As anyone with a chronic illness might tell you, we have our less-than-good days that sometimes string themselves together into a week or two and turn into depression. Those can be days when the voices in our heads sound something like this: Here I am on my back again and I can’t do anything productive and I’m so useless I’m wasting oxygen by breathing, etc.

On days like these, a letter can shine a ray of sunshine into the dim basement of my mind.


Postcard from Beq Parker

Most people communicate primarily with text messages and email, or Facebook and Skype. In these modern times, even some prison inmates send and receive email.*

Like me, you may have learned the hard way that emails can pick up an attitude as they zip over the fiber-optic lines — an unintended tone that distorts what you thought was an innocent message. “But that’s NOT what I meant!” I have been heard to moan. I suspect I self-edit to dry phrases to avoid messy misunderstandings.

And none of us would ever hit SEND when we’re angry, over-wrought or over-tired. We’ve all learned that lesson, right?


Right: Laser print on wood executed by Wes Cheney

Back in the olden days, before email, texting or even ANSWERING MACHINES, when I had a list of people to contact for, say, a food co-op or a ballot initiative or a mother’s club, it might take me repeated dialings of every number over several days to reach everyone on that list. And I had to actually talk to them and they might have quite a lot to say to me in return. It was time-consuming and unpredictable. And interesting.

When there was a bit of money, a group might choose to appoint someone to type up information, pay for Xerox copies at a copy shop, hand address envelopes, lick stamps, and visit a mail box to stop the lets inside and send them on their way. Of course, these mailings might still require follow-up phone calls.

Pre-answering machine and everything else we use now, communication required a lot more effort. Even though I am much better than I was when I first got sick, CFIDS/SEID still makes it impossible for me to imagine taking on this kind of work today.

As a person who is easily over-stimulated into exhaustion, the ease of email and text is not just convenient, but even almost life-saving. I can be part of a committee that meets once or twice a month and keeps in touch by email. I can turn my phone off when I need to, knowing it will accept messages and save them for me to read or listen to when I’m up to it.

Text is great for an impersonal exchange of factual information: what, where, date, time, etc. To avoid misunderstandings in more personal messages, there are those contemporary hieroglyphics — emoticons. Who can take offense when I end my message with a cute kitten or three little birds bracketed by musical notes?

But what I really like is real mail. Letters, cards, postcards. Envelopes  with snippets of yarn or scraps of fabric or sketches of quilts. Manilla envelopes of magazine articles or knitting patterns or relief-print exchanges. Hand-written letters are lovely even when I have to puzzle them out. Typewritten letters are never turned away. Handmade cards are a special delight but any card is a joy and carries something of the person who chose to send it.


“Holy Post” from Vikki Ensman


I wrote my first letter when I was a toddler. My mother held my fingers to the keys of her typewriter and, more or less, took dictation. (My aunt saved that letter. I still have it.) In grade school, I wrote to my aunt, both grandmothers, a great-grandmother, and a pen-pal in Australia. Now I exchange letters with school friends, Quaker friends, and several prison inmates. I send letters to my brother, my sister, an uncle, my step-mother, and my grandchildren. If they write back, that’s great. If they don’t, I write anyway.

Sometimes I make postcards or holiday cards or birthday cards. (see Mail Art in the menu above.) Sometimes these are relief prints done in multiples.Other cards are individually made. I hope that each letter or card I send out contains a moment of delight for the person opening the card.

There are wonderful examples of mail art all over the web.

Perhaps you know the work of Edward Gorey?


I always think of Gorey as working strictly in black and white. But this article  shows a few envelopes he decorated with bright, playful colors. Aren’t they fun?

Maybe I’ll quit typing this now and go draw some of my own!


*The costs of internet connections between inmates and their families/outside are excessive and unexpectedly varied.

Laptops are not passed out to prisoners. (Few things are. Inmates are often responsible for buying their own underwear.) Where a laptop is available in a prison, the inmate who wants one must purchase the one offered.

In many of those states, prisoners can send as well as receive emails; family members access the email system online, while prisoners use special kiosks in their housing units. In some cases, photos or short video files can be attached to the messages – for an additional fee.

Prisoners and those who want to communicate with them via email buy “stamps” to send each message, which cost from $.17 to $.60 each depending on the prison system and the number of stamps purchased; the average price per email is $.40 to $.50.”

2 thoughts on “Somebody Else’s Mail Art

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