‘On Paper I Am My Genuine Self’: How Pen Pals Around The World Keep One Woman Connected To Humanity And Herself

By Heidi Stevens Chicago Tribune

WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) Shaniece Windsor has 10 pen pals around the world, women with whom she exchanges stories and fears as well as questions and advice.

Chicago Tribune

When Shaniece Windsor was 8, she and her older brother moved from Brooklyn, in New York, to Puerto Rico to live with their grandmother and aunt.

Windsor's parents were separating, and her mom needed time to get her bearings. She joined her children in Puerto Rico six months later.

Letters were their lifeline.

"I would write to my mom, and she would write to me," Windsor, 41, said. "She would send me secret money, so I could buy candy."

Her grandmother wrote letters, too, careful not to lose touch with her family members who lived across the island and those who'd moved to New York.

"We were always writing," Windsor said.

Windsor's mom went to school in Puerto Rico to become an instrument technician and eventually found a job in New York. The three of them, mom, son and daughter, moved back to Brooklyn when Windsor was 13.

"Then I wrote letters to all the friends I made in Puerto Rico," Windsor said.

It's possible those early compositions awakened a writing muscle for Windsor to exercise and lean on throughout her life.

When she and her now-husband, Pedro, were 18-year-old sweethearts, they wrote each other notes on the computers at their jobs (hers at Gap, his at Windows on the World in the World Trade Center), printed them out and mailed them to each other.

But it's just as possible to let a letter-writing muscle atrophy, as so many of us do in an era of texts and likes and Instagram stories.

Windsor, now a mom of two children, ages 4 and 6, is still flexing.

She lives in Ravenswood, and she has 10 pen pals around the world, women in New Zealand and North Carolina, Portugal and Puerto Rico, France and Florida, with whom she exchanges stories and fears and questions and advice, sometimes, and community, mostly.

They've never met in person. They don't have plans to. But they've woven one another into their lives in a way that feels truer, to Windsor, than some of her face-to-face connections.

"I feel like, on paper, I am my genuine self," Windsor said. "In a letter I don't have to try to clean up for them in order to make a good impression. The impression is exactly who you are."

Some of their exchanges are simple pen-to-paper letters. Others are tiny masterpieces, embellished with artwork and stamps and small tokens of affection. With one pen pal, she exchanges a "junk journal."

"You attach memories to it, receipts, tickets," she said. "It's essentially a scrapbook with journaling."

Reminders of the big and little things that make up a life.

"It's probably going to just be a lot of Target receipts," she joked.

Windsor is a bullet journal devotee, carefully note-taking and list-making with bullet points to establish and set all sorts of life goals. In early 2016, through her bullet journaling community, she learned about International Correspondence Writing Month, an online movement encouraging people to hand-write and mail one letter, card or postcard every day during the month of February.

"I think I really wanted to find kindness and share kindness and be part of a community of positivity," Windsor said.

She shared her home address on her Instagram page and invited others to send her theirs. She wrote a letter a day.

She wrote about her childhood in Puerto Rico, living, suddenly in the forested mountains after eight years in Brooklyn. She wrote about getting her first bike. She wrote about mothering.

"It was weird," she said. "I had never given my address to a stranger before. But it was also so cool. I sent letters to put positivity out there, but then I also got letters back."

She was hooked.

"There's no judgment," she said. "There's no politics. We're just humans."

Now the letters are part of her daily routine. She writes when she has a spare minute or two, sometimes sitting on the floor outside the bathroom while her kids take baths, sometimes late at night at the dining room table while the rest of the house sleeps.

"This is my bestie," she said, pointing to a wheeled cart that holds her writing supplies. "I just roll her everywhere."

As much as she learns about her pen pals and their lives in their far-flung locales, Windsor said she is also learning about herself.

"I feel like I'm shedding a lot of my tough shell," she said. "When I first moved to Chicago and someone said, 'Good morning' to me? I looked back thinking, 'So your partner's taking my bag now, right? That's what's happening?' I was really suspicious of everything and everyone."

That was 12 years ago. Her husband had accepted a job at a law firm in Chicago straight out of law school, and they figured they'd be here two years.

But she likes what Chicago has brought out in her, a side that trusts people with her address and her stories.

"Honestly, I have to wonder if I never moved to Chicago if I would have ever allowed this kind of positivity into my life," she said. "Something had opened up in me."

Or reawakened, maybe.

"I realize I was searching for a sense of community," she said. "People sharing ideas, people giving each other encouragement, people pointing people in the right direction."

The best sides of ourselves, expressed in words, adorned, sometimes, with art, sealed and shared with another human.

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