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Penpalooza: Writing Letters to Strangers Eased My Lockdown Loneliness

The art of letter writing has managed to make one of the most isolating chapters of my life feel bright and full.

By Kat O’Connor


It’s a miserable and cold Monday in Dublin, but the postman has just dropped a bundle of post through our letterbox. There’s something so heartwarming about rummaging through the post and finding a letter from your pen pal amongst the bills and takeaway leaflets. The sky is grey and dull, but the little letter in my hands from a pen pal in NYC has managed to brighten up this dreary January day. 

2020 was the year that tore us apart from our friends. Weddings were cancelled, birthdays celebrated alone; and our favorite cafes lay empty and silent without the constant chatter that comes with catch ups over warm, frothy cups of coffee. As the evenings grew darker, the number of COVID-19 cases started to rise.

It felt like the pandemic had stolen all the light from our little island and made the winter months feel even icier than usual. 

The news was bombarded with stories about people breaching the rules, hospital cases growing and cases reaching levels we never expected in Ireland. My heart sank when our Taoiseach announced stricter restrictions. It felt like any sense of normality was no longer within our reach. I longed to walk down Grafton Street with my best friend; bundled up in our best coats with cups of Butlers hot chocolate and Christmas lights twinkling above our heads. I was itching to reunite with my nearest and dearest friends, but it wasn’t meant to be. We stayed apart to save lives, but friendships flourished elsewhere, somewhere I never expected: in letters. They bloomed on pages and postcards from the Penpalooza community; the people who saved 2020 for me and thousands across the globe.

Penpalooza - postcards
Photo by Becky Phan

Penpalooza was created by New Yorker staff writer Rachel Syme, who has helped people create new friendships in what has been one of the loneliest years we’ve ever experienced on this planet.

The initiative was started because Syme simply wanted to help people connect when the virus was forcing us apart.

I signed up in August, just before my 26th birthday, and it was the greatest gift I’ve ever received. I knew I wouldn’t be able to celebrate my birthday as I had hoped. There were no friends gathered around the table, no dancing to Taylor Swift or tables covered in empty bottles of wine and wrapping paper. I think feeling unpopular or unwanted is something that has followed me since my days in secondary school when all anyone wanted to be was popular. I had a strong group of friends, but I wasn’t in the “It gang” in our Catholic girls school. It made me feel like I wasn’t enough; not worthy of the attention they got or even the respect they received for simply being “cool”.

As I grew up, I realized that there is so much more to life than being the one everyone adores. I found that having a group of friends who, to quote Mark Darcy in Bridget Jones,  “like you very much, just as you are” is more than enough. They will lift you up when you’ve been heartbroken, leave care packages on your doorstep when you have to isolate, and never judge you for re-watching Gilmore Girls time and time again.

Not being able to be with the people I cherish most, the ones who have saved me from the most harrowing chapters of my life, felt so wrong.

My story was missing main characters that I never want to be without again.  I was so afraid of feeling lonely on my birthday, a fear that has gripped me for years; but I knew that new friendships were just a letter away and that filled me with hope. I worried about losing friends, disconnecting with loved ones, and losing touch with the people I cared about. Then. letters and postcards slowly started to trickle into my letterbox.

Photo by Kirsty TG

The initiative introduced me to the kindest community of people, who prevented me from feeling isolated as the months passed by and an empty calendar hung on my bedroom wall. Penpalooza pushed loneliness away for me and I’m not the only one.  I reached out to my fellow letter writers to see how it has helped them over the past few months. The power of snail mail is nothing but magical. I never thought seeing a letter in my hallway would ever have the ability to make me feel content and wanted, but it does. 

Reneé Guillory never expected to make new friends this year.

Like millions of others, she has been isolating alone in her home, cut off from the world around her.  Reneé was left yearning for the excitement you feel when a new friendship starts to flourish; something she thought lockdown had stolen from her. “Making new friendships was not how I thought this year would go back in March, when lockdowns started”.

So many of us expected lockdown to keep us away from the people we love. With the help of stamps and some fancy stationery, we connected with new friends. “It was lovely to see Rachel Syme’s initial call for pen pals and easy-to-use Elfster, so I signed up enthusiastically. I’ve been matched with four people (two in the U.S., two in Ireland) and it’s been great.”

Renée added, “It’s great to wait for the post every day, and the thrill of putting a letter into the mail — honestly, that’s even more fun.  You’re halfway to delight when you mail your letters out.”

For Stacia Datskovska, writing to four new friends filled the darkest days of the pandemic with joy.

“Without Penpalooza, I think my days would be more bleak and uneventful — that monotone dance from bed to desk to kitchen to bed again. Instead, I get to receive a big, heartening surprise in my mailbox and even on my doorstep every couple of weeks!”

Penpalooza has helped Christa Neu visit places like Australia and Paris by simply stepping into her pen pal’s world.

“I miss popping in and out of different worlds and learning about the amazing super powers of the people I encounter that we are doing stories on. Penpalooza is amazing for this.  One pen pal writes about visiting the Louvre early in the morning and being the only person in the room with a painting besides her friend and the security guard. And that Paris in the rain is more like a slippery ski slope than a dramatic meeting at the Eiffel Tower that films suggest.”

The sweetest thing about Penpalooza is that it is there to help people feel wanted, loved and connected. 

Our penpals are kindred spirits who never fail to fill our hearts with joy, even on the darkest days. Letters from my pen pals have arrived on some of the toughest days of Ireland’s lockdown. It’s like the letters know when they’re most needed. Unlike a text message or a like on Instagram, there’s so much heart and soul in letter writing. “Every letter I’ve opened has blown me away,” says Kelly Myslinksi from New York. “Enclosed, the thoughtfulness and compassion of my pen pals shines through, helping to warm and mend my heart. So much so, I want to pour my gratitude out to my pen pals by sending back carefully-packaged letters and continue fostering our pen-and-paper friendships.” 

We have all gone through unbearably low moments during this strange chapter of our lives. Kelly experienced a particularly tough week in early December, but a mysterious parcel arrived, worked its magic, and lifted her spirits, just when she needed it most.  “In the midst of the chaos, a mysterious package I didn’t remember ordering arrived. I opened it to find a beautiful present with a thoughtful little note from one of my pen pals who didn’t even know what was happening. She just felt moved to send me something, and I was absolutely overwhelmed by her unexpected gesture.”

Photo by Gift Habeshaw

The generosity of this community has helped keep my head up throughout the pandemic.

Their kindness and desire to make others feel better outshines any selfish actions we’ve witnessed during the past year. As the weeks went by, I was sent tea and stickers from Alabama, polaroids of the Subway in NYC, received personalized bookmarks, Halloween cards and Ruth Bader Ginsburg stickers. The stories on the pages of my pen pal letters helped me escape my world as planes stood still in airports and my suitcase gathered dust under my bed. I’ve become friends with people who have brightened the darkest of days with their words and warmth. Their words, stories, and delightful descriptions of their day-to-day lives have let me step into worlds without leaving my house in Dublin.

The art of letter writing has managed to make one of the most isolating chapters of my life feel bright and full, despite the distance. Our letters, cards, and care packages are travelling all around the world. The joy of reading a brand new letter is indescribable, especially when the streets of Dublin are eerily quiet, the dull dark skies dampen our spirits and the radio is full of disheartening news about Ireland’s hospital systems buckling under the sheer volume of COVID-19 patients. My pen pals have transported me to their little corners of the world and I couldn’t be more grateful for them.

You can sign up for Penpalooza here

Have you ever had a penpal?
Tell us about it in a comment below!

Header: Hannah Olinger

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