Community members share letters of praise and grief and become stronger in the process
In the aftermath of the destruction and tragedy caused by the Thomas Fire and mudslides that followed, one local artist was inspired to help her community address their grief.
From this act of love and empathy sprang the Story Catcher Mailbox — a living piece of public art that continues to give people in the South Coast the opportunity to express both their praise and their grief years after the initial shock of unexpected tragedy.
The concept of the piece is simple on its face. One writes a letter expressing either their grief or praise for something occuring — or perhaps has occurred or they fear will occur — in their life. They then deposit it into a 7-and-a-half-foot mailbox located at 609 State St. in front of Wylde Works in Santa Barbara, and their letter is read aloud to community members and whoever else may wander in to imbibe in Wylde Works’ home-crafted honey-centric and kombucha adult beverages.
But according to organizer Danielle Siano, this simple act has a much more profound meaning on those who participate than would initially meet the eye.
“It’s happening to you when you write it down, but then when you hear it, it’s a different kind of connection,” Ms. Siano told the News-Press. “You’re able to become the witness of something instead of being enmeshed in it, and I think that’s a really big part of freeing oneself from their story.”
Even those who choose to simply express their feelings in writing without hearing their letter read aloud, Ms. Siano believes that the project still helps individuals begin the healing process to overcome grief.
“We’re being asked to trust when we let something go, and we don’t always get to see how it works out in the end,” she said. “By writing the letter, that process has begun … So as soon as someone connects with themself and takes that very first step, they’ve started something. They’re on that path, and that’s the important part — and (Story Catcher Mailbox) is an invitation to start that path.”
In addition to letters of grief, Ms. Siano wanted to ensure that letters of praise would also be included in the project.
While these two expressions seem contrasting at first, Ms. Siano was inspired by a book — “The Smell of Rain on Dust” by Martín Prechtel — to see the interconnected nature of these seemingly disparate emotions.
“(Grief and Praise) are really rooted in the core essence of life itself,” she said. “What are we here for? We’re here to love, and built into that is the impermanence of love and the ultimate loss of things and people we love. When we experience the loss of what we loved, it’s because we loved and praised it so much — there’s a relationship to how much we love them to how much pain we feel.”
When the News-Press attended one of Story Catcher Mailbox’s events at Wylde Works, there were plenty of letters expressing both grief and praise on a range of subjects that almost any person could understand either first-hand or through empathy.
Letters of an older soul expressing regret for not doing what they could have; words from a young person lamenting the lack of commitment and monogamy in the Santa Barbara dating scene; an ode to the natural beauty of Santa Barbara; and words of encouragement written to one’s younger self to urge them to go on, and that things get better.
Far from an easily-satirized college slam poetry event, the feeling that comes from attending one of Story Catcher Mailbox’s readings is pure — with both letters of praise and letters of grief having a visible impact on those who attend.
In a time when news of our lives and our loved ones, both good and bad, are often delivered through social media feeds, the Story Catcher Mailbox provides an avenue to both celebrate and grieve individually, and as a community.