Five hundred little connections

I just hit a milestone, friends: as of Monday, I’ve sent 500 cards through Postcrossing.

Remember when we talked about how much I love mail? And I shared ways to get involved and the power of the written word? Well, I put my money where my big fat trap is. I love mail and believe in its powers of connection enough that I have now sent 500 postcards to complete strangers. And I’ve loved every minute of it.

If you’re unfamiliar with Postcrossing, it’s an international postcard exchange program which asks users to send a postcard to a participant somewhere in the world. After scribbling a tracking code on your card, the recipient will use that code to register your mail — and you’ll then get a card back from someone else. It’s not a pen-pal program, and the choice to continue corresponding with the person you’ve swapped with is entirely up to you. In my experience, it’s a “one and done” kind of thing.

Over the two-plus years I’ve participated, I’ve received 481 cards from places as diverse as Taiwan, Lithuania, Switzerland, Slovenia, Malaysia and Macau. More than 100 have come from American buddies; dozens of others have arrived from countries I couldn’t place on a map. The cards themselves have featured everything from international recipes to native costume to beaches and mountain peaks — and everything in between. Some have even had poems.

Each card is a surprise — and a tiny sample of the person sending it. I’ve “met” journalists, nurses, architects. Writers and teachers and restaurant workers. Senders are young and old, male and female, gay and straight. They live in cities and farmhouses and apartment complexes. They’re single and married, parents and grandparents. These 480-plus senders fit into every demographic you can think of . . . and no one is exactly like anyone else.

But everyone is a little like someone else.

Here’s what I’ve learned from becoming a frizzy-haired one-woman American ambassador via postcards: people are people. Regardless of your native language, skin color or profession, we are all human. We love our families. Enjoy traveling. Read and write and cook and bake. We work and play, spend time with our pets, look forward to all that’s to come.

When someone sends me a postcard, they share a piece of their life with me — even if only for a moment. The glimpse at life in a far-off land is what makes the Postcrossing experience so appealing. And for someone who loves to travel? Well, “going” to Finland, Italy and Brazil via a piece of paper is a pretty delightful experience.

But I love the sharing aspect, too. Choosing just the right card for someone, telling them about my day or my life or my country, maybe offering a secret or two . . . this is the currency of human connection. When I take pen to paper, I’m offering a bit of myself on these cards — and it’s never rejected.

Postcrossing is completely awesome.

Half the world’s problems might dissolve if we could all send each other some handwritten encouragement.

Of which only the heart knows

Sometimes you find a postcard, and sometimes a postcard finds you.

After last week’s post and other musings on my desire to slow down and enjoy the simple moments, the postcard above arrived from Frank in Germany. As I went the Spanish route in high school and know exactly zero German (except, you know, gutentag), I had to rely on alternate help.

Since I couldn’t find an English translation of “Kleines Glück” online, I did some investigative work — and that turned out to be the most fun I had all day. Google Translate never lets me down. For someone madly in love with words, examining the sentiment behind the poem — “Little Pleasures” or “Small Fortune” in English, I think — was fascinating.

I went through the alternate translations for every word, stitching Irmgard Erath’s poem together like a quilt. I’m sure it’s not perfect, but that’s okay. Like all art, it’s open to interpretation. And this time? The interpretation was mine. That feeling was bold and empowering. It felt like deciphering an ancient text — and this text was all too applicable to my own life.

“Little Pleasures” reminds me how truly alike we all are. And how, with our incredible technology, not even language can separate us now.

Little Pleasures
by Irmgard Erath

Each day carries thousands of possibilities
for joy, for hope
and is a small fortune in itself:
Very quietly and unnoticed
in the midst of this noisy world
can the magnificent happen.
There are those small events
that make life bright and beautiful —
those precious moments
of which only the heart knows.

Lending a (written) hand: Holiday Mail for Heroes

Every Thanksgiving morning, my sister and I get up early to watch the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade and honor a new but very fun tradition: addressing our holiday cards. As the bustle of Christmas really ramps up and we found ourselves long on things to do and short on energy and time in which to do them, it’s easy to let simple craft projects — like card-making — fall by the wayside.

I’m a strong believer in the power of mail and connecting through the written word. I’m an active member of Postcrossing, an international postcard sharing site, and trade handwritten notes with friends and fellow bloggers as often as possible. In our increasingly high-tech and high-powered world, the art of letter-writing — any writing, really — appears to be less relevant. Teens talk and write academic papers in LOL- and text-speak. Facebook groups annouce engagements, babies, travel plans. We communicate through Twitter and texting. We don’t even pick up the phone.

And look, I get it — I’m pretty plugged in myself. It’ll be a cold, dark day before you pry my smartphone from my limp fingers or get me to shut down my social media or this blog itself. But I don’t think those channels should replace things like real, honest-to-goodness mail. In 100 years, will anyone be looking through family heirlooms to read old love tweets between their great-grandparents?

Well, I mean — maybe. Who knows. Look how much our technology has changed in just a decade. In two decades. It’s unrecognizable.

But you’re following me on this, right?

Last year while snacking on breakfast foods and waving to Santa on his sleigh ride through New York City, I did something simple: while writing out my usual batch of cards to friends and family, I added a few cards for Holiday Mail for Heroes. I used my regular Christmas cards, most of which I buy in boxed sets for less than $10. I added a personal note thanking a service member for their sacrifice and shared news about my corner of the world, trying to spread holiday wishes and cheer.

It’s cheap. It’s fast. It’s very easy. And it makes a difference.

Operated by the Red Cross, the Holiday Mail for Heroes program asks volunteers to send holiday cards to be collected and distributed to military service members in December. Now through Dec. 9, send your cards — any holiday card you like — to help make someone’s season brighter.

“The process is very simple and takes no time at all,” the Red Cross writes. “All you need is a pen and piece of paper to share your appreciation for the sacrifices members of the U.S. Armed Forces make to protect our freedoms. … Sending a ‘touch of home’ to American men and women who serve our country is the perfect way to express your appreciation and support during the holiday season.”

Holiday cards can be sent to:

Holiday Mail For Heroes
P.O. Box 5456
Capitol Heights, MD 20791-5456

For more information and card guidelines, visit the Holiday Mail for Heroes website — and check out the video below. See if it doesn’t warm your heart.

Gather the family and make card-sending a new holiday tradition. You won’t be sorry you did.

State of the postcard

Since joining Postcrossing, an international postcard-swapping project, my mailbox has been overflowing with love. Postcards in all shapes and sizes have found me at my desk in Maryland, where my coworker Kelly brings in the daily mail.

“Bam!” she shouts each morning, holding my coveted cards out to me. We read them together and admire the photos, often chatting about the differences in the cultures between the sender and myself, one American writer.

Since last August, when I sent my first postcard to Finland, I’ve sent 111 cards to Postcrossing members in 37 countries — and received more than 100 in return. They come from Turkey, South Korea, Ireland, Ukraine . . . and dozens of other places.

And each carries just a little piece of the sender. While I love the photos, what I love best is actually reading the words scrawled on each. The handwriting completely fascinates me: curly; somber; precise; delicate. I love learning about the lives of people in far-flung places — places I’ve never seen and may never see. Members usually have a short “about me” section on their profile, and I can’t count the number of times I read about someone else’s interests and think, “Hey! Me too!”

People are readers. And writers. They’re photographers and music lovers and daughters. They’re parents and boyfriends; travelers and dreamers. They have ambitions. And so many of them tell you about their dreams — things that might be easier to share with me, a stranger, than someone they love (see final message below).

There’s a sort of magic through the shared experience — through knowing that the card in my hand, bent at the corners, once sat on the table or desk or lap of someone in a foreign nation. Someone wrote it out, forming letters meant only for me. And these cards traversed the globe to land right in my hands in America.

Though the hobby isn’t exactly “cheap,” it’s brought me so much joy. The cost of a postcard and international stamp (98 cents) doesn’t bother me nearly as much as the idea of never seeing brightly-colored notes in my mailbox again.

Some recent postcard messages:

“Hi! I’m 15 years old student from Finland. I was surprised, because my interests are exactly the same as yours: I love cooking, photographing and reading! But now I haven’t taken many photos, because it’s sooo cold outside! (about -29 degrees C). I like to take pictures of animals, nature, flowers, butterflies, etc. Take care!” — Finland

“Czeso! Hello! My name’s [name], I’m 21 and I live in Poland. I’m a student of economic. I have an exam tomorrow so I should learn but you know . . . I’m too tired of all these exams. Fortunately, exams period finish in two weeks. 🙂 I’d love to visit USA (esp. NYC) — It’s my biggest dream! And my favorite book’s Dear John by N. Sparks! Take care.” — Poland

“Hello Megan! I’m also a 25-years-old person! But I work as a geography teacher! I love traveling — have been to the U.S.A. one time — Hawaii! This postcard that I want to share with you is my working school! It’s issued by my school because of student’s graduation ceremony. I hope you will like the design. Have a nice day!” — Taiwan

“Dear Megan, Hello! Isn’t this road just amazing? Every time I look at this card I feel the urge to go there — to get in my car and drive — to escape . . . today more than most days. I’m a graduate student in year three of an endless (or so it seems) PhD program at [school]. I absolutely love it. The problem, you may ask? Well, I’m driving myself crazy with a long-distance relationship to a man I love more than my studies. So I want out. I can’t take it anymore. I need to leave [city] and get myself “home” — back where I belong. Why can’t life just be . . . easy?” — USA

First batch of postcards

My first batch of postcards for Postcrossing, sent out to members in Brazil, Poland, Germany and Finland. Complete with my own photos from the D.C. area! Since I was sending mail to two ladies and two gentlemen, I chose the cherry blossom photos — some of my favorites — for the women. Call me sexist, but I just didn’t think a man living in a camp ground in Germany would want a card emblazoned with pink flowers. One — Ana from Brazil — is a 24-year-old journalist in Sao Paulo. And I’m a 25-year-old editor in Maryland.

Small world, friends. Small world.

I ordered these from Moo and am really, really impressed with the quality. They’re not paying me to say this and, you know, have no clue I even exist, so trust me — they’re not inexpensive (about $25 for 20 cards, with shipping), but they’re worth it. After creating a free account, you can choose any artwork you like for your cards and link to your own photo accounts on sites like Flickr, where I keep all my shots. I could put a different picture on each card, if I wanted — and that’s pretty much what I did. I’m highlighting what it means to be in Maryland and D.C. on my cards, and talking a little about life in the suburbs.

The trickiest thing I’m finding out about sending international mail? Well, I just get ramped up on the postcards when I run out of writing space — and basically have incomplete thoughts. It’s definitely its own art form! Before I started using things like Twitter (140 characters in each tweet) or writing my newspaper columns (415 words each, with photo), I was accustomed to being long-winded. In school, teachers would ask for a one-page paper and yours truly would slap down a 10-page masterpiece. Having room for about two sentences worth of information on these things — and my print is small — is an exercise in being succinct. Even more succinct than usual.

But I’m up to the challenge. So watch out, Poland — nonsensical postcards just might be coming your way.

Postcards from far away

In this day of Facebook, email, Twitter, texting and — yes — even the occasional phone call, there’s something enchanting, reassuring and exciting about getting mail. And I don’t mean bills, of course, or credit card applications, coupons and flyers. I’m talking smudged-by-the-post-office, honest-to-goodness, postmarked-in-the-U.S.-of-A. handwritten correspondence.

The only person with whom I now keep up a penpal-like relationship would be my grandma — and she lives a lengthy 5-minute drive from my office. Despite the fact that we see each other often, we still love to write letters just catching up on our daily lives. To be honest, I think I tell her more in writing than I ever would in person . . . because writing is where I’m most comfortable. Putting my thoughts down in ink is very different than trying to speak them aloud, where I inevitably wind up throwing in an “um . . .” every few breaths. For good measure, you know.

A site I recently discovered after Nat’s mention at Book, Line, and Sinker gives me another way to break out the ol’ writing skills — and put them on postcards. Postcrossing is an international postcard crossing project that allows members to sign up for free, then receive the address and profile of another Postcrossing member. We check out their information, see what sorts of postcards they’re interested in receiving — and then we send away! After your postcard has been received by that member, you’ll receive one from someone else. Somewhere in the world.

I signed up a few days ago and have ordered postcards from Moo featuring my local photography. I’m highlighting Maryland, my home state, in all its many forms — so y’all know I had to get some blue crabs shots in there! I’m really excited to receive my cards and get them in the mail. The folks who will receive my first batch of cards are in Finland, Brazil and Poland — the motherland! When I make a trip to New York to visit Spencer’s family later this month, I plan on sending some more from Niagara Falls and the surrounding area.

It’s just another way to connect, grow and practice my penmanship. How else would I find Ana, a 24-year-old journalist in Brazil — and someone with whom I’d imagine I have plenty to discuss? I love projects that make the world smaller. And I love being a part of that world.