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COVID letters project chronicles loneliness, makes it a bit easier to bear

Three young women are collecting letters about social isolation and have gotten more than 35,000 responses.

A portion of a work submitted to the Dear Loneliness project by Sanna Legan, a 20-year-old artist in Pittsburgh.
A portion of a work submitted to the Dear Loneliness project by Sanna Legan, a 20-year-old artist in Pittsburgh.Sanna Legan/dear loneliness project

In quick, shaky handwriting, centered on a creased eggshell-colored page, a letter starts: “Dear Loneliness, Usually when people say ‘you’re all I have’ it’s a statement about reliance or love, but when I say it to you while the moon sets, I hate you so much.” This letter is one of over 35,000 from around the world that high school senior Sarah Lao and Harvard University students Carissa Chen and Jessica Lao have collected since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, for reasons both academic and artistic.

Their Dear Loneliness project, which is still taking submissions, will serve partly as a historical archive of this peculiar, isolating moment in time, documenting what people were reckoning with as the tentacles of a pandemic crept across the globe. Without such a collection, the ephemeral nature of how most people communicate now — in texts, Instagram stories, and on Zoom — would make it difficult for future generations to understand. A handwritten letter, on the other hand, offers a lasting and individualized record, although the project’s creators have accepted typed submissions, and even art, videos, and songs.

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“This might be a way to capture the cultural reaction to COVID, or things that usually would go unsaid,” says Jessica Lao.

A letter sent to the Dear Loneliness project from Clara in Florida.
A letter sent to the Dear Loneliness project from Clara in Florida.HANDOUT

The three young women, who created the project with Harvard’s metaLAB, plan a public exhibition at some point. To depict the scale of the loneliness epidemic that has bloomed inside the viral pandemic, the exhibit will someday fill the walls of a room lined with mirrors.

What the co-founders — who are themselves artists and writers — have in mind conjures the AIDS Quilt, a handmade patchwork with panels bearing the names of those who succumbed to a different infectious virus: HIV. The quilt has, at various times since 1987, been laid out for public viewing on the National Mall in Washington. By 1996, it covered the 146-acre space end-to-end. It’s now the largest piece of folk art in the world, but it originated as handwritten cards affixed to walls — the walls of the San Francisco Federal Building.

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Sarah and Jessica Lao, who are sisters, say they weren’t aware of the AIDS Quilt when they, along with Chen, conceptualized their exhibit, showing that even as generational knowledge fades, the human need remains to use visual art to grapple with the scale of tragedies. But to be viewed safely by large groups of people, the art of Dear Loneliness will have to wait for the abatement of the moment the letters are documenting.

A letter sent to the Dear Loneliness project from Jessica, 20, of Colorado Springs.
A letter sent to the Dear Loneliness project from Jessica, 20, of Colorado Springs.HANDOUT

What’s surprised the co-founders of Dear Loneliness most is how many of the letters don’t mention the pandemic. It’s as if living through such extreme isolation this year is really just recalling the legacy of all the other lonely moments that collectively color a life — only this time around, there’s endless time to meditate on that. Several letters explain loneliness as a time for inward reflection, personal rebirth, re-prioritizing, creative focus, and freedom.

The letters most deeply rooted to this year’s pandemic come mostly from the youngest writers: 12- and 13-year-olds trying to work out how this will change them. Many students observe how much harder it is to learn in isolation and through digital tools, absent the social experiences that usually accompany school.

“Even though we have the Internet, we have texting, it’s really not a question of, ‘Can you communicate?’ it’s more like, ‘Do you have something to talk about?’” says Sarah Lao.

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When life refracts, as it has for now, the answer for a lot of people is no. But with Dear Loneliness, 35,000 writers seem to be remembering that when you stop buying, and moving, and doing so much, there’s still a lot left worth saying about what it means just to be human.

Julia Sklar is a journalist in Boston. Follow her on Twitter @jfsklar.