Originally published on TEDxWilmington.com

Alessandra Nicole for TEDxWilmingtonLive, Photograph by Joe Del TufoSome of you here know that I lost my grandmother in February and that we had been pen pals for more than twenty years. What you may not know is that our relationship deepened 100% because of that paper letter exchange. She was severely hard of hearing growing up and my memories of her are peppered with the sound of her hearing aids screeching from feedback because she had them turned up so high. My five cousins had siblings they fought with and through it learned to speak up for what they wanted and to be heard when it counted. I was a sensitive only child that was intimidated by all of that, and thus my grandmother knew my cousins better than she knew me for many years, because I was so quiet around her and we didn’t know how to reach one another.

When I went away to college and she sent me the first letter there, suddenly I had a way to fully communicate the all of me. Our relationship became very vibrant and rich through an exchange that finally allowed me to be fully seen and heard. And, being six states away, having a letter come through the mail to me felt like getting a message in a bottle. Sitting with it in my hands felt like a hug. Seeing her handwriting and reading it with her voice in my head felt like a kiss on my homesick heart.

I think about children today who only have email at their fingertips; an oxymoron because what do they actually touch? When communication is via popcorn text message and Instagram photo caption and emotions are summed up by animated gifs and emojis, how much authentic communication is actually happening? But what I really think about are the sensitive children who are having trouble connecting with others in their very family and are missing out on developing connected and meaningful relationships, are missing out on being truly seen and heard, are missing out on bonding with another generation of their own family.

I invite you to celebrate National Letter Writing Day with me on Friday, December 7th and write a letter to someone near or far in your life. It could even be to someone who lives right under the same roof as you! I’m talking a letter, not just a card, on a piece of paper, more than two paragraphs long. Fold it up, seal it up in an envelope, put a stamp on it, and send it through the mail. Tell me about it, if you want. pen@paperletterexchange.com

Letter writing causes even the busiest and most frenetic of minds to slow down and think through concepts and thoughts with great consideration. According to an article published by the Guardian, “Pens and keyboards bring into play very different cognitive processes. ‘Handwriting is a complex task which requires various skills – feeling the pen and paper, moving the writing implement, and directing movement by thought,’ says Edouard Gentaz, professor of developmental psychology at the University of Geneva. ‘Children take several years to master this precise motor exercise: you need to hold the scripting tool firmly while moving it in such a way as to leave a different mark for each letter.’

Operating a keyboard is not the same at all: all you have to do is press the right key. It is easy enough for children to learn very fast, but above all the movement is exactly the same whatever the letter. ‘It’s a big change,’ says Roland Jouvent, head of adult psychiatry at Pitié-Salpêtrière hospital in Paris. ‘Handwriting is the result of a singular movement of the body, typing is not.”

Letter writing helps develop and reinforce vocabulary and language skills, creativity and humor through metaphor creation, and delivers dopamine to the nervous system that lasts much longer than hearing a text alert or seeing a red heart indicator on an app. Letter writing has been described as natural ritalin and natural prozac. It also helps one deal better with difficult times. And receiving a letter to read: the same. The connecting from the brain to eye to hand to pen to paper is a cognitive one that delivers a host of long term benefits in the act itself, and when practiced regularly can even become spiritual, meditative, divine. You are present and therefore become a channel between the subconscious and conscious, letter writing is a cleansing therapy and a zen art. And once all of the physical, mental, and spiritual benefits are added up.. there’s more.

Letter writing helps a mentally sharp ninety year old widowed man who can’t walk anymore and has been left to exist the rest of his days in a dismal nursing home feel alive, seen, heard, thought of, cared for, and like he matters. It helps a quiet woman a third his age connect to him and ask him all the questions about his countless adventures through life. It could help a child gain insight into world history and geography and economics and politics and all things romance. It could help a parent connect with an estranged daughter and make amends. It could take a new romance to the next level. It could help a prisoner feel like a person who counts again. It could help a child grow into a special bonded relationship with a grandmother that will shine on in her heart which will spill onto all those around her long after the ashes have been laid to rest. I’ve seen it all happen.

Those conversations, even if they are not cross generational but peer to peer, will never have the same quality in the context of an Facebook message or a Snapchat story. They will hardly have the lasting power and the artifact quality. They will hardly have the gravity, the connection, and they certainly will not do much to develop the cognitive, educational skills, and deliver the long term positive physiological benefits to which letter writing lends itself. Handwriting letters does something the keyboard and tapping letters on a smartphone touch screen will never, ever be able to do.

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See Alessandra Nicole’s TEDx talk HERE.

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How do you express love to someone you care for when you are NOT with them? Is analog letter writing obsolete in this era of digital technology? In the wake of her grief from losing a loved one, Alessandra Nicole makes an appeal for tangible handwritten letters as artifacts of value and permanence. Pen pals and building connected relationships over time through the mail is a way of sharing that has lasting impact where communicating via social media falls short.

Time length: 9:50, April 28th 2018

díreach ag dul trí

October 6, 2018

The first time ever I saw your face, dreamy green island 🍀 An iPhone snap will never be able to do justice to my very first glimpse of Ireland . My eyes were as misty as this coastline realizing my epic solo EU adventure was about to begin. First country of three this sojourn!

I did a 32hr layover in Dublin and saw the Book of Kells at Trinity College, took in some beautiful works of art at the National Museum, walked along the River Liffey and did some time lapse photography on the Ha’penny Bridge, strolled St. Stephen’s Green, and braved energetic Temple Bar on a Friday night.

And then I was gone. ✈️

…that got a standing ovation and made friends, strangers, and our host cry. 👀 The toughest thing I’ve done and biggest risk I’ve taken in almost ten years. The response has overwhelmed me and made my heart sing. Still taking it all in…

photos: Bob Turner and Patrick Carmody

Read about my journey:

my first blog for TEDxWilmington

my second blog for TEDxWilmington

New York City skyline Photographs by Alessandra Nicole

A woman like me alone in a city like this spells trouble, which is presumed, and I wish that you were here for the adventure. I love New York City like I will never again love any inanimate object that seems real and breathing to me, she embraces me every time, my passionate lesbian lover.

I am seated in patient anticipation. I hear her voice from afar only to come around the curve after Newark and see her brightly dyed hair tumble upon the nape of her bone-white neck in the form of the latest color scheme on the top of the Empire State Building. Her hands stretch out to greet me with a different bauble for every finger of her warm-heart-cold-hands. I leave the train, climb the escalator, step through the automatic doors to 8th Avenue, and am intertwined with her once more. She steals my breath into her mouth and slaps me across the face with her icy January winds for not calling. I love her with all of my heart and I let her seduce me, caressing every part of me, until I look at my cell phone and see it’s after midnight and someone else is awaiting my arrival.

She pouts with her arms suddenly folded, the black lace strap of her bra slipping down over her shoulder, and I put my finger to her blood red lips, Shh, not tonight, but I will be back tomorrow. I’m just as disappointed to leave as she is to see me go, onto the ferry, where she closes her eyes in sorrow like a woman who knows she’s the Other One in my life, and I realize some of her glittering eyeshadow has rubbed off on my cheek. A man next to me thinks I am crying, and maybe I am a little teary at the heartstopping way her skyline is sparkling like a pulsating mix of champagne and meteors; he offers me a handkerchief.

Anyone would be jealous of the way I dream of her at night, the way I think about her throughout days away. In the morning, she awakes me with the memory of her warm deep kisses and here I sit at 9:30am, plotting the hour when I will steal away to my secret lover New York City. Oh, if only you could see us when we’re together…

words ©️Alessandra Nicole 2004

bits from Abiquiú

May 11, 2017

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Ghost Ranch, NM, near Abiquiú in Rio Arriba County in north central New Mexico

In March / April of this year I was able to explore the same hallowed ground that painter Georgia O’Keeffe celebrated in many of her works. Ghost Ranch was a restorative sojourn. Red faced mountains amplified the fiery sunrises and sunsets and stood protectively in silhouette when the navy night revealed billions of stunning pinholes to heaven. Free of many distractions, I spent my days on horseback admiring the landscape, in hot springs, and in my sketchbook.

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follow Alessandra on Instagram @Alessandra_Official

A few weeks ago I visited a dear friend and photography colleague, Jerry Irwin, who was placed in hospice care. He tasked me with a great project, to gather his slides and do a few things for him with them. The return of cancer had recently paralyzed him from the waist down (“It’s a bitter pill, I tell ya,” he said) and I accepted the project because I felt maybe it would be something to help keep his sharp mind going. 

“I have a business proposition for you young lady,” said a very special man from his hospital bed- of course whatever came out of his mouth next would not be anything I would turn down. 

And so I went to the studio where I gathered some of the best of his life’s work that had been stored there in slide form, and brought them with me to my drawing desk for cataloging, archiving, plan-making.


Hopelessly optimistic me didn’t fathom that we wouldn’t have months to work on this together, that we wouldn’t have many more conversations peppered with his nuanced vernacular, many more milkshakes from the Charcoal Pit, many more laughs. I was able to visit him just two more times before he passed away yesterday morning, four months and some days shy of his 81st birthday. I came to see him on Valentine’s Day and the doctors already had him in an induced “twilight state”; I just squeezed his arm softly and left, in shock at how quickly it was all happening, stunned that I couldn’t come to him with my questions about our project anymore, that that was it. 

Jerry’s work is iconic. Quintessential. He lived amongst the Amish for years and gained their trust to the extent that they allowed him to take photos of their children. He traveled the world. He rode with the Pagans and he did thousands of sky dives, even lost an eye to one. And because his ashes will be spread during an “ash jump” by his best buddies in skydiving in lieu of a formal memorial service, I will share my favorite memories of knowing this plucky Irish guy the past five years here, in my space. (And please forgive my scattered thoughts; the experience is still moving through and changing me.) 

Four of us went to see Toots and the Maytals at the Tocadero in Philly a couple of summers ago. Two left Jerry and I in the balcony to go get a round of drinks for us all before the show started. 

Looking after them as they walked away, Jerry turned to me and asked, “Where are those two off to?” and I answered, “I think they’re going to the bar.” “Well, …why?” he said, reaching down to his ankle where he pulled two little airplane bottles of liquor out of his sock! Ha!! 

He was my absolute favorite rockabilly punk and his work will not only live on, it will also educate and inspire the next waves of photographers. It’s been an education sitting at my desk here with some of his greatest work in front of me the past three weeks and I’ve learned a lot from him at the studio (and on the birthday sushi dates he would take us on each fall.) 

His pragmatic views on life and passion and dedication to his subjects- the way he would live with a subject for years and really get inside of it- so much meat and marrow there the rest of us as documentarians, historians, social anthropologists, and general observers can learn from. Jerry to me was a national treasure and those that knew him know he was far too humble to ever hear me when I said it to him. Grounded, salt to the earth, decent, completely open and generous with whatever he had. He’d leave two pieces of the best carrot cake on earth in the fridge at Northbrook for us to find when we returned from travel as a thank you for letting him stay when actually he was the one doing US the favor keeping an eye on things while we were away. 

I don’t know why everything feels like it’s a Grand Canyon away and also like it’s right on the other side of my cheek sometimes, how my raw heart could feel like it’s made of wood at the moment with this small hollow place inside of it, but I know that Jerry’s next grand adventure involves much bluer skies than today’s, and that this profound body of work sitting in front of me that allows me to see this world through his eyes has even more gravity and beauty, is even more vivid and eternal, and blessed. 


I took this snapshot of Jerry taking a snapshot of me at his 80th birthday dinner late last June. Longtime friend Chris at the left and longtime love Janice at the right. 

So put on some Mott the Hoople, crack open a beer, and think of our friend Jerry for a bit this eve.