I have written before about how much I love writing letters. They give me great joy to send and receive. I usually do them for particular occasions, like “congratulations!” or “thank you!” or “I am with you as you face a devastating loss” or “happy new year!”, but when I moved to Minnesota almost two years ago to do my hospital chaplain residency, I put an Instagram story up that said “Who wants to be my pen pal?” because I wanted to be in touch with dear friends while I was far away from home. A few said yes, and after a letter or two of writing back and forth, most stopped writing, but one didn’t.

Both my pen pal and I have chronic fatigue, which can make it hard to keep in regular touch with people we aren’t seeing in our immediate environment face-to-face if we’re not careful. It makes a uniquely great match because neither of us expects that the other will write back within a day because we both understand that the other’s spoons may be running low. We appreciate the letters more because of this. When the newest letter does come, we know that the other took time out of their busy day to read it and another time to sit down, be present, and think of what’s most relevant to share and respond to.

A month or so may pass in between each, but we’ve shared about everything under the Alaska and Minnesota/New Jersey sun over the past almost two years. We’ve shared secrets and wild hopes that sometimes come to fruition and sometimes don’t, but we’ve been there for each other through the many changes that the other has had. She’s gotten married; I’ve wedding planned, then dealt with the aftermath of a broken engagement. I’ve worked in hospitals; she’s been building an independent writing and music career. She’s lived in a rural area; I’ve lived in cities. We’ve both gone through the pandemic. We’ve both had periods of wellness and periods of illness. We’ve both grown, and yet we’ve both remained the same core person we were when we opened our pens and hearts to each other from thousands of miles away.

What I’ve realized is that my letters to her are like itinerant journal entries. If you were to put them all together, they would show the most important threads of my residency, relationship, early career, and the building and rebuilding of my young adult life. When my relationship ended, I asked if her mailbox had room for its story. She said yes. Thinking as linearly as possible within the first week of a relationship ending, writing my feelings down, and then putting the seven front-and-back cards stuffed in one envelope in the mailbox and raising the flag – it was freeing. It was no longer just mine. Her seven cards in return felt like getting a hug through the mail. I’ll make sure to write that in my next cards to her.

Regardless of how many more months or years we’ll be able to keep up this tradition, I’ll always love how we’ve been there for each other through massive changes and the mundane everyday-ness of growing into young adulthood, living through a pandemic, and finding our ways. When I get on a plane for the first time since the pandemic began, I’m hoping to fly to Alaska to see the National Parks out there, and the first thing I’d do when I get there is give her a hug that carries two years of memories in it and has space for new ones together, too.

Emmie Arnold

Emmie Arnold (she/her/hers) is a palliative care and intensive care hospital chaplain at a children’s hospital in New York; a candidate for ordination in the PC(USA); avid cook; traveler (on hiatus); friend and family member to many; writer; and musician.

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