DUNEDIN — A few steps away from where the Pinellas Trail cuts through downtown, a mailbox stands apart. Someone has affixed it to a wooden railing, set back from the businesses, and hand-painted its purpose on its side: “Love letters.”
Inside a spiral notebook awaits, along with a pen. An invitation to write from the heart, not knowing who might see it. Dozens have. The letters come from those pining and mourning, from puppy-lovers and hard-won romantics. They’re addressed to the beloved, the crushed-on, the absent, the dead. And, really, to anyone who cares to stop for a moment and read.
Daynie Cutler put the mailbox here. Two years ago, 17 years old and reeling from a breakup, Cutler started posting mailboxes like this one in half-hidden spots around Pinellas County. It was something to do, during a time when nothing else felt good.
On a recent afternoon, she checked on the Dunedin mailbox. It doesn’t get as much action as some of the others, but for some reason it gets some of the best notes.
To my beloved grandmother, one begins, it’s been two years since I last saw you, physically, but I see you in everything around me every day. The cardinals or blue jays that perch in the trees outside my window, or the butterflies that flutter by as I walk to work …
This past year with you has been the best time of my life, goes another. Just know that you will always have a special place in my heart along with our beautiful angel that’s watching over us.
And a third: Hours away, but we still try. Feels like fate. Feels like love. Maybe it’s both. Let’s beat the odds.
It started with one mailbox. After the breakup she started taking daily trips to Hallett Park in Belleair, a place she calls “the cliffs,” a thin strip of green that drops suddenly before the blue expanse of the Intracoastal Waterway. She was sitting there one day when the idea hit her.
The seed of the idea — a love letter depository — had come years earlier, far back enough Cutler doesn’t remember its origins. She relished the sweetness of expressing feelings in a physical form. There was something in the slowness of writing by hand, the required intentionality, that satisfied her in a way firing off a text or a social media post didn’t.
She set up the mailbox at the cliffs with a notebook, a pen and an introductory letter. Even if nobody used it, she figured, checking it every day would give her something to do.
Within a week, people were leaving notes. In the first month, a man wrote a letter to his late daughter, and Cutler began to understand the potential of the mailbox.
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“I remember thinking how incredible it was that he felt comfortable writing that in this book, that he had no idea who was going to see it, how many people would read it,” she said. “He needed an outlet to express his love to someone who he wouldn’t get a chance to (see) in person again.”
Cutler was on to something, she realized: She had created a safe place for people to say what they felt, and with it an invisible web of strangers, connected by their willingness to lay themselves bare. She began to feel in tune with the world.
Through Craigslist, she bought 30 mailboxes that had been taken down during an apartment building renovation. She started putting them up, half-hidden along trails or nestled in the downtowns of Pinellas’ smaller cities, three or four at any given time. Partners spoke to each other on adjacent pages. Kids described their favorite places to play. Older writers dispensed wisdom.
In neat, precise all-caps: It’s okay to still love each other. You are allowed to love anyone even someone who isn’t your partner anymore.
In a 10-year-old’s shaky, blocky letters: I love this spot and I love climbing the tree. It is quiet and peaceful.
In a blue-pen scrawl: I’m here fishing with my son … Life’s been rough been on drugs shooting and smoking I’m getting clean and getting into religion I love both (my) wife and kid they are my inspiration to getting sober.
Since her project began, Cutler says, she’s collected more than 1,000 love letters in all, an anonymous catalog of want, heartache and vulnerability.
A few months ago, Daniel Jimenez was visiting the spot where, not long before, he had spread a friend’s ashes. It was off a short trail in Dunedin, marked by a tree that had fallen, perhaps in a storm, and found a way to keep growing. The branches looked like roots, the roots like branches, “like something out of a Tarzan movie.”
And there was a mailbox. If it had been there on his last visit, he hadn’t noticed it. Now he opened it, found the notebook and started writing about his late friend, an older man who drove a Mustang convertible and kept his Christmas tree up all year long.
The two had met in Alcoholics Anonymous, said Jimenez, 55, who’s now 20 years sober. The friend had taught him “how to connect with human beings.” He had been a constant reader, endlessly interested in other people’s stories. Jimenez read through the love letters and felt connected to him. He wondered if his friend’s spirit had something to do with Cutler choosing the spot for a mailbox.
“I think he’s got a smile in his heart,” he said.
Sometimes Cutler finds mailboxes smashed or vanished, or notebooks stolen. For whatever loss she feels for the letters she never got to read, she said, it also underscores the project’s nature. Most people are writing letters to those who will never see them, and the point is less about the physical notebook than it is the shared experience.
She plans to add more mailboxes around Tampa Bay and maybe beyond — earlier this year, she bought a 1972 Volkswagen Westfalia. She sees herself traveling the country, putting up mailboxes as she goes and building a network of others to care for them.
She maintains an Instagram account, @lovelettersmailbox, with up-to-date locations, but she doesn’t post pictures of the letters. Making them so easy to access, without even really trying, would defeat the purpose. When someone stumbles across a mailbox accidentally or goes there intent on writing or reading, it’s something real.
When Cutler put up her first mailbox, it was a life raft. Checking for new letters was something she could get excited about. Now, she said, the mailboxes are one source of joy among many in her life. They have helped her believe in love a little bit more, and to be softer and more open to the world.
“A lot of people don’t want advice,” she said. “They just want someone to listen to them.”
That’s a way of loving, too.
I’m older now so I can say with absolute certainty there is nothing greater than love. Love yourself first, wholly and fiercely, and that will transcend to all around you. Love each other even when the world breaks your heart — it will, love anyway. Forgive easily … I love you.