I believe in sending postcards. Postcards to friends and acquaintances, postcards to announce happy occasions and to commiserate on bad ones. The paths of these paperboard squares, mailed in-town and around the globe, create a web that connects world. Sending postcards is my way of sharing my life, of condensing my stories down to a few inches, of letting friends know that I remember and that I care. It reminds me who I am and who I value. I discovered this belief, however, at a point in my life when I had lost track of that entirely.
In August 2006, my perfect post-college world fell down around my feet. After a wildly successful year as a high school English teacher, I was sexually propositioned by one of my superiors and had no choice but to quit. I left the school and students that I loved; I moved out of my apartment and my city.
I was sad, scared and felt like a failure. Without geographic, personal or career markers, I felt I had lost everything.
That September, terrified of the prospect of watching other teachers and their students start school, I packed a bag, borrowed a car and hit the road, in a race to get away from the familiar. Every mile under my tires brought me a little farther away from who and what and where I ‘d been.
It’s fitting, then, that the first postcards I sent weren’t technically from me: before I snuck away, a fellow teacher had handed me a plush elephant and said “This is Arnold. He told my second graders that he is going on a trip around the country, and that he is going to send them postcards. He will, won’t he?!” I begrudgingly agreed, and began writing to the second graders as Arnold the Elephant.
I had intended to have Arnold pass the trip mashed at the bottom of my backpack, and his first few postcards were terse, uninspired and factual. But as I got farther from the familiarity of New England, I had to work harder to find facts and local lore to send back to the second grade class. I had to seek out scenic vistas and unique roadside attractions. I had to ask locals for interesting facts about their state or town. I had to care about more than my own grim escape plan.
Gradually, Arnold became my copilot, sitting on my dashboard wearing the souvenirs he’d gained at the last stop. When I carried him with me, he was an immediate and easy point of conversation with strangers: through him, I met innumerable folks who became our friends while we were in their town. Toting him around gave me something to be responsible for, something to care about, something to get me out of my lumpy hostel bunk-beds in the morning.
It wasn’t too long after Arnold’s migration from backpack to dashboard that I began picking out postcards to send as myself, not just as him. Our adventures had become interesting, my stories had become worth telling. I wrote about them to my family, my friends, to former-friends, distant relatives, and people I had just met in the previous state, town, or city. Postcard by postcard, sharing my adventures and myself, I recreated the bonds that I had shredded when I fled. Putting each postcard in the mail reclaimed a piece of me and took back ownership of my story.
By the time I reached the Pacific Ocean, my journey of fear and escape had become one of wonder and discovery. Instead of reveling in being alone and unknown, I was reveling in the wondrous things I did and saw and could write home about. Up the West Coast and back across the country, I explored with the intent to tell others about it. Having stories, and writing them to others, had given me back a piece of myself that I thought I had lost.
I have maintained my practice of writing postcards, even these three years later, with the tragedy behind me and my life rebuilt. I no longer need to send the cards off into the world, but I find that the practice keeps me grounded in who I am, and in who I value. Plus, the lesson that I learned with Arnold at my elbow — to enjoy the adventure and to share it — is just about the right length to fit on a postcard.
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