Friday, April 30, 2010


Last night I wrote a letter to A, my 2 ½-year-old niece. When I started this project and was compiling my list of names, I included my two nephews (ages 13 and 5) and niece, figuring it would be easy enough to write them letters.

It was, and wasn't. Sure I could keep the subjects (this summer's family reunion, her cousin--my son's--favorite toys at daycare) light and skip any deep insights, but I also had to choose short, recognizable words. I was reminded of a job I once had where, to meet the requirements of a government contract, I had to convert a quarterly newsletter completely to a 6th-grade reading level. Harder than it sounds.

As I was writing the letter to A, I kept in mind that it was not she who would be reading it, but her father or mother reading it to her. And, honestly, to A more excitement probably lie in learning that something in the mailbox was addressed to her, than in actually hearing it read.

I also resisted the temptation to make a deeply meaningful tome, along the lines of, "The world is full of beauty and surprises, and I wish them all for you ..." Maybe this will be OK for the 13-year-old, but I doubt that by the time the letter would mean anything to A, that she would still have it. Better to wait until she is older and write her another.

Still, the process of writing to A was a fun one, in that I imagined her excitement in receiving a letter and was excited to share this fading experience with her. I remembered how elated I was to receive mail as a child (a couple pen pal relationships and a several-year correspondence with a cousin served to feed the need) and hoped maybe A would someday find that same thrill:

"Hopefully the art of the handwritten note won't be totally replaced by e-mail when you're old enough to write ..."

In writing to A, I also recalled fond memories of my own childhood with my brother, her father. In mentioning the long winter where A lives, I told her about sledding on the big hill behind our house with her daddy. Telling her to get along with her brother, I told her to ask her daddy someday about the "secret code" he and I had to try not to make our own parents mad. (It involved chickens, I told her.)

Writing the letter served as an unexpected reminder of how my brother and I are now creating for our families the same cherished memories our parents did for us. How is history repeating itself in your life?

Sunday, April 25, 2010


Yesterday, in addition to writing a letter to my friend J, whose name I pulled from THE LETTER JAR, I also wrote to my mother. I had been meaning to write her ever since she stayed with me and my husband when our son was 3 weeks old. He'll turn 6 months old on Thursday--it was time.

J and my mother have never met and know nothing of each other's stories. Yet a consistent theme emerged: that life rarely turns out the way we expect, and we ought to be singing praises for that.

In the case of J, I introduced him to my friend P. They married a week after I wed my first husband; our union lasted five years, theirs just six months:

I'm not sure I should apologize for introducing you to your first wife--I had no way of knowing how that would all turn out--but I do want to say I'm sorry for the pain you had to endure. I do know for myself, I can now consider my first marriage ... just part of my journey to where I am now. Probably sounds like the basis for yet another country ballad, but I do believe it's true--I wouldn't be who I am, here, without having been who I was, there ... I hope that you too have reconciled the journey that has led to the happiness you have found with N.

Writing to my mother, I echoed the sentiments of the uncharted journey--the two months I lived with her and my dad after my divorce at age 34 certainly was not part of my plan. Desire for a family had in part led to the demise of my first marriage; yet back in those days, I couldn't know if I would actually have the child I wanted. My decision to pursue a family--something I know my mother had always wanted for me but had resigned herself to never seeing--also coincided with her diagnosis of stage IV breast cancer. There lurked an unspoken fear that perhaps she would not live to experience the birth of my child:

Let's face it: I was quite naturally a mess [when she came to stay with us]--an achy, tired, oft-unshowered, bladder-leaking mess--but I also would not trade those days we shared for anything. Of course I am grateful for the wisdom you shared in terms of caring for a newborn, but more than that there was something special, intangible really, in sharing the miraculous beauty of my new child with my own mother. I will never forget it.

The insight that you can map out your life, only to come to a bridge that's out and have to take a detour that leads to great experiences you otherwise might not have had, is nothing new. Hearing such a truism in song, however, simply cannot compare to realizing it for yourself. To honor your unique path is to transform regret--over choices you've made, people you've been--into praise. And THE LETTER JAR project has been nothing if not a travelogue of the places my own journey has wended through. How might your life's stops look different through a lens of gratitude?

Friday, April 23, 2010

Risk, Reward and Recognition

Today I received in the mail a letter from T, a friend to whom I wrote a few weeks ago. I had told T how she inspired me by rising above her divorce--an ugly split precipitated by her husband's cheating--with such dignity and grace. T has moved on with a new husband and two beautiful boys who, as I told her, are so lucky to have her as their mama:

... One thing I've realized as I've written these letters ... is that there are so many lessons I've learned from my friends ... And one of those lessons ... is that life doesn't always turn out like you planned, and might just be the very best thing. I hope to share with my son the idea that sometimes you just have to hang in and trust you're on your way to somewhere good, even if the road seems to be rolling straight through hell ...

T responded
with a lovely note of her own, relating how she has shared with others my story of leaving my first marriage in order to find someone who wanted children, and how that decision has worked out in the best way possible:

... I really admired you for taking a risk for something you knew was important to you. Not everyone would be willing to do that and would instead be unhappy on some level and most likely wonder "what if" ... there's another cliche I've come to believe in life-- nothing worthwhile comes easily ...

Her words at the end of a frustrating week during which I struggled, away from my infant son for hours a day at a job I don't really enjoy, and reinvigorated my pursuit of new dreams for myself and my family. I also got a sense of what I might be giving other people with my words. T and other recipients have acknowledged my letters, saying they came "at the best time" and "made me cry--a good cry!"

It's true: we want to be validated for what we've accomplished. And in writing my letters of praise--to a 14-year-old girl trying out for the football team, a recovering alcoholic in his 20th-plus year of sobriety, my brother accelerating in his career--I am myself informed, impelled and inspired.

A Buddhist proverb says that when the student is ready, the teacher will appear. If we believe that we are actually surrounded by our teachers, then we as students have become ready--the lessons are all that remain to be discovered. What, and from whom, are you learning today?

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

The Origins of This Project

First came the letters.

I was inspired to embark upon this letter-writing project when, one day, I was once again playing around on Facebook and clicked that I “liked” something my friend "M" had done.

It struck me in that moment that M was the person with whom I spent the first several hours after the 9/11 attacks. Released for the day from our jobs, we sat in a coffee shop in Albuquerque and talked about the state of mankind and what it might all mean. We had in each other solace and understanding on one of humanity’s bleakest days.

So when I found myself clicking that “like” button in response to M's post (I seem to recall she became a “fan” of National Public Radio), it hit me: was this what now stood in for communication? Had we really gone from sharing real words and emotions and experiences to the impersonal click of a mouse?

I wondered: what might happen if I attempted to return to "real communication?" Pen and paper communication, in the tradition of Plath and Woolf and de Tocqueville and Jefferson (can you imagine if he had Facebooked from France? "Thomas Jefferson became a fan of the

An idea was born. Over the next several days, I began collecting names--
friends new and old, family nuclear and extended, coworkers, teachers, mentors and old flames, even a former landlady and a handful of famous people who had influenced me personally or professionally.

And so I wrote. On Feb. 14, 2010, I composed my first letter, to a couple who were my colleagues at my very first job. Then it was an old roommate. Then the mother of a childhood friend and a former boss. Soon, I'd written--and sent--an astonishing 64 letters.

Then came the blog.

At first it seemed counterintuitive--blogging about traditional communication? But the more I thought, the more it seemed like the right idea. I wanted to share widely the amazing insight and gratitude I have gained from this project, and let's face it: the Internet is the way to do that.

My hope is that the blog will play out just as the letters have: sometimes predictably, more often in ways I could never anticipate.