ve spent much more than $50 improving my craft and submitting my writing. And that’s not even to speak of the time I spend on the crafting itself.
It isn’t comfortable to lay open the utterly arbitrary relationships between wage and value. Unless it’s that bluff-and-hearty “do what you love and you’ll never work a day in your life!” nonsense. Which is nonsense. I love my craft. Partially because it is hard work. It takes energy, which I have a lot less of than I’d like, because I give 8 hours every weekday to paid work I neither love nor believe in. I do that because the present economic agreement in my country is an extreme profit-worshipping variant of capitalism. There’s no profit in poetry, so that agreement doesn’t value the work I love to do.
This isn’t a poor-me story. I’m not poor—which means I’m lucky. I am a full-time, committed artist who is rarely paid for that time or commitment. I am nothing like alone in this. What I’m describing is also called “being an artist” in the present system. But it doesn’t have to be like this. We, collectively, chose it. We can change it.
So that’s what else The PenPal Project is: a way to pay me. A way to demonstrate that my work—and by extension, artistic work in general—is valuable. It works like this:
You can visit the permanent project page for details—like my P.O. Box, for example. I’d be grateful if you shared that page (or this wild and rambling essay, if they like those) with friends, family, and strangers who might be interested.
The PenPal Project is an experiment in two different aspects of community, and I hope it turns out to be as much fun as it sounds. We’re creating the future here together, and I’m glad to share it with you: online, and in slower, deeper time on the handwritten page.