Bubble-Wrap Magic


Bubble-Wrap Magic

(If you like subtitles, this one actually has one: Christmas in July. In case anyone’s wondering. Which you probably aren’t.)

I still get a thrill every time I check the mail, just like I did when I was a little girl. I walk down my long driveway to our black mailbox, standing guard over the cul-de-sac; I force open the rusty black hinges (they stick just a bit, we never remember to oil them); and in that moment, my breath catches, just for a heartbeat; my imagination swirls.

What might rest inside, waiting for me? I can hear the cynics scoffing, “Bills. It’s all bills!”—and usually it is—but every so often, there’s that “just-because” letter from Karen, scribbled in the careless scrawl that I know as well as my own; or a card from Gam, who never forgets a birthday; or free books for my kids from Dolly Parton’s generous literacy program; or that $8 rebate check I forgot I’d sent off for three months ago (Score! Now I get two free trips to Starbucks this week!); or the bowtie my son will wear as a ring-bearer in Miss Mickey’s wedding; or even a rejection letter . . . disappointing as it is to get one, it means I’m still writing, still chasing the dream, still sending my work out into the world.

In this impersonal era of digital everything—you send an email, it zings into cyberspace, crosses the country, the ocean, or even the planet, never touching ground before reaching its destination almost instantaneously (and there is a mind-boggling magic in that, too)—mail is still intensely personal, physical, grounded in tangible reality. My friend touches something . . . puts it in an envelope or box, entrusts it to her mailman, and a few days and many miles later, I open that same envelope . . . hold what she held; touch paper she touched; read her own handwriting—those marks of the pen that, if you know how to analyze them, are said to reveal insights into our subconscious psyche. When I was a kid, I used to literally kiss the envelope, then draw a pair of lips and write, “S.W.A.K.—Sealed With a Kiss,” then mail my kisses to my friend Gayle, all the way from Miami to Boston. Oh, how jealous I felt of that envelope, which would soon be sitting inside my best friend’s house, where I wanted to be. All that way—1,253 miles—for the cost of a single stamp!

Even when we order something online, some worker, an actual person named Maria—or maybe John, whose newborn son kept him up all last night; or Wilhelmina, who would rather be called Sarah; or Steve, who is drumming up the courage to talk to that red-head on his lunch break—packs the box, fills it with bubble wrap, seals it shut . . . and when I open it a few days later, undoing their handiwork, my children squeal with delight as they take turns popping the bubble wrap. Thirty minutes of free entertainment and childcare, courtesy of the Amazon people.

Ah, that glorious sound, the bizarre, inexpressible joy of squishing those tiny air pockets, feeling the air bulge between your fingertips just before the seal bursts, and hearing the crackly little pip . . . pip-pop . . . pop-pop-puhpuh-pop-crrrack. That sound—it never gets old. The day I stop enjoying bubble-wrap popping is the day my soul has died and life is no longer worth living.

Today I mailed a copy of The Thirteenth Summer to someone whose stamp of approval could make a significant difference in my writing career. I folded up my handwritten note, tucked my business card and press release inside the book—arranged them just so—and sealed it all inside a padded envelope, my heart thumping just a little faster.

Fragile.

Handle with care.

As I handed the package to the friendly FedEx lady behind the counter, I almost grabbed her by the shoulders and said, “You’re holding my future in your hands. DON’T LOSE IT!” But, not wanting to freak her out, or get arrested for assault, I just smiled. What power this woman—whose name I may never know—holds! As I walked out of the chilly air-conditioned office, feeling my skin recoil for a moment in the shock of the sweltering Georgia humidity, I thought, “I’m not the only one.” Everyone who comes in here entrusts this woman with part of their family, their work, their life. She is helping to deliver our ambitions, our hopes—our bubble-wrapped dreams—to other people who could change our lives. I wonder if she is philosophical enough to appreciate what her job really means.

It’s July, but in the spirit of Christmas in July, my three-year-old son has already made me write a letter to Santa: “Dear Santa, Please bring me a light-up Buzz Lightyear for Christmas. Love, Blake.”

Blake calls the letter his “ticket”—and that’s pretty much how he thinks it works. You write your letter to Santa, and it’s like a claim ticket, because of course Santa will bring you whatever you ask for. I keep imagining the postal workers’ amused expressions, their surprised chuckles, when they find a letter to Santa in July. What will they do with it? Will somebody bother to write him back?

And while Blake will be miserable, waiting six months for Christmas—an incomprehensible eternity in the life of a three-year-old, one-sixth of his life span thus far!—I somehow find joy in the waiting period that “snail mail” entails. Mailing something off, the agony of awaiting a reply, or a delivery . . . it’s an exquisite torture, an experience that our instant-gratification, overnight-delivery lifestyle is robbing from our children. Remember Ralphie in “A Christmas Story,” racing to the mailbox every day for weeks, wondering if his Little Orphan Annie decoder had arrived? I know exactly how he felt. I still love that feeling: The joy of anticipation. Something to wake up for every morning. Hope.

Mail . . . call me sentimental, but it feels like modern magic to me. And that makes the mailman—or mailwoman, in our case (mail lady? mail mistress? woman who delivers stuff to people?)—a wizard of sorts. Or maybe a fairy godmother or an elf.

Whatever her actual title, I have to remember to give our non-male mail person a good tip this Christmas. After all, she holds my future—and Blake’s Buzz Lightyear—in her hands.