Karin Kawamoto narrowly beat the clock.
On March 8, the semiretired musical theater performer held Karin’s Birthday Follies, her annual fundraiser and birthday fete, at a large performance space in midtown Manhattan. There were 30 acts and 70 guests, give or take. The theme was “milestones and memories”; 2020 marks Kawamoto’s 30th year in New York. There was singing and dancing, music and comedy.
Less than two weeks later, coronavirus cases surged, the city shut down, and Kawamoto, 54, who lives alone and is somewhat high-risk, went into self-quarantine. She has largely been keeping to herself ever since.
The postcards are a bright spot.
Once a week — sometimes more often — a card arrives from her friend Emily Learnard, whom she met at a tiny karaoke bar in SoHo. Learnard has been sending postcards without fail since March. The notes, laminated with packing tape, are left at Kawamoto’s door (her building doesn’t use mailboxes), and she’s always delighted to find one. Some of the postcards are handmade; others are found. At least one is composed of a funny newspaper correction reprinted in the New Yorker (the East Bay Express had misquoted a school principal: she said “we’re all running a school district as leanly as we can,” not “we’re all running a school district as lamely as we can”).
Each postcard — every piece of personal written correspondence, really — has unique value, Kawamoto, a user experience designer and strategist, says. They mean someone took the time and effort to “physically enact the notion of care.”
As we prepare to enter the ninth month of the pandemic and the necessary rigors of social distancing, the passage of time feels disorienting and distance can feel vast. Physical reminders of the ties that bind help anchor us in place. Kawamoto offered us glimpses of her written correspondence with Learnard below. While paper is no replacement for the embrace of a friend or an entertaining party, letters and notes can help keep us afloat.
Emily Learnard has sent off a monumental amount of personal mail since March: 320 postcards, scattered across 84 people.
“I keep a spreadsheet because I’m a nerd,” she says. And because, each week, she wants to ensure that she touches base with loved ones “in an actual, physical way.”
Kawamoto, of course, is one recipient; Learnard says she is particularly diligent about sending her notes because Kawamoto lives on her own and “has been quarantined to the extreme.” (Not to mention that her dog of 18 years, Alice, died in late July.) Other beneficiaries include Learnard’s friends who work in health care — “they need thank you-notes every week,” she says — and a friend who has a child with severe learning disabilities.
Pre-pandemic, Learnard, who works in customer service at Estee Lauder, had nowhere near this epistolary output. She is not the type to routinely remember birthdays or send holiday cards. But “in terms of individual contact,” she says, “I love mail.”
You might thank her childhood buddy, Xanthe, for helping cultivate that fondness for written correspondence.
“She has been the person who always remembers everybody’s birthday and always keeps in touch and sends beautiful cards, even when we didn’t have money and we were students,” she says. Learnard would send postcards to Xanthe or to other friends’ kids, but not on a regular basis.
But the pandemic has a way of making us seek connection, ward off idleness and extend care when the usual channels are closed off. For Learnard, one method is sending mail; she has scores of postcards collected over the years from estate sales, books and other sources. (And for Kawamoto, one method is making masks — she has sewn and distributed around 350. “Emily and her family and associates have been recipients of many, many of the masks,” she says.)
Learnard, 47, lives with her boyfriend, aunt and uncle in a Brooklyn brownstone that her family has inhabited for half a century. Lately, she’s been thinking about luck. She doesn’t have much money and suffered some severe hearing loss that required surgery this summer, but “How lucky are we?” she asks. “We have four people in this house. We’re not sick. We’ve got a garden.” And she’s got good friends: Before her surgery, which successfully helped her hearing, Learnard struggled with Zoom interactions. “Karin researched and sent me earphones that work by sitting on the cheekbone and not inside the ear,” she notes. “This is the kind of person that she is — she is an active listener and will find a practical solution to a problem, then she will tell you she is just being practical but really she is the kindest and most generous of people.”
Speaking of kindness of generosity, Learnard credits her mother, a Quaker, for creating an atmosphere of decency and altruism during her childhood and continuing to exhibit those ideals. “My mother is terrible at cards,” Learnard says, but she did retire from her job four years ago in part to care for her older siblings, and she trained with the ACLU to aid undocumented immigrants, Learnard adds.
“I’ve been given everything that I ever needed. I wasn’t raised wealthy, but I’ve never been refused comfort when I needed it, and I’ve often been offered comfort when I didn’t know I needed it,” Learnard says. “And the older I get, the more I see how unusual that is.”
She isn’t crazy about the expression “pay it forward” because, to her, it means “that you’re asking for something in return.” But she appreciates the concept.
“It’s so easy to be kinder to people and to give something when you’ve been given so much.”