The Mailbox

This is a story about boxes: IN and MAIL.

Now, I’ve got no problem telling you that I’m better at checking my inbox than my mailbox.

The mailbox — as a business owner who works from home — is a necessary evil. A series of numbers and a street name to tell the governments that I legit exist. A place to send my OFFICIAL NOTICES. I mean, it also keeps my home address away from folks who think I’m the kind of person who’d be keen on someone just “popping in” to say hello (no).

I check my mailbox so infrequently that they call me and tell me to come pick that shit up. Pretty sure the UPS Store has me on speed dial, and the button is labeled “The Girl Who Never Gets Her Shit.”

But that mailbox — it’s a good bet. Here in Chicago, box theft is a sport (especially around the holidays when the pickings are plenty and the summer months where days are long and warm). I feel for Amazon and all the claims they must process. I’d received a call from a neighbor before I sold my condo that there were two boxes in our alley ripped open with my name on them (thank you, neighbor). Seems the thieves had no interest in dog food and a new crate for Ms. Penelope — a smaller one than the massive one she shared with her Potamus.


Yet I promised you a story about boxes. IN and MAIL.

Today’s Hard Truth is about BOXES. The ones we put people in and the messages we receive from them.

A couple of years ago, a reader reached out to me to tell me about his daughter. She was at Ringling College of Design, and the reads-too-fast part of me thought CLOWN. Mostly because I grew up with Ringling Bros. as part of my childhood and we’d taken a family field trip to the Clown College in Sarasota when I was half as vulgar and twice as short.

But it didn’t matter. The force of thought that came through this email — this DAD talking about HIS DAUGHTER — I had to respond. I can only hope I was gracious. Inviting. Encouraging. And frankly, excited about any parent who was giving their kid the supportive gusto required when the words I WANT TO BE AN ARTIST get dropped in their laps.

Doctor. Lawyer. Teacher. Engineer. Management Consultant. Developer. Auto Mechanic. Hairdresser. See, those are futures that come with a certain level of…well, endurance. Oomph. Like, you’re going to be able to whip open the CareerBuilder website or classifieds and find something. Somehow. Nothing’s rock-solid, but when you tell folks you’re one of those things, they get it. They have a box to put you in.

ARTIST. No box. Lots of explaining. Muddy answers. Little certainty and a lot of What If. We’re the people who use imagination as leverage to change the way people see the world. We bend words, light, and sound. Transform old into never-before-seen. Basically, we spend a lot of time explaining to people that we’re not waiters and baristas — even though those gigs might be what keeps the rent paid so we have a space to create.

So for this…GUY. To tell me about his daughter and feel from however many thousand miles away that he was 100% on board with this journey of hers…

Well, it got me in the feels. So I replied. This Guy had asked to buy a copy of my book. I sent him one for free. Added one of my Why I Swear So Much posters and signed it for her. Natalie. Hoping she’d find her way through not just school, but out into the real world knowing the value of her art, brand, and voice.

And the updates kept coming.

A demo reel. The news that his daughter was up for a post-grad internship at Marvel (like, GUH — my dream story cave and universe). That she’d scored the internship. A connection to cheap housing for artists in NYC and following her first foray into REAL WORLD WORK.

On her own.

Parents behind her. Proud.

And I’m admittedly not a parent. I don’t know what it’s like to see the collision of your DNA grow into an adult. The pain and joy of seeing that creation learn, fail, stumble, step up, and succeed.

It just struck me that this guy dug what I did so much that he shared the most precious and personal piece of his heart with me: the hopes he had for his daughter, The Artist, in a world where many would prefer their kids to follow that want-ads-friendly path. Because they care. They want their kids to be secure. Never want. To not know the crushing blow of staring down retirement and wondering if you’ll ever retire or just work less and less until you can’t work anymore because you’re physically not able.

All parents want better for their kids. And here was a parent fully invested in his daughter’s path to BETTER…being through her art.

Natalie. Her art.

I met her and her dad in a box labeled IN.

And yesterday, I met them both in a box labeled MAIL.

Natalie’s dad had asked me for my mailing address and said a package was en route. I didn’t make it before the Christmas holiday because time and life and basically I’m not going to remember to go to my mailbox unless there’s a check waiting for me. I’ll sort through the U-Line catalogs (holy fuck, you order something ONCE from these guys and they will not stop it with the 1″-thick catalogs OMG OMG MAKE IT STOP) and nonprofit begging mailers and postcards from local theatres to find that one envelope and once it’s ripped open, check scanned and deposited via mobile, the rest goes in the recycle bin and I’m reminded why I love my box labeled “IN” so much more:

Zero waste.

Nevertheless, she persisted! I made it to my mailbox and got the promised U-Line catalog, a check (woo!), and a box of substantial dimension. Like, someone took the time to package this. Wrap it. This box was a pro job.

I chucked most of the mail, scanned the check, and gently laid the box in the back of the Fiat. It seemed fitting, a nice brown box taking up most of the space in the back of a nice brown Fiat.

I messaged dad: GOT THE BOX!

His wife messaged back: He’s in surgery!

And there I was, waiting at my own doctor’s office to have a metric shit ton of blood drawn. I sent well-wishes and brought the box inside as I got home last eve. I slid it behind the front door — out of the way of soggy boots and skidding pups.

And I forgot it was there. Until it was the first thing I saw this morning.

I walked the Small Dog (who hates snow and cold and booties on her paws and has, apparently, asked for a special rug she can pee on when it gets cold and both Clark Kent and I said no — she was not pleased). Un-bundled from our zero-degree morning.

And I opened the box that came from my mailbox, sent by someone whom I’d met in my inbox.

And this is what was inside.

Natalie Palumbo artwork


I’d always wanted to be a part of the Marvel Universe and this gal I’d never met had made it happen. In a Warhol-esque way, I could look at each square and see my Jessica Jones. Black Widow. She-Hulk.

And in the bottom right-hand corner…

Natalie Palumbo art 2

And I cried. Because two people whom I’d never met — never spoken with — took the best parts of me and re-imagined them and made me see myself as I’d never seen myself before.

So — thank you, Natalie. Rob (dad). Your mother/wife (Carolyn!) for not thinking it’s creepy that your dad/husband is emailing some redheaded writer woman in Chicago. For trusting me with your story. Journey. Hopes. Dreams laid bare for the world to see. Your investment in art as a probability, not merely a possibility. The insistence that the A plan is THE plan.

And for reminding me that boxes are meant to be punched through. Perhaps visited a bit more often to realize that if we respect them for what they are (a beginning) we’ll better be able to see the potential they hold.

When you bend what is, you have the power to change the world.

Thank you, Natalie, for bending my world. And for Rob — for sending an email to a random woman’s inbox, using a box (computer), landing in my mailbox, and letting me open this box today.

PS: If you’d like to check out Natalie’s work — she’s a startling motion graphics designer — have a stop by her Vimeo page. When you wonder where all those neat animations come from in your favorite movies and TV shows, it’s folks like her who bring them to life.

Love it? Get more (digital) Erika.

or subscribe the
old fashioned way