Gimbling in the Wabe – In Praise of Letters

by Sharon Browning

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I promise, I won’t make this a diatribe on the lack of personalization in society today, nor will I bemoan the loss of the art of letter writing, or even shed a tear at the passing of cursive writing.  That’s something my grandmother would do, and even though I loved her dearly, I don’t want to become her.

But I will, honestly, say that there is very little in life that brings spontaneous glee to me faster than an unlooked for Lettermo participantletter showing up in my mailbox.  Or a card, or even a postcard.  Not Christmas or birthday cards, mind you (although even those come less and less frequently), but the ones that come unheralded, unexpectedly, with a handwritten address on the front and an honest to goodness stamp affixed to the upper right hand corner of the envelope.

(A sidebar, if I may… the second year that my son was in college, he and some friends decided to live in an apartment close to campus rather than in the dorms.  We had already gotten him a local checking account with a small pack of checks to use, but he was in a quandary when having to pay the rent because he had to mail a check to the management company; that they might not be set up to receive payments online was something that had never occurred to him.  He managed to figure out how to fill out the check, but he was a bit stumped when it came to addressing the envelope [or even where to find a simple, blank envelope], or at least he needed moral support to make sure he was doing it right.  It seemed somewhat strange to have to instruct a kid who was valedictorian of his high school graduating class that yes, the stamp goes in the upper RIGHT hand corner, and yes, I’m sure of it, and then having to argue to convince him to put his return address in the upper left hand corner.)

Occasionally I have posted a pledge on Facebook to send a handwritten letter to any one of my friends who messaged me with their address, and I was very pleased with the response.  I enjoyed writing little snippets of life here in Minnesota tailored to what I knew of the recipient, sometimes including a pressed flower or other little tidbit.  I got a very positive response to my little project and it felt good to know I had done something to brighten the lives of others, if even in a small way.

This year, again, I am taking part in another project that involves sending mail to others.  It’s the brainchild of writer Mary Robinette Kowal, something she calls A Month of Letters, which is gearing up to begin again on Monday (the first day of February).  Here is the challenge she threw out:

I have a simple challenge for you.

  1. In the month of February, mail at least one item through the post every day it runs. Write a postcard, a letter, send a picture, or a cutting from a newspaper, or a fabric swatch.
  2. Write back to everyone who writes to you. This can count as one of your mailed items.


All you are committing to is to mail 23 items. Why 23? There are four Sundays and one US holiday. In fact, you might send more than 23 items. You might develop a correspondence that extends beyond the month.

Write love letters, thank yous, or simply notes to say that you miss an old friend. Let yourself step away from the urgency of modern life and write for an audience of one. You might enjoy going to the mail box again.

There are a lot of fun extras to the challenge, including interacting with other letter writers, choosing to be part of an exchange (like exchanging recipes, or postcards of your area), and collecting “Quests and Badges”.  Badges are little online icons you get for passing certain milestones, like posting your first letter, sending a letter from a new mailbox (which gets the letter writer out and exploring their neighborhood), sending something parcel post, or mailing an international letter.  One of the most fun Badges is writing a letter “Austen style”, which means writing it as though it was the 1800s:  folded, no envelope, utilizing a wax seal and even, perhaps, using a dip pen.  I’m sure this Badge gives Ms. Kowal great joy, since many of her works are written in Regency style!  There are currently 13 Badges a participant can achieve, but although I have no plans on obtaining them all, they are a fun spur to wandering a little outside of my comfort zone, and keep the project fresh.

I’ve been participating in the Month of Letters challenge since its inception in 2012, and it was brought quite a bit of joy to me (and hopefully to the recipients of my participation) each year.  I’d like to share with you one especially unlooked for and wonderful experience from 2014.

I had decided to mail my letter-of-the-day from a mailbox that was about a block from my house, but which I had never before used.  It was a lovely afternoon with a few inches of freshly fallen snow, so I took my goofy, loveable dog with me for a quick walk.  We stopped on the way for her to get petted by a fellow who was shoveling the sidewalk outside one of the businesses along our route, and I thanked him for doing such a fine job clearing the snow.  But when we got to the mailbox, I discovered that scatterbrained me had forgotten to tuck the letter in my pocket after getting all my winter gear on, so back home we trotted!  When we came around a second time a few minutes later, I explained to the man – who was still working on the snow – just why he was seeing us again, and we both had a good laugh.  Then he told me a funny story about leaving behind a pizza he had ordered after walking to the local pizza place, and having to bus back to retrieve it before it got cold!  So I guess I’m not the only one who sometimes does silly things.

I could tell that the man enjoyed talking with us, and it made me think that had I not been part of this challenge, I would not have gotten out into the neighborhood, interacted with others, and been able to brighten someone else’s day besides the person who will be getting that card later this week.  It made me happy, and heavens knows, that’s a good place to be.  The Month of Letters challenge had been a win/win situation for me beyond anticipating someone else’s joy when sorting through their bills and junk mail.

And that’s why I’m writing this Gimbling in the Wabe in praise of letters, both given and received.  Not to wail about what is lacking, but to rejoice in what still is.  And I would love it if you would join with me by participating in this February’s Month of Letters challenge.  Simply go to their website (now curated by K. Tempest Bradford), create your own profile, and read through all the fun information – then get ready to share in the fun!

In fact, if any of you who read this would like to receive a letter or card from me, even if it’s no longer February, drop me a note with your mailing address, and I guarantee that I will post something for you, possibly when you least expect it.  After all, who can resist bringing a little bit of spontaneous joy into the world, eh?  Joy in any form is always a good thing.

~ Sharon Browning

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