Dangerous Compassions

mail art, penpalling, asynchronous mediated social

People ask me how many penpals I have.  I usually say, “About a hundred,” which surprises them.  And then I say how some I write to regularly, and some more rarely.

Also, many are zinesters who I mostly send zines to.  Some become facebook friends, or instagram friends.  Some I meet in person and become regular friends.  So the relationships change around.

Penpalling is mail art, asynchronous and mediated, a way of being social that’s low stress, for me.  I meet new people, and I feel new feelings, learning about someone’s inner life. But I can do it when I’m feeling well and at my own pace.


Writing a letter is like meditation or therapy, in a relaxed way.  I put the date–where am I, in time?  I address someone, ask about them, assess how I feel, describe that.

Then I tell whatever news and facts I want to share–my day, what foods I ate, what I have coming up, what I’ve been thinking about.  I reply to their letter and answer their questions, if any.  I’m with this person, in my mind.  And when the mail arrives to them, I will be in their mind also.

We play back and forth, entering one another’s imaginations, building a relationship, supporting one another.  It’s usually slow.  I’m a fiend for handwriting.  I love stamps, stationery.  Penpals are mostly women and nonbinary people, which I enjoy also, the gender stuff.  I like seeing how other people speak about their lives.  It can be bland and dull, but many people do it beautifully, and intimacy can spark between us.

If someone moves and doesn’t stay in touch, gets too busy, or loses interest, it can end easily.  It could be brief, like meeting someone once at a library.  Or it can be a multi-decade, transformative thing.

You can draw pictures on the envelope, send zines, send arts you made or someone else made.  ATCs are fun.  You can just do postcards, for brevity, pretty pictures, and slightly less postage cost.  Birthday cards, other holidays cards, valentines.  Stickers, presents.

It can sustain your life.  A well-timed letter can feed your soul.  Especially if, like me, you have disabilities and social differences, so being with people in person is hard.


My favorite penpalling site is sendsomething.  Long ago, there was a penpalling site called postcardx that I was on, but sadly, it got hacked and destroyed.

I think sendsomething was made to replace postcardx.  You make an account with your address and write sentences about yourself.  Users search your sentences and send you mail you might like.  It’s informal, DIY, lighthearted, and loose.  I’ve met some great people there!


Much different from that is swap-bot.  Swap-bot you have a profile, but it’s structured and all about rules.  You sign up for a swap, which is just a mail assignment.  Then you send it to a stranger assigned to you by the system, and a different stranger sends you something for the same assignment.

So it’s not really swapping, which confused me at first.  And no robots are involved–confusing!  I thought it was for stuff.  I am into more flat mail, not objects.  Took me a while to visit the site, after hearing about it, and then took me longer to figure out how to do it well.  But I like it now.

There’s a conservative contingent, like people who like to do mail Bible study…?  But there are many kinds of people, and the variety of assignments to choose from means you can find swaps that are good for you.

pros: Many cool assignment to choose from.  I did art stuff I wouldn’t have otherwise done and became more creative.

cons: It’s hard for me to keep track of the mail coming in.  I send stuff out on time, but struggle to keep track of and rate the incoming mail, which is essential.  Some people flake, or the mail takes forever to arrive, which complicates record keeping also.


Postcrossing feels old school to me.  It’s a site I joined around 12 years ago for sending postcards internationally.

The way it works is you get assigned a partner in another country, and a code.  You send them a postcard with the code on it.  When they receive it, they log it in.  Then you get sent a postcard from someone in another country.

There are profiles, but it’s less about penpals, personalities, and connecting intimately–more about the postcards and more quantity, maybe?  It has a corporate feel and seems very straight laced.  I joined in 2006 and sent some postcards, lost interest, remembered it a few times over the years.

I like something about it, but I prefer a deeper connection with penpals.  I’m in it more for the notes, and people tend to say very generic brief messages, through postcrossing.  Too much paper fills my life already–I don’t need to accumulate more postcards.


There are other sites I’ve used to meet penpals, over the years.  I have too many penpals, now.  I feel spread too thin.

Mail can be beautiful, messy, caring, too much, heartfelt, dashed off.  But getting something physical is fun, and holding paper in my hands.

I’m literary, after all.  You might not think my past as a composition and poetry teacher, or degrees or whatever, are significant.  But all that is still inside me.  Stuffed with books.  I love words like crazy.

I love Ming like crazy too.

By Laura-Marie

Good at listening to the noise until it makes sense.

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