Posts in Guest Post
Michelle: Collector, Guardian of & Preserver of Snail Mail
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Today’s blog post was written by C&Co team member, Michelle!

Back in the 90s when stationery was neon, Lisa Frank was in, and Japanese mechanical pencils were popping up in the U.S., I was beginning my journey with snail mail.

It wasn’t my favorite thing. Being from the South, it involved a lot of manners and rules. Addressing a letter felt like agony. My first letter writing memory is of me sitting in the kitchen of our new house, fidgeting and complaining, struggling to understand the massive amount of letters and numbers and how to stack them in the right way, like you would a good block tower, so that our mail carrier knew where to send my messy-looking words. I was very much a perfectionist. The eraser shavings from my frustrated writing attempts made my envelopes look like sad, little construction sites.

This memory comes from a time when had just moved to a different state, the first really big thing to happen for me, especially as I had finally reached an age where friends began exchanging matching BFF jewelry and were special, treasured things. Leaving friends was hard. It was for this reason that I was beginning my writing journey. Telephone calls weren’t really a thing for some reason, so my closest gal pal had begun writing me from a few states away, asking in her misspellings and reversed letters how I was doing with all the new in my life. I even remember one of her letters including little wooden beads she had painted from a 90s craft set and how special it felt to receive them. I remember this so well because I never wrote her back and I regret it to this day! Sorry, Ruth. Letter writing was hard then!

The very next year, I did something else really huge; I went off to camp by myself. I was pretty young, so it was a big deal. I remember thinking how brave and proud I was of myself for going off without my family for two weeks. It was extra special because my mom, as well as my little sister and a friend wrote me letters for while I was away (later letting me know they sent them around the time I left so they’d arrive in time… so funny). My sister’s letters were mostly amoeba-like drawings of what I think was supposed to be our cat and family, but they were made just for me, so they were special. My mom sent the traditional kind of snail mail, a good few pages, handwritten on teacup-bordered paper, wishing me the best time and letting me know about all the people and pets that missed me. It’s funny now to think that two weeks seemed like forever and how important the letters were to me while I was away. Whenever I go home to visit and find that stationery set, I think about those camp letters (I see now we weren’t big letter writers since it’s still around!).

Over the next few years, that stationery set gathered dust as snail mail focused more on  Valentine’s Day cards for my classmates, birthday invitations, and thank you notes in response to those invite-inspired gifts. And birthday cards. Lots of those! Don’t forget the handwritten notes passed between classmates and boyfriends throughout my tweens and teens. Ha!

It wasn’t really until college that traditional snail mail returned and had a bigger impact on my life. I remember being given my own college P.O. Box and going to check it religiously. Regardless of how much (or little) mail I got, there was something about having the opportunity to receive things of my own, on my own, for the first time. My mailbox was one of the first signs of growing into adulthood and taking ownership of myself. I even had a kind friend who wanted to be penpals. Sadly, I didn’t keep up with sending her letters, which I also regret! Ah!

When I was a sophomore in college, I had the opportunity to study abroad for a semester, one of my main reasons for going to college. No kidding. I wrote about it in my application essay.

I ended up in Rome, Italy and got to experience snail mail in another special way. My best friend from college knew that I would need a little love from home every so often, so she organized a letter campaign for me. She gathered letters from our friends to go with me, instructing me to open one a week. Although I was LOVING being abroad and settling in, I was still going through culture shock, learning a new language, adapting to being the new kid, and learning that the world was a much bigger place than what I thought would fit in the palm of my hand.

When I was having a hard time and realizing how small I was in a city older and bigger than I’d ever lived in, the letters would give me a sweet boost of encouragement and love from far away in a small, middle-of-nowhere town where friends were thinking of and missing me. I even had the cool experience of having one of my best friends come visit me and us getting to see one of Italy’s (and maybe the world’s) first ever post boxes together!

While I was abroad, I wrote very little snail mail, but I received it and cherished it. I still wish I had written more during that time, but that year, I began to understand a bit more about my relationship with snail mail and how it played a role in my life.

It was at a leather market in Florence that year that things got a bit clearer. A friend and I, although perhaps not great letter writers, were very much into literature and creative writing, so we were on a search for leather journals and sketchbooks. After pushing through crowds and getting to a quieter corner of all the excitement, we came upon a stall full of beautiful, leatherbound journals. And to our pleasant surprise, stationery.

This wasn’t just any stationery, though. It was Florentine, gilded paper with flowers galore with shining silver and gold accents. It was so elaborate and old-fashioned, like stepping back in time to the days when handwritten letters were one of the few ways to communicate. With that sense of awe, alongside a journal, I bought some stationery in the brightest and deepest of blues and silvers. I may have splurged even further and bought a Florentine paper-wrapped pen… shh.

When I got back into the States from my adventures, I laid out all of my treasures. And what I found was that almost every one of my finds was a paper good. Magazines, pamphlets, snail mail, maps… and that beautiful, Florentine stationery and it’s paper-wrapped pen of a cousin.

Life has changed a lot since that special year of self-discovery. I’ve even moved a few times, and each time, all of these paper goods (and many other stationery-related items) have come with me. I’m not willing to part with them. I now even have an overstuffed file folder of all the cards I’ve received since I was a teenager. So. Much. Paper.

I realize now as I’m looking back at my journey with snail mail that I’ve known something about myself for awhile. I don’t like to admit it, but I’m not the best letter writing kind of snail mail superstar, as I often wish I was. I have stationery gathering dust on both coasts of the United States of America (Sorry, Mom.).

And you know, that’s okay! I’ve finally come to a revelation of the unique relationship to the industry that’s all my own… and here it is:

I’m 100% a collector, guardian of, and preserver of snail mail and all it’s related fun!!!

I love paper. I love the beautiful variety of styles, colors, patterns, designs… I love the differences in people’s handwriting on cards and letters that makes each person unique and special. I love the smell of paper goods. I love the creativity and joy that comes from washi tape, colorful pens, stickers, and postcards. And the joy that comes from giving and receiving these things.

And although the act of letter writing isn’t how I tend to think about my journey with snail mail, I remember what it was like to find the special things that made letter writing not so much about perfection, but about fun and joy for me.

I remember visiting a stationery store with my mom in the 90s and buying a sticker book. I remember being rewarded for doing good work in school and getting to choose a prize from my teacher’s plastic treasure chest. I chose themed erasers almost every time (I still have my eraser collection!). I remember trading Lisa Frank stickers at the lunch table, Markie the unicorn being very coveted (I also still have these!). I remember picking out a mechanical pencil when they got popular, and mine being orange themed, even having a little orange slice dangling from the end. Then the gel pens… whew. I’ve recently invested in a series of gel pens to appease my inner child. And all the thank you notes and greeting cards in their variety of colors and themes. I finally got around to organizing them recently. Kind of.

And I love where God has led me on my unique snail mail journey, to Constellation & Co. I would never have imagined all those years ago when struggling to address a letter that I would be the one figuring out addresses for C & Co. shipments of beautiful cards, or when picking out my new favorite writing utensil as a child, that I’d get to be the one who helps maintain a shop full of these lovely, lovely kinds of things. What a privilege to work under Sara and be gatekeeper to joyful moments through the stationery items we sell that inspire relationship-building letter writing.

It’s crazy how seemingly small things can connect and become big life impactors, even in something as simple and wonderful as snail mail and it’s supporting stationery items.

Oh little me, who got her first sticker book at another lovely stationery shop over 20 years ago… who would have thought you’d be here, working in stationery? And maybe, just maybe, as you work with Sara, a little bit of her letter writing will rub off on you. Your life-long sticker collection needs to find some envelopes to decorate, after all! :)

Letters Beyond Life: A guest post
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This beautiful essay about letter writing was written by our C&Co. letterpress printer, Brooke Usrey.

I can still remember coming home from college during a summer break, huffing and puffing as I pulled out my huge tupperware container from under my bed. My mission was to cram another bursting stack of letters in a corner somewhere; evidence of a well corresponded year. Each pile had rubber bands wrapped around it with a hand-written date for reference, a record of new friendships and explored identity. I found my mom soon after, sat her down by the tub, and said, “If I die before you do, I want you to take all of these letters and somehow display them at my funeral. They are my life’s work.” She took it all in, accepted my wishes, and returned to her weeds in the garden.

My mom, of all people, would have understood. She modeled for me the benefit of letter writing, and she learned it from her mother. Once a week during my childhood I could find my mom sitting at her desk, address book open, stamps at the ready, keeping friends and family up to date with our lives and offering support, congratulations, or condolences for recipients on the other end. When I left for college, she wrote me religiously. I could find something from her in my mailbox every week, and this continued on as I moved across the country and back, to Europe, to remote islands, Appalachia, and Seattle. No matter where I went, or how long I stayed, she would always ask, “what’s your address?” as soon as I arrived.

Fast forward twelve years from that summer and some things are the same while others are forever changed. I have suffered the loss of my mother and I have felt the ebbs and flows of grief. I have found true love, survived graduate school, worked a million different jobs, and been through the darkest and lightest of days.  In my grief, I find healing through letters and correspondence. I treasure the letters we wrote one another and correspondence with her friends who help me remember and honor her. When I need a moment to connect, I can go to the letters and touch them.  I can see her handwriting. I can feel her essence again.

I have found relief through writing my mother beyond her death. When I am lonely and missing her, when I am feeling small or proud, when I want to share mundane parts of my day, when I want to complain or speak my fears, I write to her. I sit down at my grandmother’s desk, I get out some paper, and I write to her. On special occasions, I will buy her cards, fill them with words, and put them on display. Usually, emotions ramp up during this process, and usually I feel better when I am done.  

Sometimes she writes me back. I never could have imagined this when she was alive. If I put my pen down and wait a few minutes, I often feel an urge to pick it back up, and the words come. Her responses always have some message that helps me get through these uncharted waters without her. These days, I save the price of two stamps, a walk to the mailbox, and the two week turnaround; now we can communicate instantaneously. While this will never replace the real thing, I have found letters to be a comfort on those dark days, and I’ll take all the comfort I can get.

I no longer consider letters from my early 20s to be my “life’s work.” Collecting friends and having mail from all corners of the globe is exciting, but not nearly as important as personal growth or daily ups and downs with my partner, my dad, and my closest friends. Nothing new or exotic can compare to the depth and richness of daily life. I have come to see letter writing as a personal and spiritual journey that nourishes and connects me to what is most important. Perhaps this, then is my new legacy: connecting to what is real in this moment, and saying what my heart needs to say, even if it’s unclear if anyone is listening (although they probably are).