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“During Covid-19, with its lockdowns, restrictions, physical distancing, and self-isolation, connecting to each other and the people we care about is more important than ever. Yet our forms of connection and community have turned upside down.”

This is the thought that sparked Dr Kitty Wheater, Mindfulness Chaplain, and Reverend Geoffrey Baines, Associate Chaplain, to embark on a new project to connect the University community last December. Why Don’t You Write Me is a rolling six-month project from the Chaplaincy for both the University community and your own families and friends, to help connect us to ourselves and each other during this time. Kitty shares more about the project.

“The Office of National Statistics report that at this point in the pandemic, eight per cent of us are always or often lonely – yet we have full inboxes,” she says. “Young people aged 16 to 29 are twice as likely to feel lonely as the over 70s – but we spend hours every day on our phones.

With so much of our study and work taking place online, to send and receive something through the mail grounds us back in the physical world. When we select a card and feel it tangible in our hands, we picture it in the hands of the receiver.

“To put pen to paper is also to ask ourselves what we want to say. Amidst a perfect storm of isolation, boredom, and busyness, we may not know; we may have even forgotten how to ask. But when we hold paper and pen in hand, and ink emerges from beneath our fingers, we remember that we are more than pixels on a screen. And when we place ourselves on the page, we see ourselves and others more clearly.”

So how does it work? You’ll receive a monthly parcel in the post, containing five beautiful postcards and notecards. Then it’s simple – write to someone, and put it in the post. There’s only one rule: send one of your postcards, each month, to someone who’s a University member or lives in Edinburgh.

Each month, there’s also a Why Don’t You Write Me online workshop. Kitty and Geoffrey invite stories of connection, community, and their challenges at this time, and explore practices of embodied writing, compassion, and mindful doodling.

Painting by Catherine Forshall of Mussels. This image was reproduced for some of the postcards this month.

Helen Dryden, Manual Notetaker and Support Assistant for the Exams Office and the Student Disability Service, has found the whole experience incredibly powerful. “I have met some amazing people during the time spent working at Edinburgh University. The impact of those connections has been transformative and those memories will always stay with me, through whatever happens, until the end of time.

“Listening to the ideas sparked by the thought of writing postcards to friends gathered over the years really inspired me to think deeply about meaningful times shared and made me feel grateful for those nourishing connections with others.

“A remarkably simple but enriching and wholesome activity, generating connection and heart-warming exchange – I have already received two wonderful responses from delighted friends with long tales to tell; isolated with Covid-19 restrictions in other countries.

“Taking part is a bit like drawing up water from a well, seeing again the fun and the genuine in those happy moments. Looking at those surprising cards, choosing which correspond to who – in an imaginative way – and then getting in touch with enthusiasm and affection.”

Karen Biggar, PA and Centre Administrator at the Simons Initiative for the Developing Brain research centre, has also loved taking part. “In recent times I’ve got out of the habit of writing letters to people – quick texts or Whatsapp messages seem to have taken over. I used to write lots and know how nice it is to receive a hand-written letter. During the Christmas holiday I was looking through a suitcase of old letters and was amazed at how many friends used to keep in touch in writing and how long the letters were.

“I’m really looking forward to reconnecting with friends I’ve lost touch with in recent years. I have a list of who I’m going to be writing to in January. I feel like I’ve got my letter-writing mojo back. I’m amazed at how much I have to write about even though I’m not doing very much or going anywhere.”

Karen shares her advice for anyone still unsure about getting involved: “Don’t hesitate. Give your heart a push! You won’t regret it. It’s so nice to express yourself properly in writing, not just short functional email-style writing. Let your words flow!”

In keeping with the spirit of the project, Maggie Carson, Lecturer in Nursing Studies in the School of Health in Social Science, shares in this letter why she chose to get involved.

Dear Charlotte

Kitty tells me you are interested in hearing from staff and students who are participating in the Why Don’t You Write Me project. I understand you would like to know why we decided to get involved so in the spirit of the project I thought I would write and tell you why I have.

Letters have always been important to me. As a child, I wrote the expected thank you letters for birthday and Christmas presents but I also wrote to and received letters from my grandparents. At school, I corresponded with a pen pal from Czechoslovakia. I remember thinking she had the most beautiful handwriting. She wrote to me in English but using a Cyrillic script. Her letters came in small white airmail envelopes literally covered in what I regarded as very elaborate stamps compared to ours. 

While at university in Southampton, back in the days before mobile phones or email, I wrote to and received a lot of letters from family and friends. I lived in halls for the first two years.  We each had our own pigeon hole in the foyer and I can remember the pleasure I felt returning from lectures or a day on the wards to find a letter from home, or from other family or friends elsewhere, waiting for me. My father would write to me almost every week. I know the volume of letters I received was unusual because many of my fellow students used to comment on the amount of mail I received.

On graduating, my then boyfriend commenced a job with an oil company and was immediately assigned to a base in Algeria where he was stationed for two years. He was working in the middle of the desert and there were no phones. I had the final year of my nursing degree to complete so I remained in Southampton. If we had not both been good letter writers, I doubt our relationship would have survived this long separation.

Over the years, I’ve continued to write regularly to family and friends but have been conscious that letter writing appeared to be going out of fashion. I once gave my god daughter some pretty stationery and even included a book of stamps when she headed off to university but to my knowledge she has never used them. And I have reached a compromise with some of my own friends; I continue to write letters to them and they, for ease, email me back. I often print these off so as to be able to read them in my garden or in a comfortable chair somewhere, anywhere so long as it is away from my computer which I always associate with work. I guess I am trying to recreate their news in a letter format but it is not quite the same. I miss the sound of their letters hitting the wooden floor in my flat as they are posted through my front door, I miss the pleasure of recognising their handwriting and the anticipation I feel before I open their letters wondering what news they bring, I miss the feel of the paper or card they have chosen in my hand and the sense I get that they have taken time out of their busy life to sit down somewhere and physically write to me. 

When my father died I poured out my grief in letters I addressed to him. I found this comforting since we had corresponded so regularly when we didn’t live in the same city. About the only thing I missed on my return to Edinburgh was that his letters to me stopped. I still have his letters and if my house was ever to go on fire, these letters would be something I would try to save.

One of the first pieces of furniture I ever bought was a little pine desk. It is not very big and has a single drawer in which I keep my writing paper. It is my letter writing desk and is about the only surface in my house which is guaranteed to be free of clutter because you never know what the mail will bring or when you might find yourself in the mood to write to someone.

I hope this answers your question.

Yours sincerely,

Maggie Carson

To get involved or find out more, visit the Why Don’t You Write Me website.

Illustrations: Geoffrey Baines, Thin|Silence; Catherine Forshall.