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Illustration by Chelsea O'Byrne

Anita is a friend who I have never met in person, have never spoken to on the phone, and only know what she looks like from the few pictures she posts on Instagram. Yet, I am helping her through a divorce.

She is my pen pal.

Writing to pen pals is not a practice limited to elementary schoolers any more, and has developed quite the community. Much more romantic than texting or face timing, letter writing slows down communication and makes the friendship feel more intentional. People exchange letters monthly, or only a few times a year, to keep someone that is continents and cultures away updated on their daily lives.

I first contacted Anita through an Instagram page dedicated to connecting people who want to become penpals. Users send a short blurb about themselves and interests to the account and it makes a post that Instagram users can respond to. It’s one way to find a pen pal with similar interests and who speaks the same language. It’s also a great exercise for those learning a new language: Improve your French by penpaling in the language.

When I first read about Anita, I was wary at first, but after a bit of online lurking in her social media accounts I was able to confirm that she was, in fact, a young woman living in Germany.

Our letters are full of personal anecdotes, advice and funny stories. Often we will include postcards and photos from travels, recipes and bits of stationery supplies. Anita spends over an hour decorating the envelope and letters she sends, sometimes even attaching small sprigs of lavender to the envelope seal. They are a little worse for wear when they arrive in my mailbox, but these small details are what I appreciate most about the exchange.

It was last May that Anita’s letter was different than her usual writings. She let me in on something that we hadn’t discussed in detail before. Her husband was cheating on her.

As I read the letter I gasped at the details she included. It read like a diary entry, and I was shocked that she was opening up with such personal news.

“I am telling you this because you don’t know him and I need someone to listen without giving their opinion,” she wrote. “You are far away but the only person who I can actually tell honestly how I’m feeling … if that makes any sense.”

This reminded me of an exercise I learned in therapy. When a friend, loved one or complete stranger begins telling you something difficult that’s going on in their lives, you ask “Are you venting? Or are you problem-solving?” It’s an easy way for the listener to understand their role.

We don’t always want opinions or advice on the problem at hand and Anita was clearly expressing that. As her pen pal I became an outlet for her to write about the pain, put it in an envelope and send it far away.

My responses were different variations of “I understand,” “I’m so sorry” and “Things are sure to improve.”

Sometimes I get the urge to ask for her phone number so I can stay up to date. I catch myself looking at the date and thinking “Oh, tomorrow is her meeting with the lawyer about the house!” and wishing that I could provide real-time support instead of getting a synopsis three weeks after each event. Curses to the overseas airmail delay!

But then I remember that the delay and ability to only share what she wants without being quizzed for more details is what Anita appreciates most about our friendship.

I knew little about her relationship apart from what she had shared in half a dozen or so letters. Anita didn’t need me to tell her that her partner was horrible or that she needed to be less agreeable and make him suffer. She was hearing that enough from her friends at home.

When she gave her friends daily play-by-plays, they would angrily tell her what she needed to do. Unfortunately, this led to a lot of insensitive comments. No one, she wrote, really knows what’s going on apart from the two people in the relationship. That was the biggest complaint in her letters.

Her friends were mad at her for how she was reacting, for what she was or wasn’t doing and what she said or didn’t say. She couldn’t understand why everyone was so hard on her. But in her letters, I could just listen.

Friends are protective. But I, being somewhere in between friend and stranger, knew only enough to understand she was in pain without getting angry about each interaction she had with her ex.

I finish off my latest note to Anita and slip it into a brown envelope. I pour a circle of hot wax to seal it and press a heavy brass stamp into it, leaving a rose design in the hardening red wax. I hope this old-timey detail brings her a bit of joy. The divorce was finalized recently and I sent her a card with an orange cat holding a daisy on the cover. Anita has a ginger cat named Daisy and when I saw it in the shop, I thought of her.

For many, pen pal ritual will seem tedious and unappealing. As someone who chronically rushes tasks, I understand that the thought of writing a letter, and decorating an envelope seems like the last thing you’d want to do after a long day at work. For me, taking an hour to slow down and write allows me to disconnect from the day and create a new kind of friendship.

I continue to write to Anita, though much less frequently. I am happy knowing that she doesn’t need the therapeutic exercise of writing letters as much these days.

Through Anita, I learned that opening up about your problems doesn’t always mean you want advice. Sometimes you just need to write down your issues, enclose them under a wax seal and send them miles away.

Rosemary Twomey lives in Toronto.