Sunday, May 30, 2010

The Gift of Words

This week I received a letter from S, a former boss to whom I wrote one of my very first letters in THE LETTER JAR project. I had written to S that my experience working for her was a model for how I want to behave as a supervisor.

"... You conveyed to me, without really even saying anything, a sense that you believed in me and trusted me. I can't begin to tell you how powerful that was--I may not have always had all the answers (and was willing to admit when I didn't) but you can be sure I was willing to work very, very hard for you ... There have been times when I have been tempted to start micromanaging but I remind myself that a little more trust may just yield better results. And it does--my employee rises to the occasion whenever I place my trust in her. So thank you for being a good mentor in that regard. (I'm sure my employee would thank you too)."

In a lovely letter to me, S replied that reading my letter was a "like a flashback" to the 4th floor of the building where we worked--the good times, the not-so-good times and members of her team she still misses.

"I can't adequately express how special your words of 'what I meant' to you. We often go through our stages of life and not know how we may have influenced those who we have touched. Thank you so much for the gift of your words!"

Thank you, S, for summing in yet another way what this project is all about. We do indeed get caught up--inevitably and necessarily--in the stages of our lives, but it's worth the time to let people know how they have influenced and touched you. In work as in play, it's not about where or how do it, or the money we make or spend doing it--it's about the lives we touch and are touched by.

BACK TO THE FUTURE: S, along with several others from whom I have received letters, have thanked me for taking the time to hand write a letter but have also asked for an e-mail address in order to communicate more frequently and easily share photos. Indeed, I should send along some pics with one of my half dozen or so e-mail accounts--my small contribution to the 2.9 billion worldwide!

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

You Can't Always Get What You Want

But if you try sometimes you might find ... You get what you need

Has that Stones line become a cliché (or maybe it was already one before they ever got their hands on it)?

The thing about a cliché ... well, there has to be a reason why it's been repeated over and over. Or so it would seem.

This morning before I went to work I finished a letter I'd started last night to K, a friend I met in college. If I'm being honest, K and I weren't really close friends--we got along well enough, but really we just hung out with our mutual friend, P.

The minute I began writing to K I knew there was a confession I would eventually have to make to her (and maybe, if I'm still being honest, that's why her name ended up in THE LETTER JAR). I started my letter as I have started many--explaining how I was writing 365 letters in 365 days, how I was aiming to reconnect with people in an "old fashioned" way. And I told her I included her on my list of names because I remember her being a part of some really fun memories--which is true. I recalled in particular a trip to Kansas City with her and P and some other friends to see Rush. I really do still laugh when I run across the pictures of all of us clowning around downtown before the show.

I also told K that I admired her for always being so calm and collected. During those college years when we were hanging out, I told her, I felt like an unmade bed most of the time (completely true) and I envied her poise and togetherness.

Then came the confession: I particularly envied her back then, I wrote, because I had a terrible crush on P. I felt that if I could just be more like K, I could win his affections. (I didn't win his affections, and it had nothing to do with how much I was or wasn't like K.)

And therein lies an instructive--albeit a little painful--byproduct of this project: owning up to wasted time and mistakes and forgiving myself for being foolish. I look back at that time now and wonder how my relationships with you and P might have been different had I not been so hung up on my feelings and wanting to be someone other than myself.

I noted that while I know I can't--nor would I want to--go back and change history, I can recognize upon reflection how I might have behaved differently and apply that lesson to my life now.

Not that I am in any situations of "romantic competition"--I am quite happily married ... but if I think about it, there are certainly situations where I am convinced I want a certain thing, and am pursuing it to the potential detriment of other possibilities. Were I to let go and be open to what might be, I could be surprised at what I discover. (Which, I suppose, is a paraphrasing of sorts of the Stones: "You Can't Always Get What You Want ...")

And it's true. (Like all good clichés.) Right now I most definitely have my mind set on how certain things should go in my marriage, in my job, in my life. I have to constantly remind myself to be open to other possibilities, to consider that I might be wrong about what the "best" outcomes are. Perhaps writing to K first thing in the morning--and seeing that truth in black and white--was the reason for my sunnier-than-usual mood today. Certainly motivates me to experiment with doing my letter writing in the a.m. hours.

I told K that I hoped my letter wasn't too weird or trippy for her.

It really has thrilled me to discover through this project the lessons I've been "taught" in my life--and the extent to which I have "learned" them--and I have people like you to thank for coming into my life in the first place and for being one of my letter recipients now.

Are there lessons that life is trying to teach you, but you haven't quite learned?

STRANGER THAN FICTION: I was reading the "10 Questions for" interview with Willie Nelson the other day in TIME, in which someone asked Willie if he had it to do all over again, would he do anything differently? Willie said he would be reluctant to change anything in the past because it would change where he is now, and he likes where he is now. I actually sighed aloud when I read that. Wisdom! From Willie! Who knew he was a sage? Read the whole interview for yourself and see what I mean.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Sharpened Focus

This morning I wrote a letter to J, whom I met in college through our campus ministry. In the first part of the letter I thanked her for her friendship: She is someone, I told her, on whom I could always rely to tell me the truth, have my best interests at heart and generally see things in the most positive light--characteristics valuable in any relationship but particularly apropos a couple years ago as I sought her firsthand advice and support as I struggled with issues of infertility. I also remarked that she is such a good role model for her daughter, something I know because she has also served as a good role model for me and others:

You are one of the first people I ever met who so fully embodied the idea of public service and brotherhood ... I have met few people who have your level of commitment to their fellow men and women and to the Earth. Even though it's been years since we've seen each other face to face, let alone day to day, I am still inspired by you to make wiser decisions about my use of resources and my impact on fellow humans. Thank you for serving that role in my life, as an example of less consuming and more giving.

At that point in the letter I then found myself giving my friend what turned out to be the most articulate assessment I've expressed so far of what this project has meant to me. First I told her, as I have others, that writing these letters has underscored the importance of recognizing the people in your life at any given moment and how they're shaping you as they share part of your life journey. But the words that rolled off my pen next persuade me that I have reached a new level of understanding of what that "recognizing people" really means:

It has been so interesting and enlightening to write to friends and family--people I've known practically since birth (I guess that would be my mom!) and those I've known a much shorter period of time, but who still have had an impact--and realize through reflection and exposition the lessons those relationships have taught me. I'm realizing how many people I have to thank for what I know and believe about hard work, fairness, appreciation and gratitude, expectations and, yes, love of fellow man, altruism and social and environmental responsibility.

Sitting there in my recliner this morning, writing the letter to J with my son sleeping in my arms, those words unexpectedly brought the significance of this project into sharp, clear focus--interestingly, at a time when my energy had started to flag somewhat. (Fulfilling a commitment to handwrite 365 letters in 365 days while working full time and raising an infant can be a little much, I've found, and being plagued with a nasty cold--as I was the last couple weeks--can make you question that promise, along with your sanity.)

Suddenly I am infused again with the same excitement I felt as I drew that very first name from THE LETTER JAR--I look forward to the realizations, recollections and recognitions that lie within my next 288 letters. And just as I know my drive will wane again, I am confident it will resurge too--and I look forward to experiencing how that happens.

UNEXPECTED BENEFIT: This project, perhaps not surprisingly, is improving my handwriting! Not that I've ever had what I (or the most likely critics, my teachers and employers) would consider terrible penmanship, but I've noticed that even the non-letterwriting activity for which I typically give little care to my script--meeting notes at work, grocery lists, forms completed for the DMV--is starting to take on a more legible, pleasing look. Only 253 days until next National Handwriting Day on Jan. 23--I've got a head start!

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Connection, Unexpected

Something that has not surprised me as I've pursued this project is how much better I am at expressing myself through the written word, be it handwritten or even electronic, than I am in person. I envy people who pirouette beautifully through all kinds of happy, sad and sticky social situations with seeming ease while I trip over my tongue.

What has come as a surprise is how the written word can actually open up face-to-face communication. Case in point: recently I learned that my coworker L's husband is recovering from a stroke he suffered a few months ago. I sent L a card to let her know I was thinking about her and praying for her and her family.

A word about L ... she can be a bit overwhelming. Her loud voice, curious nature and raucous laugh can just about knock you down sometimes. I will admit there have been moments, when working with L on a project or participating in a work activity, when I have thought to myself, "Oh L, please be quiet. PLEASE ..."

L is also one of the most authentic people you'll ever meet. She's loudly, curiously and raucously--happy. And kind, and sweet, and generous. Which is why it broke my heart to hear about her husband and I wanted to reach out--but do so from behind the safety of the paper and pen.

Yesterday I heard a knock at my office door and turned to see L standing in the doorway, holding the card. "I ran across this last night," she said. "I know you sent it a while ago but there has been so much going on, and things have been piling up, but I wanted to say thank you."

In some ways she was still L--still as positive as she could be, telling me about the progress her husband had made and praising her children for how they had rallied around him. At the same time she was also a quieter, more fragile version of the person I usually see, as she talked about the reality of what she and her husband might face in the days ahead.

I was surprised to find myself moved to get up out of my chair and give her a hug--it was a moment of connection I wouldn't have ever seen coming, and it felt genuine. And good.

As L left my office, holding the card, I was pleasantly surprised to realize that written words had opened a door--one that I had, even subconsciously, assumed myself incapable or afraid of opening.

PITFALL OF THE PEN: Handwriting letters has revealed my dependency on spell check! When I went to write "possess" in a letter to my cousin M the other night, I found myself momentarily unable to remember how many "s" there were, and where. Because I couldn't just type--and let the computer suggest the correct spelling for me--I flipped my notebook over and scribbled different versions of the word until one looked right. Investigation about the use of spellcheck led me to Dr. Dennis Galletta and the interesting research he and his colleagues at the University of Pittsburgh are doing on the subject.

Friday, May 7, 2010

The Music in My Heart

Today I received a letter from P, a therapist I saw regularly about 12 years ago. (The number 12 looks odd; it really seems like a lot longer. I guess that's how "lifetimes" go ...)

When I wrote to P, I thanked her for not only helping me with the acute problems in my life--namely the risky, desperate ways in which I was trying to overcome loneliness and depression--but also for helping me the lay the groundwork for learning that continues to this day.

Just recently I read Eckhart Tolle's The Power of Now and lightbulbs were going on for me--seeds of thought planted in my talks with you were finally in full bloom. (Sorry to mix metaphors with lightbulbs and flowers!)

I also thanked P for helping me to understand how the act of respecting and loving oneself translates into respectful, loving relationships with others, and how I hope to demonstrate that truth to my son and stepson through word and deed.

On the couch in your office (and I say couch not as a cliché--I do think you had a couch!) was where I first started to "get" that dynamic of loving oneself in order to love others.

P expressed delight in hearing from me and added that she remembers me and has sometimes wondered "what ever happened ..."

Your letter so generously fills in blanks for me. Most of all, I'm grateful we together captured something for you to build on, as you have.

P promised to keep my letter locked in her files "for an occasional reminder of what keeps me inspired." She then went to quote Wordsworth:

"The music in my heart
I bore long after it was heard no more."

What a way to sum up how this project is affecting me! If I hadn't already coined THE LETTER JAR, "The Music in My Heart" would make a great title too.

Whose music have you bore in your heart after it was heard no more?

Speaking of music, a song that takes me back to the time I was seeing P--and never fails to inspire positive thoughts of how I was emerging from my struggles--is Bittersweet Symphony by The Verve.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010


Last Saturday night my best friend and I went to see Jonatha Brooke live at a great intimate venue. Hours later, still basking in the energy and inspiration of the experience, I was moved to write Jonatha a letter.

There is something, I told her, about bearing witness to an artist and their craft--something mystical and beautiful that is a reminder of authentic goodness in a world that seems to be falling around us. Of course there are many crafts and many more artists, but I have always been drawn to the performance of music, particularly the edgy, interesting, indie brand of folk that Jonatha offers up.

I so thoroughly love how you build the music in your songs so carefully around the emotional content; the music and the meaning never seem to compete with each other.

Jonatha was a spur-of-the-moment addition to my list of letter recipients, which already did include a few carefully chosen artistic "heroes" of mine. I didn't want to overpopulate the list with "celebrities"--people I've never met, versus my own family, friends and colleagues--it would be just too easy, I thought, to knock off 300 letters along the lines of "I'm such a fan of your work ..." My heroes, though, achieve a higher standard--they touch, impress and inspire me in ways that leave me feeling that I do know them, somehow.

... My true passion is writing ... Whenever I experience an artist like yourself communing with her craft, I am inspired to keep pursuing my art. You have my gratitude and respect.

Are there "celebrities" who have inspired you? How?

: I'm so excited to have started Lois Wyse's Friend to Friend: Letters Only A Woman Could Write. Letters by the likes of Harriet Beecher Stowe and Anne Morrow Lindbergh to their friends. Beautiful and inspiring, kind of like Wyse herself--her New York Times obituary in July 2007 noted that the prolific author and ad wordsmith coined the term "with a name like Smucker's, it has to be good." Indeed!