Emerson Weber has pen pals in Idaho, Minnesota and New York.
Each letter is a soliloquy, containing anecdotes about her little brother Finn, corny jokes, meditations on the awesomeness of Taylor Swift.
Her envelopes are works of art.
“I spend a really long time decorating the envelopes,” Emerson, 11, told me Wednesday. “I feel like when you see a piece of art in your mailbox it stands out and you probably read it first.”
Emerson lives in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. She is, like much of the world, hunkered down at home right now. Fifth grade is happening online. Extracurriculars are paused. Friendships are happening via mail, mostly. Emerson doesn’t have her own phone.
“My parents said they won’t even think about it until eighth grade,” she said. “But I like to keep in touch with people. I’m really chatty. I’m a people person.”
So she writes letters. In early April, she wrote a letter to her mail carrier.
“I’m Emerson,” she wrote. “You may know me as the person that lives here that writes a lot of letters & decorated the envelopes. Well, I wanted to thank you for taking my letters and delivering them. You are very important to me. I make people happy with my letters, but you do too.”
She knew her mail carrier by face, but not by name, so she wrote on the envelope: “To Mr. Mailman. This letter’s for you. Yeah, you!”
She watched him take it from the mailbox and figured that was that: She brightened his day. End of story.
Not end of story.
Mr. Mailman (aka Doug, Emerson would find out) shared Emerson’s letter with his supervisor, who shared Emerson’s letter in the internal newsletter for the western region of the United States Postal Service. On Monday, Emerson watched Doug emerge from his mail truck carrying two boxes full of letters addressed to Emerson, written by postal workers from around the country.
“A lot of them responded just saying they were thankful to me for reaching out,” Emerson said. “One man gave me two pieces of his stamp collection. People are being really personal. I like when they share about their family or a joke. I’m very personal in my letters, so I like getting personal responses.”
Emerson’s dad, Hugh Weber, was blown away.
“I saw so much humanity in those letters,” he told me. “Really, such a vulnerability. I think they saw in her the willingness to be vulnerable, talking about her little brother and her love for Taylor Swift. They talked about their families, their hobbies, their pets, but also some aspects of loneliness and some aspects of feeling overlooked and a whole lot of gratitude for Emerson seeing them and acknowledging them.”
One letter-writer asked a favor: “I have a son in Kuwait and if you have a second to send him a letter he would love it.” (Emerson did.) Another wrote, “I know you can’t write back to all of us, but maybe I can drop you a line from time to time?”
Weber runs a design firm called Creative Counsel. Connecting people is his life’s work.
“I had a friend say, ‘Apples don’t fall from orange trees,’” he said.
After the boxes of letters started to arrive, Weber snapped some photos and put them on Twitter. He explained the backstory.
“I’m not sharing this because I’m a proud dad,” he wrote. “I’m sharing it because it is relatively easy, if we take the time, to give others the one thing they need to be well — human connection. I have a friend that says we all just want to be seen, known and loved. Em does this boldly.
“It’s #MentalHealthAwareness month,” he continued, “and I want to be bold and brave like Em. We’re all in a moment of physical isolation that is amplifying a real epidemic of loneliness, anxiety and depression. I’ve been feeling it personally since long before we locked our front door.”
I emailed Weber on Wednesday to ask if he and Emerson would hop on the phone with me to talk about the project, and they kindly obliged.
“It’s easy to get lost in glamorizing inspiration,” Weber said. “I want to make sure people know this is about what they can do, what power you have to make positive ripples of impact and reach the people you care about or the people you respect or the people who helped you.”
Weber said he and his wife, Amy, talk to Emerson and Finn a lot about how their ability to stay home and safe and fed during a pandemic is predicated on the sacrifices of others.
“It only works because of people like Doug,” Weber said. “It only works because of all the people who make sure we get the things we need.”
That understanding feels particularly crucial right now, with the president threatening to block aid to the Postal Service.
“There’s the question about the post office being a thing of the past,” Weber said. “We think of it as an essential thing of the current time, and the future.”
And so is human connection, even if it has to take a slightly different shape for a while.
“I just really want people to know this isn’t a girl-writes-a-letter story,” Emerson said. “This is an everyone-can-write-a-letter story.”
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