What’s in a Mailbox?
This essay is a part of unMUTE, a collection of pieces written by participants in the 2020 Design Writing and Research Summer Intensive Online.
According to the U.S. Postal Service, the first private mail receptacles came into use in 1896. They were a hodgepodge of whatever usable items people found around their properties: cigar boxes, wooden crates, old pipes, canisters—anything really. Often, parcels didn’t fit. Or things would get destroyed in poor weather. Or stolen. So, a national committee was formed to develop a standard mailbox design. Officially approved designs haven’t changed much in over a hundred years. Because of their ubiquity and uniformity, mailboxes often go unnoticed.
Their significance in everyday life deteriorated with the explosion of other, more immediate forms of communication like email and social media. And, when the COVID-19 pandemic emerged in early 2020, the Internet quickly became a primary lifeline for people across the globe. Early on, nobody knew what the virus was, how it spread, its symptoms, or its risk factors. Still the only thing we’re sure of is that there’s no vaccine and no cure. Social contact must be avoided to reduce the spread of disease. Officials shut down most of the world’s economy. Even if businesses were open, I wouldn’t want to take the risk. Now I’m stuck at home. By myself.
In isolation, time feels like an ocean. I try to keep a sense of normalcy, but the days float by. I see friends, students, and colleagues on Zoom and other social media platforms. It all seems artificial and contrived. I feel exhausted. People disappear like ghosts when the screen goes dark. The virus is like a ghost, too. It could be anywhere or nowhere—there’s no way to know for sure. With a sense that death is everywhere, my typical routines seem trivial.
Standing in the window, I stare into the distance. It’s that kind of stare where I’m not really looking at anything exactly. It’s blurry, a daydream. My eyes come to rest on the generic, tunnel-shaped mailbox, probably aluminum, at the end of the driveway. It’s camouflaged with a dark green paint job and perched crooked on top of a 3-by-3 length of lumber. It’s been that way since we moved here.
It’s an extended pause; I keep staring. When I come to, I rush to the closet to find some old spray paint. It’s got to be here somewhere . . . Ah-ha!
I march outside and paint the mailbox hot pink.
I wonder what my neighbors think.
I say to myself, “I’m glad I don’t live in an HOA.”
I need an anchor to mark the time. I want to be productive. No, actually, I need to feel creative. To assert my presence in this world of ghosts. The Pandemic Art Cards project started as an exchange with my sister. We choose a theme, create an oversized postcard in response, and put it in the mail.
Now, I’m sending handmade Pandemic Art Cards all over the country. The thick paper is smooth and stiff. My multi-colored pens glide on the surface. The subject matter is benign. Soothing. Animals, plants, landscapes, patterns, and shapes. The colors are vibrant and unnatural—but optimistic. I imagine my recipients a few days later, standing in front of their own mailbox. When they find my card amongst all the junk, I hope they feel what I feel: connection, intimacy, and physical touch by proxy.
At sunrise every morning, I slip on my sandals and shuffle down to my hot pink mailbox. I slide the day’s postcard in and raise the flag.
unMUTE Group Statement
Take a moment to think about how strange a video chat is. You can see and hear someone, but all the nuance of body language is lost—flattened into two dimensions and reduced in resolution. Conversation starts and stops, unaided by technology cuts and lags. How do you even know when someone is about to speak?
Now take that single moment of video chat and multiply it by sixteen, each tiny square on the screen filled by a student hoping to mentally escape the 2020 pandemic.. Norms need to be created so that everyone feels comfortable contributing, and group dynamics have to be explicitly established so no ideas or experiences—indicated sometimes by only the slightest wave—go unshared.
On the surface, a large group video conversation seems unwieldy. It morphs into something entirely new when the meeting happens every weekday for two weeks, pressurized by rapid-fire lectures, readings, and assignments. It’s hard to imagine, but what if—in the midst of a global health crisis and nationwide protests over racial inequality—those sixteen people created bonds so deep and discovered things about themselves so profound that they left the meeting changed? What if they wrote prose so revealing you stole a glimpse into who they are?
If you’re curious, please unMUTE.