I exchange care packages with about a dozen folks on a regular basis.
Some people seem surprised at this. But who doesn’t like to receive mail? I’ve ordered some weird shit from eBay China for 99 cents just so I can have the joy of tearing open a bubble envelope.
My prowess with stickers and glitter have earned me the nickname “Valentine Queen” at my local post office. When I took a job as a cook at Grand Teton National Park, I received so much mail that “Sandra gets a package” became a square on the front office bingo card, along with one for a guest reporting a mouse or bat in their cabin and something involving a “code brown.”
This was one of the times in my life when snail mail had meant the most to me. I had flown across the country to live on a mountain with 170 strangers for the summer, and couldn’t seem to figure out how to become friends with any of them.
I was isolated, lonely, exhausted from working two jobs, and sincerely believed I was better off as bear food. The letters and postcards I pinned to the wall of my dorm room reminded me that even though my co-workers thought I was weird, elsewhere, plenty of other people thought I was cool and liked the same things I did.
Would you also like to receive amazing presents and become friends with people from all over the country or even the world? It’s not too tricky — it just requires patience, thoughtfulness, and a certain knack with a tape gun.
Where does one find a penpal? Sure, Google currently yields 425,000+ results for “penpal sites,” but chances are a potentially perfect penpal is already a part of your online social circle. I met my longest-standing penpal on a Smashing Pumpkins messageboard when I was 16.
Fourteen years, dozens of CDs, hundreds of letters and two visits later, I don’t quite remember how it all started, but my guess is our friendship began as a bootleg-and-baked-goods trade (I didn’t have a CD burner back then, but I did have an oven).
If you frequent a messageboard, if you’re part of a fandom, if you chat with people online with whom you share a common interest (or hatred!), guess what? You’re part of an online community, and chances are most of those people have mailboxes.
Do you have a Twitter, Tumblr, or Instagram? Do you even blog, bro? Surely by now you’ve acquired a mutual follower who seems like someone you’d like to get to know. Maybe you met someone cosplaying the same embarrassing Dr. Seuss character at a comic-con and you’d like to keep in touch.
And of course we all know someone who decided to move to New York, for some reason. These are all great sources for penpals! Organize a Secret Santa, hold a contest, propose a trade, or send someone you haven't talked to in awhile a surprise birthday present.
Be unfailingly polite to the counter peeps at your local P.O. and they will treat you like a celebrity.
What to send? My favorite things to give and receive are things that get used up. I hate clutter, and I hate the idea that I’m contributing to anyone else’s clutter.
One time I received a box of those long wooden matches covered with pretty floral paper. So simple, but actually fucking brilliant. Every aspiring pyro/scented candle enthusiast needs matches, they might as well be attractively packaged.
Here are some other ideas, based on care packages I have sent and received:
-fancy soap/other bath products
-handmade birthday card
-incense and candles
-clothing you saw in a thrift store that you think your friend might like, or something you’re getting rid of but your friend has always coveted
-art/craft supplies from some hobby you were obsessed with for five minutes but turned out to not be so great at
-bizarre snacks from the discount store
-cosmetics/perfume/fancy skincare shit
-souvenirs from somewhere you went recently
-a thumb drive with music and movies on it
-books: whenever I’m reading a non-library book I always wonder who might like to read it after me. I almost never save books when I’m done with them. See the part about clutter.
Another idea for fun and useful things to send are items that are difficult or impossible to find in your recipient’s area. Before gluten-free foods became popular, I mailed overpriced Whole Foods cookies and home-made muffins to a friend with a wheat allergy in rural Texas. He returned the favor when he recently sent me the longbow I’d had so much fun with when I last went to visit.
My friend from England always sends chocolate, because American chocolate is crap, and I send her garbage-y cereal like Lucky Charms, because English cereal isn’t crap enough. One of my Facebook friends living in Japan recently posted about a care package she received from outside the country, apparently very excited to receive proper toothbrushes.
OK, now to catch up with your faraway friend! I usually just write a few sentences on a weird postcard and add stickers, but there are a couple people with whom I’ll exchange several pages.
If you’re stuck for topics, review your recipient’s social media platforms to see what they’re up to and ask about something they’ve done recently. Tell them how you’re doing. Ask for advice. Ask them weird questions about hypothetical scenarios, like what superpower they’d most like to have.
Wish them a lovely fall, good health, happy birthday, ask how their dog is doing or if they’ve seen iZombie, congratulate them on the new job/baby/tattoo. Tell them they’re awesome and why. Bam! You’ve made someone’s day.
Remember that project we all had to do in grade school where we had to figure out how to get an egg to survive being dropped from a certain height? Remember what you learned and apply this knowledge when packing and shipping baked goods.
Bars and brownies are the best candidate for mailing, muffins and quickbreads do alright under a few layers of plastic wrap, cookies are fragile but remember no one will cry if a few arrive broken.
The main thing to remember here is don’t cram it in there, but don’t leave any wiggle room either. I save bubble wrap, tissue paper and small boxes so I always have a stash of packaging materials all in one spot, but you can often find someone giving this stuff away on Craigslist. Also, next time you’re at a thrift store, check the housewares section for cute tea tins or other handy containers.
When sending crafts or artwork, try not to worry too much about it being perfect. Your penpal is just going to be excited to have a thing that you made! I have one friend who constantly laments that her cross stitching is crooked, when the only thing I notice about it is all the people asking WHERE DID YOU GET THAT PATCH?
I always cherish a drawing of my pets, regardless of skill level, and most people are tickled pink by a portrait. Crafts are a good way to find a penpal — perhaps you’ve recently mastered the alchemy of the bath bomb and you’d like to shout it from the blogtops? Ask your followers if they’d like to do a trade! That's how I ended up with this amazing patch of a ball python wearing a flower crown:
It’s important to remember that you’re not just in this for the goodies. You should only do it if you enjoy sending mail as well as receiving it.
I know plenty of people who hate sending mail, and that's totally understandable! It can be a pain in the ass. Once in awhile the post office loses your shit and you have to go have it out with them (politely, remember!) Sometimes birthday presents are three months late or someone stops writing back.
Everyone does friendship at varying levels, and occasionally priorities shift. But I will say that if you find yourself spending a lot at the post office, consider using a credit card that rewards you with airline miles? Because sometimes, people that you share mail with can become people you share vacations with.
I hope you’ll all share the best care package goodies you’ve received below in the comments… and maybe someone will even start a Secret Santa? A lady can dream!