This fall I have really felt the durational nature of this daily practice of writing letters. I have been writing Pandemic Epistles since the middle of March, not knowing how long I would continue or what the ending point might be. 100 days came and went, and I passed 250 days last week. The letters have taken on a different rhythm when I make time for them around in-person and online teaching obligations (which have felt never-ending this fall), but they are still often a high point in my day – a moment of quiet, of slowing down, to connect with someone else.
In recent years, I have come to envision handwritten letters and epistolary exchange as a form of active listening. This was reinforced for me during the summer and early fall when I was completing the Deep Listening practitioner certification, considering the many ways that we listen with our minds, our bodies, our hands, our whole beings.
Thanks to the invitation of a dear friend at the University of Alberta, this fall I was able to take part in an online workshop on durational performance, led by Marilyn Arsem. Over the course of several days, and then extending into weeks, we participated in exercises and developed durational gestures that allowed us to question, to play with, to reconsider our notions of time. This, too, offered me some new perspectives and broader contexts on the mental and physical demands of a durational daily practice.
I continue to be drawn to the slowness of letters. And not just of letters, but of many practices, processes, and forms of knowledge that we share between bodies. I had the opportunity to offer some of these thoughts at a symposium earlier this month, held virtually through the University of Brighton. “Writing Maternal Futures through Epistolary Praxis” incorporated thoughts on slowness as a preface to a performative reading of ten of my Letters to the Future.
I believe that both slowness and letters hold real resonance in this cultural, historic moment. I have read so many newspaper articles in the past year heralding the return of handwritten letters as a pandemic pastime. And in a moment when the White House threatened the existence of the US Postal Service this fall, mailing letters became a political statement. Artists, too, turn again to letters: the Minnesota Center for Book Arts developed a virtual series on “Mail Art Magic,” and Printed Matter, Inc., in New York recently exhibited all manner of mail art from the pandemic.
Many thanks to Chicago Tribune art critic Lori Waxman for her generous review of my Pandemic Epistles this summer. It’s such a quiet, intimate practice but some unexpected affirmation goes a long way to continuing the motivation. Now on to day 260.
Do people still write letters? I miss them dearly. Emails don’t really count, I mean sometimes they almost do, but rarely and never entirely. A letter is a handmade thing, touched by one person and sent to another through the magical system of the post. Countless aesthetic choices exist—lined paper or patterned stationery, pencil or green felt tip pen, American flag or Lunar New Year stamp—and that’s not to mention the possibility of collage, drawings, and the inclusion of small flat objects. In this time of isolation, of the world slowing down so much it can seem as if it has stopped, Rachel Epp Buller has made a daily practice of this outmoded form. Today she’ll have mailed off letter number 105 of the “Pandemic Epistles,” marking 105 days of quarantine and 105 acts of communicative care. Each is penned on a piece of paper Buller has marbled, moody folios that under present conditions recall viruses more than paisleys or waves. She sends them to someone, somewhere, in a gesture that feels just right for right now: safe, steady, social and blessedly screen-free. With gratitude to the mail carriers, whose motto may need to be amended beyond snow, rain, heat and gloom of night to include threat of contagion.
—Lori Waxman 2020-06-28 11:02 PM