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As snail mail slows, locals put their stamp on letter writing

At first glance, it’s just a small, cardboard box stuffed with papers. But as Lauren Salzman flips through the box filled with brightly decorated envelopes and postcards from loved ones, she can’t help but smile.

“It’s a hard thing to get rid of,” she says.

Each handwritten letter she has saved for years holds the memory of one she has sent, and acts as a reminder of a pen pal she may soon write again.

Snail mail between friends and relatives dropped 63.6% from 1.76 billion to 644 million between 2000 and 2011, according to the United States Postal Service’s annual trend report. Postal trends in the Greater Rochester Area, including Ithaca,  have also seen similar trends, with a 33% decrease of single-piece mail from 2009 to 2013,  Karen Mazurkiewicz, spokesperson for Western New York US Postal Service, said.

Influenced by this trend, Salzman has found a way to salvage the art of letter writing and bring it to the Ithaca community. She recently started “Snail Mail Social”, an Ithaca Freeskool course where community members can meet to decorate envelopes and work on writing letters to people who are important to them.

“I am dedicated to letter writing because my friendships are what sustain me in life and a lot of my friends live far away,” she said. “To me, writing handwritten letters is a type of intimate communication that’s hard to find in any other way.”

Ithaca Freeskool, a volunteer-led group that empowers community members to teach and learn through a variety of free course-offerings, was the perfect platform for Salzman’s letter-writing workshop, Lily Gershon, a Freeskool organizer, said.

“[Snail Mail Social] goes along with the spirit of Freeskool because a class does not need to be an expert imparting something to a non-expert. It can be people getting together doing something that they’re interested in a group that fortifies that experience,” Gershon said.

Although only one other person was able to attend the first Snail Mail Social, Salzman says she has received a lot of interest from community members planning to attend the next meeting. In the meantime, she has been working on writing new letters and creating envelopes out of magazines and old calendars.

“For me, the act of sitting down and writing a letter is similar to the parts of my brain that I access when I’m sitting down and writing in my journal, so it lends itself to more meaningful ideas,” she said. “One of my favorite things about writing letters is when I go to visit those friends I get to see my postcards on their fridge and I get to read them again and remember where I was in my life at that time. I like finding my letters again that way.”

Salzman shuffles through bright envelopes on her kitchen table. One of them will go to Jenny Cloutier in Montana, an old friend from graduate school. Salzman keeps correspondence with friends she has met throughout her life studying and working in various environmental centers around the country. Her letters and postcards make any day brighter, Cloutier said.

“[I feel] glorious, loved, remembered, thankful,” Cloutier said about receiving Salzman’s letters every few months. “[Letter-writing] seems more peaceful in some ineffable way. It is more personal and also brings a lot more joy to receive something in the mail than via Facebook or email. It lasts longer, and somehow carries more emotional weight.”

For Salzman, taking the time out of her busy schedule to write a note to a friend is extremely important for the friendship and for herself.

“A lot of the friendships that we make in our life are transitional because we are so transitory as a society,” she said. “I think having pen pals is a really important way to maintain continuity in the relationships that you decide are meaningful. And definitely on days that you’re feeling lonely, it’s nice to know there’s someone you can reach out to even if their reply is two weeks away.”

Salzman will continue writing her letters, and invites the community to join her on Sunday, November 17th.



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