An Ode to Snail Mail

In my house growing up there was a space reserved on our kitchen counter for “important documents.” Permission slips that needed signing, and T shirt orders that needed filling out. This spot is where my sister and I would find notes to give the front office of our high school explaining our absences, and Post-Its from our dad reminding us to “Drive slow and easy,” not forget our dentist appointment that was immediately after school, and have a good day. Blank “thank you” cards were also a staple in this spot. 

For as long as I can remember, my parents made us write thank you cards. After our elementary school birthday parties everyone in attendance got a hand written note thanking them for coming. Every grandparent got a note after Christmas. As a kid, writing a thank you card can feel like a  needless, tedious task. After all, didn’t I say thank you in person? (Of course after being prompted with a “What do you say?” from mom or dad.) But as I got older, I started to see the value in it; I myself had received some thank yous and noticed how good it felt to know that your good deed or gift was appreciated. Perhaps I was particularly appreciative of these mailed notes because I myself knew how time consuming they could be. It felt nice to know that someone had taken time out of their day to write to me, even if only a few lines. 

Not only did my parents make us write thank you cards to make the people in our lives aware of our gratitude, they lead by example. (I say “make” but after a certain age they just constantly reminded us that we should write to so and so until we were annoyed in to doing it.) My mom was, and still is, the queen of A Note for No Reason, particularly if she knows someone is going through a rough time. Not only will she send them a note letting them know they are in her thoughts, she’ll send multiple, perhaps one a week for three or four weeks. To this day, my dad will send the parents of his students handwritten notes whenever their kid has done something he thinks their parents would be proud to hear. My dad teaches at a university therefore I can only imagine how appreciative those parents are for a note from their kid’s professor. I am also a common recipient of my parents’ snail mail. 

In my own adult life I have found immense satisfaction and even catharsis in writing to someone. Writing to someone is anxiety easing in a way similar to journaling, but with one main difference: when journalling I am writing to my future self, therefore I only think about me while I do it. But when I’m writing someone a letter, a thank you note, or even a few lines on a postcard I am thinking about them. It’s cathartic because it is selfless. It gives me a space to think about someone other than myself for a few moments. I usually briefly update the person on my life, something particularly personal to the person to whom I am writing; I don’t tell them about the aspect of my life that I find most interesting, but the aspect in which they would be most interested. It is also nice to share a memory I have of that person, something we did together that makes me smile when I think of it. This I am trying to do more often. 

Writing to someone is also a great antidote to missing them. Sure, sending someone a text that I’m “thinking of” or “missing” them can achieve a similar feeling, but there’s something about putting pen to paper that makes the sentiment more genuine. Not to mention the time it takes to go to the post office, buy a stamp, and actually send mail. The process of mail is much slower than texting (Duh, SNAIL mail) and therefore, more methodical, more thoughtful. Snail mail is the opposite of haste whereas texting can epitomize it. Think of all the mundane reasons we text people. When I attempt to share feelings or thoughts deeper than “wyd” through texting those sentiments, no matter how genuine, often get reduced to the flippancy of “nm hbu.” There is something formal about snail mail because it is no longer our go to form of communication. 

In my mind, writing to someone is like praying for them. I’ve never been a religious person so I usually use the phrase “sending you positive thoughts/light/love” when most people would use the phrase “praying for you.” However writing to someone, holding them in the center of my thoughts, even if for a few lines, is like saying a prayer for them. It may lack a deity or divine intention, but the sentiment is the same – to wish well for someone. To hope that there is fulfillment in their lives. Or perhaps to just hope that the weather is nice where they are. 

At this time in my life, I live at least a three hour drive from anyone who really knows me, and it can often feel like everyone I care about is very far away from me. Therefore, I’ve recently been attempting to widen my web of people I send mail to; it gives me a chance to feel connected to them for a few moments. And those moments of connection not only ease my anxiety and loneliness, they also bring me a quiet joy. Therefore, this November I am thankful for snail mail and all the ways we are able to stay connected.

Post Script:

If you’re reading this thinking, “Why aren’t I one of those people receiving snail mail?” it is most likely because I do not have your address, something that can be easily rectified. 

The Fab Four

The Golden Girls. Sex and the City. Lena Dunham’s Girls.  These are just a few of the myriad of examples TV gives us of a foursome of female friends. These shows, and others like them, romantically depict these girl groups as the perfect relationships. The quote that comes to mind here is one seen most often as an Instagram caption:

“Maybe our girlfriends are our soulmates and guys are just people to have fun with.”

Similar to the way romantic comedies infantilize the heteronormative “magic” of boy meets girl, these shows can seem to hyperbolize the closeness of these women’s friendships. Can you really trust three other people that completely? Can you really overcome the pernicious misogynistic need to constantly compete? Can these friendships really last? For years? 

My answer to all of these questions is yes. I also don’t think these shows are that hyperbolic when it comes to female closeness. In fact, their grain toward frivolity can sometimes undercut the deep connection female friends share. I can say this because I’ve lived it. The foursome. The Girl Gang. The closeness. The trust. I live it still. 

It’s hard to pinpoint an exact origin to the friendship of which I speak. I’ve known two of the three women since elementary school and the third since junior high. Preadolescence shuffles friendships around as interests develop and change, and the four of us were shuffled together by dance. We spent hours together every night at our studio. Sweating, stretching, laughing, and crying together. 

As I said, I can’t quite determine the tipping point of our grouping but I know for certain that by the end of ninth grade we had earned the monicure The Fab Four, used with affection by some and sarcasm by others. We spent the next three years in each other’s constant company. Our closeness was extreme and potentially intimidating. We shared bathroom stalls, relieving ourselves in the presence of the other three, unashamed, while we chatted and laughed. We stood in a circle, arms around one another’s shoulders, and would countdown from three then kiss. Quick, a peck. 

In those days, we knew what we had was special without having to talk about it. 

College meant another shuffling. The hand dealt us this time was two together, two apart. Roomates at Slippery Rock University. One in Pittsburgh, the fourth (me) in New York City. 

Most adult friendships are born of convenience; we’re friends with the people we work with or the people we’re around most often. Maintaining a friendship across distance and, more difficultly, stages of life, takes real effort. It would be all too easy to let this friendship fizzle with “I’ll see you at Thanksgiving” “Oh you’re out of town? Christmas it is!” until years slip past, unnoticed, without seeing one another. Of course there have been a few missed holidays and birthdays, but for the most part we prioritize a hang out when we’re in close proximity. An especially good example of this is my first weekend trip home from college. 

I’d been in NYC, about a seven hour drive from home, for two and a half months. Despite being incredibly homesick, I was trying to last without a visit home until Thanksgiving. However, my sister’s high school volleyball team made it to state playoffs so I decided to surprise her with my present support. I took an overnight bus to Pittsburgh Friday night, would spend all day Saturday at the game (that my sister had a big part in winning, so very happy I was there) and would leave Sunday afternoon around three. The only time we’d be able to see each other would be Saturday night. What I didn’t mention was that this was Halloweekend. Of course three freshmen in college wanted to go out on that Saturday night. I could have gone out with them, but the logistics just didn’t make sense. I was also exhausted. 

So rather than pregame with the other freshmen, they made the 30ish minute drive from Slippery Rock, costumes ready to be donned on their way back, to sit in my living room with me and talk. We couldn’t have talked for more than half an hour and to this day I’m not even sure what we talked about. But we were together. For the first time in nearly three months we were all in the same room. Later that week one of us would text our group message saying “For about 30 minutes on Saturday everything felt right.” 

From then on our friendship has continued to beat the odds. But not because of mere luck or happenstance; we’ve put in real effort. We took a roadtrip to the Maryland/D.C. area to see two concerts on two consecutive nights as well as explore the Capital. We went to Nashville over one winter break. We spent a long weekend in Florida at the beach. While being fun Girl Trips, these excursions have allowed us something we cannot access in our daily lives: concentrated time with one another. While spending a few hours with one another on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving or on New Year’s Eve is fun and appreciated, it hardly gives us the opportunity to discuss the things we really want to know about one another: How’s that new job, really? Are you still as passionate about what you pursued as you were before? If not, what are you passionate about now? Do you think you’ll marry him? Honestly, how is your family? Are you happy? Are you working towards happiness? 

While making sure that we see one another when possible has been an important part of keeping this friendship afloat, sometimes the best thing we can do for one another is to understand that we cannot get together, that there are other aspects of our lives that must take priority. In a weaker friendship, the “I can’t tonight” response to the only convenient time for the other three would be met with disdain and annoyance. But our friendship has survived because of our ability to understand and empathize with what the others are going through. And to trust that our friendship is not weaker but stronger because we support the others’ reasoning and decision. 

Life has shuffled me up once again and I’ve left the place I so desperately desired to call home. But while I was with them during our most recent Girls Trip I realized just how many places I’ve managed to call home. And none of those places is quite like the feeling of us being together. The three of them are a throughline in my life that grounds me. No matter how much changes, they will always be my best friends, even as we form other, equally as meaningful friendships. The bond between us shifts and changes, but it doesn’t weaken. No TV show or movie, perhaps not even this essay, could accurately depict the love and affection I have for my Fab Four.

Is my Dream to be a Professional Dancer or a New Yorker?

Poems, songs, novels, and countless rom coms have been written about the magic of New York City. And for those of us who moved here from someplace else, that magic is quite special and a little elusive. Is it the energy? The city-that-never-sleeps-ness. Or maybe it’s the “I’m here to make dreams come true” quality of the city. Is it the art? The fashion? The diversity? Perhaps it’s the bagels. Whatever it may be, NYC has a draw that is indescribable, yet wholly and viscerally felt. And here I am, about to leave after only five years. 

I moved here for college when I was 18. I was to begin a BFA Dance track at Marymount Manhattan College. As any performer who pursued higher education knows, the college audition circuit can be grueling and the first time many of us stare into the dead-eyed, indifferent face of rejection. That I managed to get into a college dance program that seemed hand tailored to my needs and wants, (we wore name tags, not numbers, at the audition) on the Upper East Side of Manhattan no less, already seemed enough to change the status on Dreams from Pending to Come True. 

Obviously college wasn’t perfect and neither was the city. (One of the best things about being a New Yorker is being able to say “the” city. It must be how people who go to OSU feel when they say THE Ohio State University.) I went through periods of intense hatred and had moments where I would wrap my arms around the city and hold it in adoration if I could. Then there were moments of plain and simple apathy; NYC was just another place and I was just another person living there. But by the time my four years at Marymount were winding down, I had developed a true and deep love for the city. A love that only comes from having hated it. 

I’m a person who makes hard and fast decisions and stands firmly behind them. As graduation loomed, I answered the dreaded question, “What’s next?” with “I don’t know, but I’m staying in New York.” It seemed silly to me to move here so young just to leave as soon as I graduated. I signed a lease, I got a part time job. But alas, the best laid plans… 

My first professional job was with a dance company called Attack Theatre in Pittsburgh, my home(ish) town. (I’m originally from a smaller town an hour north of the ‘Burgh). I knew the Artistic Director from summer masterclasses and did the company’s summer intensive the June after graduating. The intensive was a nice way to dance while I spent some time at home as well as solidify the connection with said Artistic Director. I definitely wasn’t thinking about it as an audition. 

Fast forward to August of last summer, the Artistic Director, who has since become something of a mentor to me, called me saying they needed a dancer for a project in September. It was paid, rehearsal 10-5, Monday-Friday. Suddenly I was a full time, employed, professional dancer, at least for the month of September. The catch? I wouldn’t be doing the full time professional dancing in New York. 

I wouldn’t make a liar out of myself just yet. I would return to New York in October and I was thrilled to be back. I reveled in all the things people tend to hate about New York; the subway, the crowds, the smell. I loved it all because my familiarity with it meant that New York had truly become my home.

The acuteness of my joy over being back in the city dredged up a complex question of identity for me: Did I feel more attached to my identity as a New Yorker or as a dancer? I had to reckon with this identity crisis quite quickly because Attack Theatre was calling me again; they wanted me in their winter show and of course I would accept. This time I’d spend six weeks in Pittsburgh and I could feel the shift begin. I had the clear premonition, understanding almost, that a professional dance career would mean leaving the city.

Perhaps because I came here specifically to pursue a degree in dance, or perhaps because I spent summers traveling here to attend dance competitions’ nationals, or maybe because of all the poems, movies, and songs (“If you can make it there…”) my dream of being a professional dancer was irrevocably tethered to my dream of living in this city. In my mind, being a professional dancer meant living in New York and I would live in New York because I would be a professional dancer. Being made aware of an alternative was like doing a re-reading of my life and goals. I didn’t go to five ballet classes a week for four years, bust my tail in rehearsal, and challenge my creativity by choreographing to be a New Yorker. I did it to be a dancer. Being a professional dancer might mean not living in New York, and quite honestly, living in New York might mean not being a professional dancer. 

During the first six months of this year I’ve danced in one project. The choreographer was intelligent and I learned a great deal from her. The project was also decently paid. However, it was by no means paying my bills and the majority of my time was spent working a “survival” job so that they could be paid. This ratio, a lot of survival work and a little dance, does not work for me. I don’t mind a side hustle as long as it is truly on the side. Therefore, when I was made an offer from West Virginia Dance Company through my connections at Attack Theatre to join their company full time, I felt compelled to accept.

I am terrified to leave. I am nervous I will hate living so far away from what feels like the center of the universe. But I am more scared of staying, of never reaching my full potential as a dancer because I didn’t have enough opportunity to actually dance. My dream of being a professional dancer may not look how I imagined, but it sure is coming true. 

My Loneliness Ain’t Killing Me No More. In Fact, it Never Was.

The opening lines of Brandi Carlile’s song “Party of One” go “Waiter send this to the table, the party of one/The only other lonely soul in this place.” In the pre chorus she says “Sing your sad soul to sleep.” The song depicts a very detailed, if cliche, picture of a person – a sad and lonely person – eating in a restaurant alone. The song allows you to project feelings of pity on to an other while simultaneously being deeply relatable, fore everyone has felt that bone deep loneliness at one point or another. I love this song and its poignancy, but I am somewhat tired of this very specific situation being used to draw conclusions about someone’s aloneness/loneliness. Perhaps the person Carlile saw in the restaurant that evening was thrilled to be there alone. Perhaps this was the first instance of solitude they’d had in a while. I should know, I choose to eat, and do many other things, alone and am perfectly content, even quite happy, when I do. Just because I do something alone that a majority of people do with others does not make me lonely. 

I’ve always been fiercely independent, even stubbornly so. The fantasy of the woman I wanted to grow up to be was self-contained and self-efficient. She had everything she needed with and within her. In high school, I would day dream about living in a big city and going to a coffee shop to sit and read alone. That’s it, that’s the whole day dream. But there was a bravery to that situation that I was desperate to find. Being able to sit quietly with oneself while being surrounded by others in a public space is not easy.

 Once I did move to New York and had plenty of opportunity to fulfill my daydream, I chickened out. On more than one occasion,I was filled with the silliest, but completely valid, of fears. First off, what coffee shop? Starbucks? A cool independent place? How do people find out about cool independent places? Would the book I was reading be edgy enough for an independent place? Would my coffee order be cool? (I didn’t yet drink my coffee black, a pretentious thing I find immense coolness in now.) What if there were no seats available?

When I finally did muster up the courage to  take my book to a coffee shop I found on Google Maps, I didn’t relax the entire time. I flipped my pages, but I wasn’t reading. I was pretending. Pretending that I did this all the time. Pretending I liked my soy latte. Pretending I fit in with the crowd of people that seemed much more interesting than I was. The experience was not enjoyable, but I was elated when I left. I did it. I did a thing that the woman I wanted to become was totally comfortable doing: taking herself on a coffee shop reading date. 

So I kept doing it. And at some point I wasn’t pretending. I started experimenting with other things this fantasy woman would do alone. Movies? She definitely went to movies alone. Museums and live performances too. There are so many things to do in New York it can almost be debilitating. I had a list of places I wanted to see and experiences I wanted to have, but was crossing them off at a slow rate because my friends weren’t interested in those same things. The more things I did independently, the braver I got about the possibilities of what could be done alone. Could I eat alone at a restaurant I’d always wanted to try? Absolutely! Could I sit in the park and do homework alone? Of course! There was one final thing that this fabulous, self-contained city woman of my dreams did alone that I was hesitant to do: She attended concerts by herself. 

The first concert I went to alone was The 1975 at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn. I told my parents I was going with a friend I worked with so they wouldn’t worry. (That friend was attending the concert and we rode the train over together, but parted ways when we got to the venue.) It was a chilly, overcast, early May day, and I was not dressed appropriately. Because the friend I rode the train with had General Admission tickets she wanted to get there early, so I was waiting outside for an hour before doors. If you know anything about The 1975 and their fandom, you’ll know that the crowd outside the venue was huge even with an hour to stand and wait. This was the loneliest part of the experience. Watching the groups of people in the crowd talk to each other and take photos while they were waiting made me wish I  was doing the same. It also accentuated why I was so fearful of doing this one thing alone: a concert felt to me like something you shared with the people with whom you attended. A concert wasn’t just about listening to live music, but listening to live music with someone. I was remembering all the other concerts I’d been to with groups of friends and  the starkness in the difference of those experiences made me feel like I had a giant neon sign over my head reading “She’s Here Alone.” But not once during that hour did I think about leaving. The music of this band was very important to me at that time in my life and I knew my regret for not seeing them would far outweigh my discomfort of being there alone. 

Once I was in my seat and the concert started I was still tense; I had no one to dance or sing along with and it felt strange to show extreme enthusiasm alone. Then a very particular song was played and, all at once, my perspective on the whole experience changed. I would never see the people who were around me ever again, who cares if they thought I was a weirdo for singing at the top of my lungs? The Scorpio in me comes out most in my tendency to be obsessive, and I was obsessed with this band. I wanted to hear every word the lead singer sung. I didn’t want to look away from the screen where his face was projected. No one was there to distract me with “What’s the name of this song?” or “Will you come to the bathroom with me?” or worst of all “I think we should beat the rush and leave before the encore.” I could enjoy the concert on my terms and felt freed because of it. 

As I mentioned, I can be a bit obsessive about the things I like and I’ve always been a little embarrassed by this. I feel exposed when I have to share the depth of my feelings for a book, movie, band, etc that most people casually enjoy or perhaps haven’t even heard of. Therefore, when I experience my obsessions with others I tend to downplay my enthusiasm. I’m also always worried about whether the person I’m with is enjoying themselves which, of course, decreases my enjoyment significantly. None of this anxiety exists when I do things, especially go to concerts, alone. 

I’m not suggesting that everyone should go to every concert alone, or any concert for that matter. However, what I have learned by doing things alone is that loneliness and aloneness are not the same. The fear of loneliness can often stop us from experiencing aloneness, and aloneness is something I’ve found great joy and satisfaction in. 

Songs about Loneliness/Being Alone 

Lonely – Britney Spears 

Soulmate – Lizzo

Perfectly Lonely – John Mayer 

911/Mr. Lonely – Tyler, The Creator, Frank Ocean, & Steve Lacy

Solo – Frank Ocean 

Go Your Own Way – Fleetwood Mac 

Daisy – Laura Marling