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Dana Rodriguez for Vox

The best 80 cents I ever spent: A pen I use to write to my friends

After the stay-at-home order came down, I realized Zoom parties weren’t going to cut it. That’s when I began writing letters.

I have loved collecting stationery ever since I could remember: letter and envelope sets, puffy stickers, glitter gel pens, custom rubber stamps and colorful ink pads to make my own cards. So when I was visiting family two years ago in Hong Kong, it was no surprise that I would stop into every cute paper store, stretching my parents’ limits on patience.

Midway through my trip, with some spare time before dinner, I walked into Muji. If you have never been to Muji, it is a modern Japanese clothing and home goods store, full of blonde wood and basic clothing in loose silhouettes. I’ve also always liked their stationery: minimal, sleek, uniform. For some reason, I’d never actually bought any — the moment never felt right, or I had already blown through my budget, or I already ordered other stationery.

But that day, I walked to the area where all the pens were set upright, showcased on ascending acrylic shelves, with little blank notepads to test the ink. I picked up a pen and wrote: 香港加油, a blessing for my second home. The ink glistened in the light in a way that said “Today is the day you will be the owner of at least one Muji pen.” The pen felt good in my hand. I decided now was the time.

These pens — gel ink ballpoint in 0.5 mm — aren’t hard to find in the Muji stores in New York, where I live, but because there isn’t as big of an import tax in Hong Kong, I was able to splurge for three (black, blue, and green) for 80 cents each. Yes, buying them for $1.50 each in the US won’t break the bank, but if there’s one other thing I like besides stationery, it is a good deal.

Arriving home, I unpacked my suitcase, put the three pens in my ceramic pencil holder on my desk, and promptly forgot about them. I’d use them on occasion when my hand strayed for a pen to write a check or a quick note to USPS to please leave a package somewhere, but otherwise, they were comfortably nestled in with all the other pens and pencils I had gathered over the years.

In early March, when New York mandated a stay-at-home order, I knew that I wouldn’t be able to see my friends for a long time. All of a sudden, I was getting email invites to schedule Zoom calls, FaceTimes, WhatsApp videos. Group texts exploded and, weirdly, so did chain emails. I felt loved and thought of, knowing so many of my friends wanted to stay connected, but it was overwhelming to make the emotional time to be present, especially because all of a sudden, every worry I had about my future, my family, the world, heightened.

Unlike face-to-face interactions where I had the freedom to move around, look around, be in a new setting, I was instead spending hours staring at my own grainy face in a square floating on my laptop screen. On most group Zoom calls, the sense of intimacy is flattened, so instead of finding pockets of one-on-one chats within a larger group, I felt like I was always jockeying for the space to talk. It became stressful having to figure out when was an opportune time to share news or take up airspace or find some way to segue without also feeling self-conscious about making the next five minutes all about myself.

So a week into the stay-at-home order, I decided to start writing letters: one letter (or postcard) a day, to a different friend, so that each friend would receive at least one letter from me a month. I was not looking for replies; it was mostly a good excuse, I thought, to finally put my stationery to use. And of course, I opted to use my Muji pens because I knew they were reliable. They were also no-frills, so as to not take away from the choice of stationery or the actual content of the letter itself. The pens themselves were easy to hold, smooth with a rounded exterior, which was good as I hadn’t been doing much writing by hand in the last decade. My hands had increasingly become accustomed to flying across a laptop keyboard, used to the quick tap-tapping on the tip of my fingers; to relearn how to use my whole hand again was an exercise in patience, building up the muscle memory of a pre-screen age from a not-so-distant past.

In a letter, though, I could take as long as I wanted to wax poetic about the places I missed in New York (the Temple of Dendur at the Met, the Cloisters, the Flushing food mall, the bike loop around Prospect Park), remark on the seasons changing (at one point, I gave updates on the tree outside my bedroom which, in the four months I had been at home, had transformed from wintry barren to a springtime explosion of pink cherry blossom to a lush early-summer green). When I actually had the mental space to read, I would share about the books I finished, writing in exuberant detail about what I loved about the prose or the characters. I recommended recipes, wrote down funny jokes I had heard from TV shows, remarked on the small changes in my neighborhood. I even started to really write about the weather: how the wind passed through the vines trellising on the building across from my bedroom; how the dry heat one day reminded me of summers in LA. Every moment became an interesting bit of news because there was nothing really new happening to me.

All my memories of the past months had been made in the same square footage space of my apartment or in the two-mile radius where I’ve walked. While my plans were put on hold, life outside still went on, so I documented it in writing.

With each letter, I think of how they will read years, decades, from now. What will a future generation (or even me in 30 years) remember from this time? Should I sound smarter in my letter-writing? Funnier? More serious? What if I add an “LOL”—will that make historians who come across these letters think I am a dummy? For now, I am trying not to think too much of preserving this time period, and more of just trying to reach out, give a friend 5 minutes of solace. And it’s become a catharsis for me, too.

As a freelancer who works from home, not having the spontaneity to take a break and hop on the subway, to meet a friend for a quick lunch, took a toll on my mental well-being. Writing letters became a way for me to have some sort of a schedule, and even a daily momentary pleasurable thing to look forward to. It also became a space for reflection in the morning, both on what the day will entail and on the particular friend I was writing to that day.

After breakfast around 8 am each day, I wipe down my coffee table, select a card and envelope, affix a stamp, and open up Excel to see who hasn’t received a card in the past month (Yes, I have a spreadsheet for everything). I dutifully write their address on the envelope, and sit for a moment. What can I say in this letter that will bring this friend joy? Is there an inside joke I can include? What about a memory?

Sometimes a friend writes back, so when they do, I pull up their letter and respond to their questions, too, while asking my own. Long conversations have been born from this back-and-forth. Unlike text messages in which we try to say everything we can before we move on with our days, or on a video call where it feels even more ephemeral, answering a letter gives me the opportunity to reflect and truly think about what I want to say, to share.

I’ll pause, occasionally, mid-sentence, my Muji pen still on the paper. No matter how long I pause, though, the ink doesn’t seep through the page and spread out like other pens. It doesn’t betray that I may have made a mistake or realize I don’t actually know what my next sentence is going to be.

My pens are running low now, but with every letter, no matter the paper source, the ink holds its own beautifully. The pen glides effortlessly with no drag or smearing and I know it’s not only because my handwriting has gotten better, but because the relationship I have to these pens seems to have grown deeper with each note I write. On July 13, Muji announced they were filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in the US. Now, with each letter I write, I worry that it could be the last before my pens are fully tapped out. Each letter has become even more precious than before; imbued with a hope that while these pens won’t last forever, perhaps these letters will.

Vivian Lee is a writer and editor living in Queens, New York.

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