Thursday, May 16, 2019

An Urgent Appeal to the U.S. Postal Service

I've found myself recently puzzled by the divergent paths of libraries and post offices in the Information Age. On the surface, both should have been done in by the advent of computers. To that end, one has lumbered along like a dinosaur with a fatal injury, whose days are desperate and numbered. But, unexpectedly, the other hosts elections and remains the lifeblood of the neighborhood, facilitating recreational and informational events for neighbors (game nights!), organizing programs that engage community members, while remaining a desirable third spaces for folks who are simply looking to do work in a quiet space. Why the difference?

Before I go on, I want to say - sincerely - how much I value postal workers. It's a thankless thing to be engaged in work people assume and take for granted as a part of the fabric of daily life, even if those same people seldom avail themselves of the service. Indeed, my desire to see the postal service flourish stems in part from my gratitude for it and my desire to see others come to know the joy of handwritten correspondence.

I know, I know. That refusal to embrace the future is exactly what has landed USPS in the predicament it's in. Fair. But hear me out...

A friend and I recently recommitted to written correspondence ("letter-writing"), but when I sat down to write my first letter to him, I was embarrassed to discover that I had exactly no paper in my house appropriate to the task. Just scraps of envelopes and "computer paper." I get that USPS needs to "get with the times," and increasingly it does feel like they are moving in that direction, but my suggestion is that the post office, if we are to have a physical space designated as such, has an opportunity to be a place that lifts up the value of, and makes accessible, the practice of writing letters.

Here are a few proposals:
  • Host community activist letter-writing nights, with supplies available for purchase at a discount, with politicians' addresses provided. Invite folks to bring snacks. Pick bipartisan issues and introduce folks to each other. (I just received an invitation today from Rabbi Bonnie, inviting folks to write letters of encouragement to the Lutheran pastor recently relegated to a local detention center. Let's get together and build friendships while we write!)
  • Host write-your-favorite-author children's days, along the same lines. Cross-pollinate with the local library and have them bring contact information for the Judy Blumes of the world.
  • Facilitate pen pals.
  • Carry fountain pens and inks! Stationary, too. And at price points that make sense for children.
  • Make space for the local gathering of stamp collectors. 
  • Host waste-management and paper repurposing programs.
  • Card-making events.
  • Introduction to wax sealing!
  • Promote books of famous letter exchanges! Personally, I'd start with The Habit of Being: Letters of Flannery O'Connor, but there are lots of possibilities here. Inspire imagination.
I know, I know. None of it's happening. But the libraries these days have become spaces for those applying for citizenship to work with community members on their applications; have become spaces for game nights!; have become tutoring hubs. And don't tell me the idea of gently weening the USPS as it is off of it's gross and financial dependence on generic junk mail flyers isn't at least a little enticing. Yes, I get that the main difference between USPS and libraries is that one is a federal program, the other local, but if the foundation of your business model is delivering letters, doesn't it make sense to invest in and encourage the practice of writing, I don't know, letters?

And if it really isn't going to happen, please let me know. I might see about the availability of some post office-adjacent land and explore an exercise in community building and reciprocal relationship. :)





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