Tuesday, June 29, 2010

The Paradoxes of This Project

This project may be about old-fashioned communication but, paradoxically, I'm certain I couldn't do it without the Internet.

Even without this blog--a fun 21st companion to a 19th century communication endeavor--I would find myself quite frequently on the Web.

Many whose names are in THE LETTER JAR are people I haven't seen or spoken to in a long time. I seek to reconnect with long-lost friends, teachers, bosses, employees--in short, people who have been moving around just like me. They might just not be living at the address I scribbled in a datebook in 1988.

That's when a solid Web search--Google Fu, as my husband calls it--has come in. Some people I have indeed located via Google, which has helpfully told me where a high school friend is now working as a city clerk and provided the name of the small town Iowa church where my college minister currently preaches. For other addresses--in cases where the name is fairly unique and I know at least the state, if not the city, where the person is living--I have been able to rely on whitepages.com.

This sleuthing does sometimes feel weird, as if somehow locating someone's address and sending something--even a well-intentioned letter--to it is a privacy violation. Another paradox--the lives of so many of my recipients are open books (or open "Facebooks," more accurately) online; why does depositing something in their actual mailbox feel so different from pinging their e-mail inbox?

Speaking of Facebook, this project may be my personal antidote to it, but the social media behemoth still has a role to play. There have been numerous people to whom I might not have thought to write--at least not immediately, anyway--were it not for them showing up as friends of friends on Facebook. And in some cases where I simply cannot figure out where to send a letter, I send the recipient a Facebook message: "Hey, I have something to send you snail mail ... can I have your address? I promise it's not a chain letter or candle catalog."

Though I've yet to have anyone turn me down, I'm still just as nervous about asking for addresses as that last line would imply. Again, here we all are, airing our laundry for the world to see online, but I wonder: is it OK to want to know where the underwear actually gets washed?

It makes me a little sad, to realize that "snail mail"--dowdy and slow, the Cinderella of the communication media--has seemingly been relegated to a status so inferior to its sophisticated electronic counterparts.  The U.S. Postal Service's plan to eliminate Saturday service seems only to seal the doom of pen-and-paper conversation, but I'm committed to doing my part to save the art of the handwritten letter. So are the folks at Good Mail Day, Missive Maven and A Passion for Letter Writing. Check 'em out.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

A Job Well Appreciated

"Thank you."

Those simple words sum up a letter I wrote yesterday to T, one of my employees at a job I held in New Mexico five years ago. I hired T after the company I worked for was sold and I was handed a new, if somewhat intimidating, new assignment--put together a team to execute the new company's community outreach in all 121,000 square miles of the state.

I put your name in the jar, T, because I've always wanted to tell you how much I appreciated you as an employee. I was a little nervous, having been handed this new assignment, and your hard work, dedication, problem solving, creativity and imagination made my job so much easier. I always felt confident that the southern part of the state was in capable hands--your enterprising spirit and conscientiousness meant a good opportunity for outreach and promotion was never missed. I don't know as I ever really thanked you for all you did, and let you know how much I appreciated you. Please accept my thanks and appreciation now.

Expressing my written gratitude to T felt good, but as I wrote, I also felt a touch of regret that I didn't do more to let him know while he was still working for me. Not that I never expressed any appreciation--there were day-to-day "thank yous" and I made sure his glowing performance review was matched with the best raise I could give him--but I'm pretty sure I never told him exactly how his hard work helped me succeed.

T's is the second letter I've written to a former employee. A couple months ago I wrote to S, who was put in the awkward position of having to bring me, her new supervisor, up-to-speed on aspects of a job she clearly knew much better than I. It could have been the recipe for a strained relationship, but S was gracious and outgoing and made me feel entirely welcome. In my letter I thanked her for the gift of her acceptance, and also took the opportunity to tell her how much I admired her moxie as a single woman. I watched S buy a house and earn her master's degree; I had dreamt of those goals myself, but didn't have it together enough to do go after them. Not unsurprisingly, S is now succeeding in a manager's position not unlike the one I held as her supervisor.

Considering that I've spent upwards of 2000 hours of every one of the last 17 years in some sort of job, it's not surprising that many of the names in THE LETTER JAR would be from those places of employment. Common throughout my letters to those people--be they former bosses who gave me a chance, employees who put forth extraordinary effort or coworkers who became good friends--are those two simple words: thank you. Thank you for believing in me. Thank you for supporting me. Thank you for being my mentor, no matter how our names were arranged on the organizational chart.

I'm reminded once again that while my letters may serve in some way as gifts to the recipients--it's  probably always nice to feel appreciated, even after the fact--the letters are gifts to me as well. They are gifts of awakening, of becoming aware of the opportunities I have to acknowledge how my current coworkers--bosses, employees and coworkers all included--contribute to my success on the job.

SPEAKING OF MENTORS: I was a couple of months into this project when I discovered Carla and her 365 Letters blog. I love how she weaves commentary of her day-to-day writing with fun updates about new postage stamps and thought-provoking potential letter topics. Thanks for being such an interesting and inspiring guide!

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Letter Fail?!?

Last night I finished a letter to J, someone I definitely consider a friend despite having met her in person just once.

J and I have both participated for a long time--J longer than I--on a message board for stepmothers. As I told her in the letter I wrote--I am always moved by how much she cares for other people. She shares in others' joy, sympathizes in their disappointments and is indignant when any of her friends have been wronged. She always knows just what to say (or not to say, when a cyber hug is really what is needed).

I related how glad I was that I decided a year and a half ago to drive from Chicago to Toledo and meet up with her and another stepmom in a hotel parking lot, so we could then all drive to the Central Ohio home of yet another stepmother who was hosting a get together.We had so much fun and such great conversation that day.

In my letter I told J her how the connections I have with her and the dozens of other stepmothers on the message board, despite being Web-based, underscore the biggest lesson of this project: relationships matter. The people we come to know--even in cyberspace--and how they affect us, and we them, count more than anything in this life.

At this point in the letter it dawned on me that I hadn't actually checked in on the message board for awhile. J has (perhaps wisely) avoided Facebook and Twitter, so I haven't seen any news about her.

Sitting there with pen and paper, I realized that while there was probably nothing wrong with telling J how thankful I was for the past connections we've made online and in-person, it was possible that I should also be acknowledging some big event in her life, except I didn't know about the big event. I decided to find out.


I just realized I hadn't checked in on [the message board] in a while (mostly mommy-ing is keeping me busy, some work too) and here I am all "yadda yadda yadda" without really knowing what's up in your life now. So I went to lurk and find out.

You got married!!!!

Congratulations, even if I'm about 90 days behind the curve ... Please forgive me for being so ignorant for the first three pages of this letter--I really wanted to tell you what a wonderful person I think you are and didn't stop to think there might have been big changes for you.

I was mortified at this point, and wondering if I should even send the letter. But at its core, this project is about being honest and authentic, even when that means revealing how woefully oblivious I can be. Starting over--and pretending I knew from the outset about her nuptials--would be deceitful. I trust that J will forgive (and even lightheartedly mock--her sense of humor was something else I acknowledged in my letter) my oversight.

I'm also reminding myself that, when snail mail was all we had, I wouldn't have necessarily known about J's wedding (she eloped with her beloved, so there were no invitations) as I wrote my letter. I would have written to her,, told her what was up with me and, weeks or months later, I would have received her letter saying, "I got married." I wouldn't have to feel bad about not already knowing. In these days when so many of us pour out our life details--usually far less monumental than wedding announcements--on social media with all the restraint of a 24-hour news channel, such delayed information may be quaint but, as far as I'm concerned, it's also welcome.

MUST READ: I have been following One Pilot's War on Twitter. His bio: "My grandfather sent over 1500 letters home during WWII. These are those letters." What amazing and eloquent letters. To touch such a lovely part of your family history must be so incredible. Read the letters at the blog.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

The End and The Means

I started this project with about 205 names in THE LETTER JAR--friends, family, teachers, employers and employees, professional contacts, even a handful of writers and musicians and filmmakers whom I've never met but whose work has profoundly moved me.

As they've occurred to me, I've added another couple dozen names along the way, and I'll likely add some more.

Still short of 365, though.

What will help me reach my goal are the writing opportunities I've started to recognize in my life. Friends have a baby? Rather than just ooh and aah over the photos on Facebook (though I still do that too--who can resist pictures of new babies?) I send them a card and maybe a little present. A friend helps me through a rough patch? I send a thank you note recognizing the gift of their listening.

On Mother's Day I sent handmade cards to some friends and family whose mothering skills I respect and admire. My cousin's wife getting accepted into nursing school was cause for a celebratory note, with extra kudos for going into a profession where more hands are so desperately needed.

When two friends lost their dogs, I wrote notes of condolence and made small donations to charity in memory of their beloved pets.

I'm not afraid to admit that in the past, before I launched this yearlong letterwriting project, I might not have seized some of these opportunities. I can honestly say that sometimes I'm "looking" for a reason to write to someone.

Is that a bad thing?

I have to believe that, if the letter recipient appreciates the gesture, it doesn't necessarily matter what first prompted me to put pen to paper. That I am so motivated now to write to people and tangibly acknowledge life's highs and lows--in ways I just never would have before--just one of many unexpected blessings of this project.

BLOG ADDICTION: Started following Letters of Note on Twitter last month. Can spend (have spent) hours looking at archives, and I'm always looking forward to a new installment. Today's? Johnny Depp thanking some fans for the quilt they handmade for him. I couldn't make this up.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Refuge and Reward

I wrote my first letter on a February night, lingering over my words and sentiments with a cup of tea at the dining room table. My son, just a few months old, slept nearby in his bassinet, where he remained for a few hours as mommy collected her thoughts. I strove to make many of my early letters--composed just this way--miniature masterpieces.

I wrote my 99th letter in my recliner this morning, gulping down coffee as I anticipated my now very active son awakening from a brief nap and my parents arriving for a Father's Day brunch. I've also written letters sitting on the livingroom floor while my son crawled around and over me, in a doctor's office waiting room, at the car dealership while my brakes were replaced. And I wonder, is this project worth carving out those little blocks of time? Can I do my letters--and their recipients--justice?

The time it takes to write a letter--and the effort it takes to find that time--is pretty obviously a big reason we got away from handwritten correspondence in the first place.  We are a busy people, running to daycare and work and back to daycare and off to the grocery and the dry cleaner and the dentist and the veterinarian. When we're trying to communicate with friends and family amid all those obligations, why wouldn't we lean on the convenience of e-mail and texting? When the point is to simply exchange data, the fastest and best methods are the same.

There certainly have been days when I've simply not found the time to write a letter, or if I was lucky enough to have some extra minutes, I wanted to spend them with my head on the pillow, not a pen in my hand. It was on the first such occasion, some 20 or so days into this project, that I changed my goal from "write a letter a day for a year" to "write 365 letters in 365 days."

And I did consider, early on, what other goals I might have to set aside as I made time to write. Would I have no time for meditation? For prayer? For journaling?

As luck would have it ... the letters have become my meditation, keeping me very much in the moment even as I in many cases reflect on the past. My letters are also prayers, prompting me to express abundant gratitude for the joy, support, lessons and love my relationships have brought me. And they are a journal of sorts, a written record of where and who I've been.

For those very reasons letterwriting has become a refuge and a reward, a place into which I willingly slip when opportunities arise. Quiet, tranquil nights of writing are indeed in the past, replaced with whatever moments my imagination can find. Lucky for me, the benefits are the same whether my writing is a production or piecemeal--my communication still feels elevated, transcending a simple exchange of information to an experience of reflection that ideally moves me and the letter recipient.

And I'd call that a masterpiece.

IN HONOR OF OUR FATHERS: In the spirit of this day for dads I offer a link to a syracuse.com blog post of letters from Central New York schoolchildren to their fathers. What a delight. Be sure to read through to the end--the last one is priceless.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Short-lived Yet Long-lasting

This morning I wrote a letter to S, once the roommate of my husband R--long before R was my husband, even before he was much of a serious boyfriend.

S and I didn't really know each other all that well back then, and still don't. But that didn't matter when I added his name to THE LETTER JAR.

What mattered was that S came through for me in a most unexpected, but truly appreciated, way that I've never forgotten:

I remember going to the room you shared with R, trying to find him because he had told me he would meet me somewhere, but didn't show. R wasn't there, but you were. Now you didn't even have to open the door, much less invite me in and talk to me. But you did, and you very kindly told me that perhaps being involved with R at that point wasn't a good idea.

Now this many years on it probably seems comical--you do not want to date my roommate, seriously!--but in fact it was an incredibly sensitive way you handled it, at the time.

My interaction with S lasted about 15 minutes and happened about 18 years ago. But given we were all in college back then, with so much personal stuff to preoccupy each one of us, it still strikes me that S took a moment to talk to essentially a random girl about her unrequited crush.

Most people in your shoes would have informed me R wasn't there and sent me on my way. That you cared enough to have a conversation sticks with me to this day.

Which has become the point of this project, honestly ... people and the interactions we have with them, long-term or for the briefest of moments, are what are lasting and remembered.

As I noted to S--and he already knew--R and I did reunite many, many years post-college and are actually the quite happy new mom and dad to a 7-month-old and stepmom and dad to a 7-year-old.

While maybe the 20-year-old R wasn't someone I ought to have been involved with, his 38-year-old counterpart is truly a blessing in my life--strong, supportive, sensitive and more loving that I feel I deserve sometimes.

My letter was to S was number 98, and among those first 97 were some pretty long, fairly wide-ranging missives to people I've known most of my life, telling them all the ways I've admired and learned from them. It was refreshing to write a letter with such a singular purpose--to thank the recipient for simply being there at one moment in time. Our interaction was short-lived but its impact was long-lasting.

PACKAGE TRACKING WASN'T AN OPTION: Yesterday I heard an entertaining NPR interview with Jay and Les, who are among the riders reenacting the 150-year-old Pony Express. Who knows how this project might be evolving if a letter took 10 days to get from Missouri to California?

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

When "Flow" Turns to "Overflow"

I was writing a letter yesterday to O, a newspaper reporter whom I befriended when I worked in public relations, when I had an uncomfortable realization--sometimes I just overdo it.

D'oh! as Homer Simpson would say. Overdo'h!

This letterwriting experience, of course, has been filled with wonderful revelations and lessons. But this one? Ouch.

What I was really trying to say to O was that I was glad we got to know each other, having overcome the natural skepticism that media can sometimes have for PR types (and vice versa). I was also trying to thank him for some good, meaningful conversation that went beyond the weather and whatever story I was trying to pitch him (or information he was trying to get from me).

I wandered off into the weeds, though, and found myself becoming too verbose. (Therein lies a hazard of writing longhand--my "verbociousness" kicked in on the second page, and who wants to start over at that point? Besides, there seems to be something disingenuous about discarding and starting over a handwritten letter--isn't the purpose of such an exercise to just let the words flow, longwinded and disjointed as they may be?)

Maybe I was sincerely trying to get my point across, but if I'm being honest with myself, I suspect what I was really trying to do was "puff up the pen"--make my message worthy of paper, achieve some mystical letterwriting standard, make it a reader to remember.

Oh forgive me William of Ockham, oh ye of Ockham's razor. In letters as in life, the simplest explanation is usually the correct one.

I've written 96 letters and I'm proud to say this is really the first time I've caught myself "pen puffing." And I hasten to add that after realizing what I was doing, I did step back, take a breath and just let the words flow. In the end, O might raise an eyebrow when he reaches the middle of that second page, but by the last page hopefully he'll no longer be wondering what exactly I was on when I wrote him.

It's not always easy to let the words flow--particularly when my son is crawling circles around me on the livingroom floor as I try to write--but, fortunately, it does seem easy to notice when words are "overflowing."

WHEN NORA EPHRON IS YOUR PEN PAL: Thanks Letters & Journals magazine for tweeting this wonderful Wall Street Journal blog post on the PencilPALS program. Teaching youth the value of handwritten letters? Fantastic!

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Signed, Sealed ... Delivered?

Tonight I found myself, for the first time, actually not knowing where to send a letter. I signed it, I sealed it, but I didn't know how to deliver it.

I'd written the letter in question to a police lieutenant who had been a source of mine back when I was a newspaper reporter. This lieutenant, as I told him in my letter, had been a tough but fair source who made me work harder. I was a better reporter because of him, and I wanted him to know that.

After finishing the letter, I "Googled" him just to confirm he was still with the same police department, so I could send the letter there.

Turns out he was a lieutenant with that same force ... up until just this last March, when he retired. If only I'd drawn his name sooner from THE LETTER JAR.

Well police lieutenants, for good reason, don't make their home addresses public. "Where was I going to send the letter?" I wondered.

Ultimately I settled for sending it to the police department's public information officer, who had written the press release about the lieutenant's retirement. I explained to her the project and asked that she please pass on the enclosed letter if she is still in contact with the lieutenant.

Expecting some skepticism on her part, I named a couple other lieutenants (sergeants at the time I knew them) who could vouch for my identity and encouraged her to read the enclosed letter should she have any doubts about its content.

This isn't the first time I've written a letter to one person and sent it to someone else. Before composing another letter--interestingly, also to a news source (this one a politician) whose expectations of me I felt made me a better reporter--I Googled the person to see if I could still find him. Turns out he'd died in 2006. I still wrote the letter, but to his wife--I told her I was sorry to read of his passing and how her husband had been a positive influence in my career. The gracious letter I received in return, thanking me for my words and telling me how touched her husband would have been to know he made a difference in someone's career, was the very first reply I received in the course of this project.

This, however, is the first time I've been left wondering if the letter will ultimately reach its intended destination. Kind of a new twist on the tree falling in the woods with no one around: if you write a letter but the recipient never sees it, does it make a difference?

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Wisdom ... Without Warning

Today I wrote a short letter to R, a coworker from our information services department with whom I typically exchange "hellos" as we pass in the hallway. (I have to say that in some ways I'm glad our longer conversations--incidental as they are to my computer going on the fritz--have been infrequent.)

It was a surprise then, that some of my most cherished wisdom from my first few weeks of motherhood came from none other than R. He is a Facebook friend of mine, and like so many others weighed in with congratulations soon after my son was born. So many times I reread and repeated to myself R's message:

Congrats ... take it easy ... enjoy the moments of quiet and remember you are doing everything right ...

"Remember you are doing everything right." As I told R in my letter to him, those words--read in a hormonal and sleep-deprived funk--affected me profoundly. What new mother doesn't second-guess herself through those early days? "Remember you are doing everything right." Oh how those words calmed me when I could feel the icy grip of anxiety closing in time and again.

Just goes to show, I guess, that wisdom--like the proverbial closest emergency exit on the plane--isn't always in the first place you'd look. (Something to remember, perhaps, when you're desperately seeking an answer and you're just convinced you're looking in all the right places?) When you do find it, it's worth acknowledging.

NEXT READ: My mom has me excited about Lee Kravitz's new book, Unfinished Business: One Man's Extraordinary Year of Trying to Do the Right Things. The summary goes something like this: Kravitz, fired from his job as editor of Parade magazine, chronicles how he launched a journey--around the world and around the corner--to make amends with the people and pieces of his life from which he had become disconnected. Sounds intriguing, and inspiring.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Report Card

My stepson's first-grade report card arrived in the mail today, and it reminded me that I've been meaning to to give a "report card" of sorts for myself on this project. Writing 92 letters, it turns out, has made me realize that the people in my life have taught me a lot of valuable lessons.

I've started a list, which I look forward to expanding as I continue to pick up pen and paper.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

It's About Time

My 7-month-old son, T, pulled the name of my dad--also T, my son's namesake--out of THE LETTER JAR last Saturday.

Same son kept me too busy on Saturday to write. So I started the letter on Sunday.

And worked on it a little on Monday.

And finished it today.

It made for a somewhat disjointed experience, stopping and starting like that, even if I did have in mind from the beginning an idea of what I was going to say. And as I sat there this morning in my recliner, wrapping up the letter, I did have an appreciation for e-mail's allure. Let's face it: I probably could have written my father--and mother and brother and mother-in-law and several best friends and my hairdresser--any number of e-mails in that same time frame. My words-per-minute score isn't that great, but I'm sure I can type faster than I can write.


Therein lies the rub. I type faster than I write from a purely mechanical standpoint, yes, but a mental perspective too. When I'm typing an e-mail, I'm fairly aware I'm simply skimming the surface of my mind, offering a quick update about the kids, a little tidbit about work, some pleasant inquiries as to what's been happening on the other person's end.

But to put pen to paper and write ... it feels important and I happily, easily even, put forth the kind of thought I feel the process deserves. Themes emerge and my vocabulary expands as I take what feels like a cherished opportunity to tell my letter recipient how I feel about him or her.

I heard an NPR interview the other day with Nicholas Carr, author of The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains. Carr maintains, based on his own experience and the hours of research he has done, that all our time online--quickly moving from skimming a story on a news site to browsing the RSS feed of our favorite blog to checking our e-mail and rinsing and repeating over and over--is cutting into our attention span and making it difficult for us to concentrate on kind of things we used to spend our free time doing. Things like reading books.

And writing.

Carr says we can stem the effects of Internet overuse by devoting equal time to activities of deeper concentration, which gives me reason again to believe I'm on the right track with this letterwriting journey. (I will admit to some doubt as my recent letter turned into a multi-day project.) This blog is evidence enough that I'm not about to abandon my Web-surfing ways, but to have another reason to spend some hours unplugged, with just my pen and paper, is fine by me.