Self-care can be defined in many ways. Pre-pandemic, I used to think of it mainly as time away from people and responsibility—an extra-long shower, a movie night alone at the theater, heck, even a subway commute with a really good podcast. But, as COVID-19 took hold and we became limited to our homes and “essential” to-do’s only (not to mention facing the loss of any support be it childcare or family and friendships), I found myself struggling to carve out time for myself.
My bathroom was now my pseudo-conference room (yay, apartment life), my movie preferences were subject to endless debate (my spouse and I were both home on the couch together every. single. night.) and my subway escape was replaced with a car commute that included my toddler (just ask me how many times I’ve listened to the Moana soundtrack this year).
On top of it all, I was feeling increasingly disconnected from the people in my life—past and present—that had always helped me feel grounded. When the pandemic hit, even the long-distance relationships I had meticulously maintained over the years seemed to dissipate. It made sense, of course. We were all in various states of grief as we processed unprecedented life changes. But as a result, a Zoom call felt intrusive; an email—and its expectation of an immediate response—felt like work.
That’s where letter writing comes in. As a recent subscriber to writer and editor Gina Hamadey’s newsletter—and subsequent reader of her brand-new book I Want to Thank You, which chronicles her year spent writing 365 thank you notes to strangers, neighbors, family members and friends—I was both interested and optimistic about her idea that putting pen to paper was a low-key way to feel more joyful and connected to the people in your world.
But could sending out snail mail as a way to express appreciation and stay in touch with people be the act of self-care I was searching for? It was worth a try.
Let me preface this by saying that I’ve always viewed handwritten notes as an art form. I’ve long collected pretty stationery from card shops all over the world; pride myself on my swoopy yet measured cursive penmanship; and am a bit of a hoarder when it comes to any and all correspondence I receive (thoughtful post-it or lengthy letter—I hold onto it). Still, I’d never made the effort to ritualize this passion. Hamadey’s January newsletter (new year, new you, right?) became my road map.
The first step, per Hamadey, was an important one: Set a goal for the number of notes you aim to write in a given year. For this, I zeroed in on what actually felt reasonable in a pandemic: One a week. Next, I brainstormed people I wanted to write to and topics I wanted to address. Think: Neighbors, parenting helpers, career mentors or an impactful job, a delightful hobby, an age-old conversation with a college friend that continues to ring around my head. My thank you list was born.
But back to the self-care part of all this. I’ll admit, I was a bit precious about the first note. I set aside time in the evening, dimmed the lights in my bedroom, got out a felt-tip pen. I was writing to my mom’s best friend, someone who grew up with my parents, but whose advice—and laugh—I thought of regularly. She adopted a daughter, now a full-grown adult, and leaned on my mother heavily during that time; but, as a kid, I also leaned on her quite a bit in times of joy and sorrow. Even now, when we’re out of touch, I think of her as a second mom. I decided to tell her exactly that.
Affixing a stamp and popping my letter (all three sides of the Lewis notecard, pictured above) in the mailbox felt like a micro thrill—I didn’t know when she’d receive it or how she’d respond to such an out of the blue piece of correspondence. I found out about a week later: “OMG, I just got your card!! I love, love, love you, too! This is permanently on my desk!” (Her daughter texted me, too: “Mom shared the wonderfully lovely note you sent to her and I just wanted to let you know how much I appreciate you and your family!”) It made my whole week.
I continued on with my new practice. I sent a note to the former president of my a cappella group who now lives in Hawaii, but who helped instill confidence in my sophomore self every time I took the stage; a former boss turned mentor turned friend from one of my first magazine jobs who taught me about the value of boundless creativity; a college roommate from Turkey—one of my first real friendships—who became a mom at the same time as me, but who I stay in touch with only via Instagram.
One month of thank you letters down. Some recipients I heard back from; others I did not. My friend in Turkey said the letter went missing, but thankfully, I’d employed another one of Hamadey’s tips—snap a photo of the letters you send—so I simply DM’ed her the pics of my note. (As it turned out, the real deal took eight weeks to arrive.)
I even developed a pen pal—a former colleague who I adore, but who recently had another baby, something that made text messages feel intrusive. Now, we write each other lengthy letters sharing everything from work updates to marital squabbles. Our correspondence feels special; historical even? Will I look back on these notes as a time capsule? I hope so.
Now my routine is quite fluid; I pick a night, a notecard (like these lovely ones from Papier) and devote 30 minutes to giving thanks. My phone is out of sight; my laptop is shut. My list of people I’d like to thank is getting longer, but that’s the joy of it. It’s my way of keeping tabs on those I can’t see in person right now, but who I think of all the time.
More than anything, this ritual has helped me maintain my sense of self. And there’s no greater act of self-care than that.