Friday, July 30, 2010

Learning to Fly

So I started out
For God knows where
I guess I'll know
When I get there.

~Tom Petty, "Learning to Fly"

If The Letter Jar project had a soundtrack, that song would probably be the opening cut.

Those words have always spoken to me, someone who isn't afraid to embrace the gypsy side of her nature. I can appreciate the idea of life being one big surprising journey--I may not know where I'm ultimately going to end up, but I'm certainly enjoying the sites I have the good fortune to happen upon.

And enjoying as well, the people I'm lucky enough to meet along the way.

Tonight I wrote to my former coworker P and her partner M. I worked with P at a community college in Albuquerque, where I moved with my first husband a decade ago.

P and M, as I told them in my letter, are some of the most genuine, authentic, unpretentious people you will ever meet. They both have such a way of putting you at ease, you feel like an old friend almost immediately. We rarely correspond anymore, but I nonetheless recalled warm memories the very moment I pulled their names from The Letter Jar.

Writing to them, I was struck once again by the seeming randomness--that indeed is likely much less random than I think--that rules the events in my life and the people those events bring me to. My ex-husband and I, Midwesterners when we met, vacationed in the southwest and decided to relocate. That decision gave me the opportunity to meet not only P (and through her, M) but also a whole host of other fascinating, funny, caring people I'm lucky to count among my friends. These are people I've been challenged by, learned from, laughed with and cried on. My life story wouldn't be same without them.

I appreciate the reminder of life's surprises, as I now find myself not moving physically, but nonetheless moving, into another phase in my life as a new mother. I've begun to notice as I write my letters that I am feeling grateful for the relationships I have formed over my lifetime--as a high school and college student, entry-level journalist, career changer, thirtysomething newlywed stepmother--and I'm yearning to form new ones.

The prospect seems daunting--making new friends at this stage in life feels at least different, if not more challenging, than back in college when I was rooming with a dorm full of fellow students and going to classes in big lecture halls each day--until I remember how I've made so many of the important connections in my life. I simply need to keep my mind open to life's unpredictable journey and my heart open to the people I meet along the way.

YOU MUST READ THIS: I'm so glad to have received an inquiry the other day from Felix Jung of the absolutely mesmerizing blog Dead Advice. He asked if I might be willing share a link to his work. You bet.

"Imagine, for a moment, that you have just died," Dead Advice challenges you on its front page. "If you had to look back over the arc of your life as it stands today, what stories would you tell? What lessons would you share, what things might you regret or confess?"

Take some time, read some letters. I suggest starting with Felix's own, A Small List of Big Things, which is poignant and funny, brilliant really. Then think about your letter ... a fascinating prospect, no?

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Could it possibly really be a wonderful life?

For which I'm expected to show up?

Not long after I finished letter #131 (to T, a public defender with whom I once worked), my husband R and I had an quarrel. Several days on I can't recall exactly how it got started, but I definitely remember something R said to me:

"You just can't let yourself be happy."

My first reaction, of course, was to object. But of course I'm happy, I told him. Why wouldn't I be? I have such a wonderful life--loving husband, beautiful children, sturdy roof over our heads, reliable transportation to take us to steady employment each day--how could I not be happy?

There's a difference, R pointed out, between saying you're happy and being happy.

I fumed, muttering away to myself (rather unhappily, I might add) about how he was just wrong. I mean, come on--at that point I'd written 131 letters, all of which made at least some reference to the abundant blessings in my life (the aforementioned marriage, family, car and job, of course, as well as the friendships of my letter recipients, happy memories created with them and hopes for reunions to come). I'm happy, damn it.

But if I've learned anything in almost five years with R (three and a half of them as husband and wife), it's that he often knows me better than I know myself. Could it possibly be true that I was running around saying I was happy, without allowing myself the luxury of actually being happy?

Well, now. That felt icky. And uncomfortable. And kinda true.

It's not that I've lied to anyone, in any letter--I do have a ridiculously huge amount of blessings in my life. But I also have, as Tori Amos so eloquently put it, "enough guilt to start my own religion." And guilt, that turd in the punch bowl, it will make you question--sadly makes me question--whether you deserve your happiness.

Yes, some of my letters portray a girl who has screwed up--I've hurt people, most times unintentionally, but on occasion with more awareness than I'd like to admit. I've broken promises. Failed to meet obligations. Haven't shown up.

But the letters also reflect someone who has grown up--I'm admitting the hurts I've inflicted, acknowledging the broken promises and unfulfilled responsibilities. I'm recognizing the places--literal and figurative--I should have been and wasn't.

This woman, that girl growing up, has been offered by the universe an immeasurable bounty. And to refuse to truly accept those blessings--my son's happy babble as he awakens in the morning, rain falling outside our livingroom window on a summer evening, a kiss goodnight from my husband--well, that's just screwing up all over again. It's time to let go of guilt, stop inflicting more hurt and honor the vows I'm living right now.

In short, it's time to show up.

Saturday, July 24, 2010


There are angels among us.

On some level I probably already believed this, but so many of the letters I've written as part of The Letter Jar project have made it ever the more clear.

Such was the case with R, to whom I wrote today. Some 18 years ago R advertised for a roommate, and that roommate ended up being my mother during my parents' separation. (My parents ended up remarrying a few years later.)

Now I realize in some ways it was seemingly by "chance" that mom ended up living with you, but really I do believe things happen for a reason. Yes, my mom just needed a place to live. But she also needed--maybe not as urgently but just as importantly--a friend. And she found one in you. Thank you for being there to listen to mom, to offer feedback and be a support a very uncertain time in her life. You were an angel.

I recalled to R how she became my friend and angel as well when I stayed with her and mom during Christmas break from college that year.

I was a fresh mess--reeling from my parents splitting up, facing the end of college with no real post-graduation plans, and coming apart at the seams over my feelings for my "ex but wished he wasn't ex" boyfriend R. (Who would become my husband 14 years later--who knew?) You were a good listener and comforting support. You were also a dose of perspective--you urged me to look past the details, all the gory details, of that exact moment and realize it would all turn out OK someday. And damned if you weren't right.

I told R that when I began The Letter Jar project, I just started writing down person after person I've known throughout my life, and figured that when I went to write each letter, my feelings for that person would emerge.

I've been so pleasantly delighted how much that has been true--with the gift of perspective I have realized how many angels have truly appeared in my life, offering me support and guidance and teaching me lessons I've needed to learn.

It is indeed true, so many angels. S, the friend who just happened to need a roommate when I separated from my first husband. D, a woman who happened to be dating my future brother-in-law when I moved to Chicago, who became my friend and offered me support I barely recognized I needed as I struggled to settle into a new life. S, yet another roommate--this one my husband's--who was there with right words at the right moment.

I'm thinking about these wonderful people and so many others who have been my angels when it hits me: is it just possible that I could unknowingly be someone's angel, "just happening to show up" when they need it? It makes me think of the oft-repeated words of Plato: "Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle."

When you stop to think about it, is there someone in your life who was your angel? Have you ever thanked him or her?

I HAVE TO TRY THIS: A number of letter-writing bloggers rave about Postcrossing, "The Postcard Crossing Project" which just celebrated its fifth anniversary of linking people and their places worldwide. Notes the Postcrossing team: "The element of surprise of receiving postcards from different places in the world (many of which you probably have never heard of) can turn your mailbox into a box of surprises - and who wouldn't like that?" Indeed!

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Upping My Game

This morning I wrote to T, a public defender who was a source of mine when I covered the cops and courts for an Iowa newspaper. I thanked T for making me better at my job--something I've had the privilege of thanking several people for.

"When I started covering the courts, you wouldn't even take my calls--and I can't blame you," I told T. "All the freshly minted journalism grads set upon the cops and courts beat, the franchise of the cub reporter. So many opportunities for you and your clients to get burned ... You expected me to do my homework, to understand where you were coming from, to learn and comprehend the judicial process. You expected me to ask intelligent questions. You were, basically, exactly what I needed--a dose of reality, a hard knocks crash course on what it meant to truly cover the news objectively and insightfully ...  Again, thank you for putting me through my paces. Still paying dividends today."

On that cops and courts beat, one of my fiercest competitors was M, a television reporter to whom I wrote a few months ago. "Sure, I wanted to do my job well from a basic standpoint," I wrote. "But the prospect of scooping you made me up my game. There truly was no better situation for a new reporter learning the ropes of the daily grind."

Then there was D, who, as a county supervisor, was also a source when I began reporting. I thought to put his name in The Letter Jar, then checked the Internet and found his obituary from three years ago. I decided I would write to his wife, A.

I remembered how, 22 years old and fresh out of school, I was struggling to cover the county board adequately—to understand which issues were most important to our readers, explain them well and represent the opinions of the supervisors accurately. And D, as I noted in my letter to A, wasn’t about making my job easy. It’s not as if he set out to make my job difficult, but he certainly made me work for every story I wrote, every issue I explained and every quote I captured. And he wasn’t afraid to tell me when I could do better.

"When I was covering the county board week to week, D was a tough cookie," I told A. "He made me pay attention, made me do my homework and didn't let me take shortcuts or easy ways out ... I remember complaining at the time at how hard it was to interview D for stories, how no matter how prepared I was, he could still challenge me. But looking back I realize I should be grateful for the lessons that experience taught me. After all, what is life but many, many unexpected, but ultimately rewarding, challenges?"

A few weeks later I received a letter in the mail from A. "Thank you for your letter re: interviewing D while on the Board of Sups!” she wrote. “He would have been very pleased to know he 'helped' someone, especially in their work area."

I do believe A is right--D would have liked knowing he helped someone, and I'm sure he's not the only one. That's one reason why I'm enjoying The Letter Jar project so much--not only am I filled with gratitude as the receiver of so much help and advice and support in my life, but I am perhaps spreading some joy to the givers as well.

FUN FIND: I was delighted when @skeldesign began following The Letter Jar on Twitter. I love her etsy shop of cards and notepads! I see the frog and owl varieties gracing my desk in the future.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Thanking My Teachers

Last weekend I pulled from The Letter Jar the name of K, my high school journalism teacher. This morning it was D, my kindergarten teacher.

Seeing their names called to mind two sets of school memories that, while very different, have both filled me with gratitude.

I thanked K for encouraging me as a journalist, in class and on the high school paper and yearbook. I always knew I wanted to be a writer, and from people like her I learned not only grammar and news sense but also to develop my own style and to always strive to grow and improve. I've enjoyed a successful writing career--in daily newspapers and magazines, public relations and now blogging--and I wanted to acknowledge and thank K for preparing and supporting me.

I'm still writing the letter to D. I don't necessarily want to thank her for what she taught me--don't get me wrong, knowing the alphabet and how to count to 10 do come in awfully handy--but rather for choosing the profession she did. As I watch my son with his teachers at daycare and my stepson with his at school, I recognize teaching for the incredibly vital and yet extraordinarily underappreciated calling that it is.

Teachers give us knowledge, yes, but the good ones also impart wisdom. They teach--through their words and more importantly their actions--the values of patience, of hard work, of perseverance. They encourage kindness and curiosity and cooperation. They cherish laughter and smiles and triumph.

Obviously when I was 5, D was simply the one who smiled at me each morning, who praised my drawings, who made it all better when I fell on the playground. I couldn't have possibly fully understood then how important a job she was doing. But now, 34 years on, I think I do understand. And I want to thank her--for being there for me, for my little brother and for the dozens of kids who came before us and after us. I'm sure I'm not the first to thank her, and I hope I'm not the last.

What do you remember about your teachers? How is what they taught you alive in your life today?

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Connection, Reflection, Collection

Yesterday when I went to my mailbox there were exactly two items in it: both personal letters for me, responses to letters I had written.

One was from my husband's aunt C. The other was from J, a former coworker. Both remarked how receiving my letter caused them to reflect on other letters they'd received and sent, and how letters touch them in ways that e-mail and Facebook do not.

"My first letter recollection was from my grandma in Missouri, my mom's mom," wrote Aunt C. "She religiously wrote a weekly letter to us on paper exactly as you had used. Her news always included the weather and a garden report in the summer ... In college I would write home and frequently write my heartthrob, Uncle J. We have kept some of them."

And J wrote, "As I was spring cleaning over the last few weeks I found several notes I had received over time. It's an odd thing, I know, but I keep cards and letters I receive from friends and family. It's a little 'pack-rattish' but, as I rediscovered recently, it's so wonderful to go back and see how I touched other people's lives (through thank you notes and letters) and how other people have touched mine."

Actually J, I don't think it's odd at all--I too love going through the boxes of letters and cards I have kept from friends and family. "Pack-rattish" is how I would describe my one time obsession with keeping all the issues from my Martha Stewart Living subscription, as if somehow I would one day be inspired to tear through dozens of (mostly unread) issues and unleash a homemaking storm. Not so much--Martha got recycled. But cards and letters? I'd no sooner discard those than I would the warranty on the dishwasher or the DVD player manual.

"E-mail gives people the opportunity to communicate, but it's not without its drawbacks," C wrote. "It is too easy just to read one after another without taking time to reply, which is something I am trying to do--reply."

"I am a huge fan of handwritten letters (for many reasons) and have been since I was a child," wrote J. "It's probably one of the reasons I try to send postcards to as many people as possible when I travel ... it does make a more meaningful connection than Facebook which is at most times superficial and at the best a way to stay up to date--but it isn't very meaningful on a deeper level."

They're both right. Electronic communication and social media are in so many ways fantastic developments, connecting people in ways that Samuel Morse and Alexander Graham Bell and the rest of our ancestors simply could not have imagined. These days handwritten letters are called "snail mail" for a reason--definitely not the way to go if speed is what you need. But if you're looking for connection, and reflection, and a way of building your own historical collection, it's in your hands.

SPEAKING OF SNAIL MAIL: I love these bloggers who have embraced the term and turned defamation into celebration. Check out Snail-Mail Aficionado, Snail Mail Madness and Viva Snail Mail!

Thursday, July 15, 2010

A Happy Anachronism

More than once on this letter-writing journey it has become obvious that I, with my love of the handwritten word, am a bit of an antique.

Let's face it: people don't expect you to send them anything physical these days. We "send" and "receive" trillions of intangible bits and bytes, but far, far fewer items go in actual envelopes, with stamps.

Take, for instance, my experience in writing to former U.S. senator and presidential candidate Bill Bradley. Wondering where to send my letter, I went to Mr. Bradley's website. I could find an e-mail address, but no physical location. I ultimately settled for sending Mr. Bradley's letter in care of Sirius Satellite Radio, on which his "American Voices" show is broadcast. I'm still curious as to whether it ever reached him.

I was reminded again of my outdated ways when a friend was hospitalized. When he posted on his Facebook wall that he had been discharged, I responded that I had sent him a letter and hoped that the hospital would forward it to him. Another friend was quick to chime in: "A letter? I wouldn't even know where to buy stamps anymore!!"

I know where. I know the location of the post office nearest to my office and the one nearest to my home. I can tell you which area post office has the latest pick up time and which ones have automated postal centers, those nifty stamp vending machines that, depending on the day, can make me just as happy as any apparatus dispensing M&Ms or pretzels. I'm not above admitting that I get a preternatural high out of applying postage to a stack of neatly addressed envelopes.

But I'll admit a tiny bit of self-consciousness too. A few letters besides Mr. Bradley's I have sent to people at their jobs, the only places I could locate them. Staying true to the art of handwritten correspondence, I address each envelope in longhand as well. No matter how neatly I print, however, I can't help but think of the anthrax-ridden missives showing up at television stations after 9/11, with their scrawled addresses. And I wonder, do I look crazy? I can only hope that my recipients--and their mail room managers, and their secretaries--don't judge proverbial books by their covers.

THANKS FOR FOLLOWING! I was delighted to discover that Love From Kaz, author of the wonderful letter-writing blog I love letters, is now following The Letter Jar. I have wondered about this "paradoxical blog"--Blogging about handwritten communication? How odd!--how exciting to find more and more people like me!

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Letters for a Rainy Day

This morning I was traveling in Iowa with my son T and thought I'd take him to the Macbride Raptor Project before we headed home. I used to visit the owls (my favorite animal) frequently when I lived in Iowa; seeing their majesty always gives me a sense of great peace and serenity.

The Raptor Project is nestled in the University of Iowa Macbride Nature Recreation Area, with the rehabilitated and permanently disabled raptors in spacious outdoor cages you can walk past on a dirt path. As luck would have it, no sooner had I pulled into the parking lot than the heavens opened up. No way I was going to be pushing T in his stroller in the pouring rain.

As I drove back toward the highway, I passed scenic picnic areas overlooking Lake Macbride. When I heard T sigh heavily--a sure sign that he had settled in for a long nap in his car seat--I knew I needed to seize the opportunity for some quiet, beautifully situated, writing time.

I pulled into a picnic area and sat in the front seat of my car, writing letters as rain pelted the windshield. I wrote to my coworker J, thanking her for being a sounding board and also inspiring me to get more involved in my community, get out more socially and just generally have a life outside the office (being somewhat of a homebody may support motherhood and my letter-writing habit but, honestly, I do need the dust blown off me once in a while).

I also wrote to M, one of my childhood best friends, letting her know how much--even though we rarely correspond anymore--I still cherish the memories of Barbies, trips to the beach and dance routines performed in the livingroom for our (incredibly patient and kind) relatives. Writing to M, I was struck with some of the same thoughts I'd had when I wrote to S, the mother of another childhood friend. I noted to M and S that the happy memories recalled as I wrote letters to them are helping me realize how much I want T to have a small town life--a community where neighbors know each other and kids still ride their bikes and play kickball after dinner. It took motherhood, I guess, to make me nostalgic for the kind of upbringing I had, and now I want T to be able to run with a pack of good buddies and make the kind of memories I made with M, S's daughter J and my other friends.

I looked at the clock. 90 minutes had passed like nothing at all. And even though I didn't get to see Duke--my favorite great-horned owl whose disability has made him a longtime resident of the Raptor Project--I still felt extraordinarily peaceful, and serene, as I made my way back to the highway and headed home.

MORE WEATHER-INSPIRED WRITING: This morning as I wrote I thought of Jackie at the Letters and Journals blog, who wrote recently about her own stormy letters. I eagerly await receiving my first issue of the Letters and Journals magazine, which Jackie plans to launch late this year or in early 2011.

Friday, July 9, 2010

Where Have My Letters Gone?

Dropping a stack of letters in the mailbox today, I noted that they were headed to a variety of destinations--New York, Washington, Iowa, Illinois, Kentucky, Colorado. Which got me thinking: where have all my letters gone?

I added them up.

Illinois 36
Iowa 18
New Mexico 18
Colorado 10
New York 5
Ohio 4
Florida, Indiana, Kentucky, Michigan 3
Minnesota, Oklahoma, Virginia 2
Arizona, California, Montana, Oregon,
Texas, Utah, Washington, Wisconsin
Alberta, CANADA 1

I guess it comes as no surprise that a great many letters have been delivered right in my backyard in Illinois, seeing as I've been seizing opportunities to reach out to friends and coworkers and family with words of congratulations, sympathy or simply "I'm thinking of you."

The rest of the destinations are a combination--of states I used to live in and states my friends and family have moved to. Besides being a wonderful reminder of all the places I might stop off on a cross-country road trip, the list strikes me as another way these letters are serving as a journal of sorts--in many cases I am reminded not only who I've been, but where I've been (and, in the case of my friend living in Montana, where I might want to "be" next).

If you wrote letters to people important in your life, in what state would you guess most of them would end up?

IN CASE YOU MISSED IT: A favorite letter-writing blogger of mine, Missive Maven, responded to my recent cheap shot at the U.S. Postal Service and its proposed rate hike.

"I would personally much rather pay 2 more cents for a first class stamp than lose Saturday mail delivery, which is also a very real possibility," MM wrote in an eloquent comment on my post. "I believe we still have one of the most affordable and reliable methods of mail delivery in the world, and I hesitate to malign our postal service which brings such joy to my life."

MM is right. We do enjoy a reliable and affordable mail service that much of the rest of the world does not. And "enjoy" is the operative word. Like she said, without the postal service, there would be less joy--a lot less in my life and, perhaps, just a little bit less in each letter recipient's life.

Thursday, July 8, 2010


I recently received a letter in return from O, to whom I wrote a few weeks ago. (An aside ... his was the letter I feared I'd gone overboard with; turns out he not only tolerated the letter but thought enough of it to write back.)

Noting that he hadn't received--or sent--a letter in a very long time, O thanked me for mine. He then related a story that convinces me more than ever that I'm on the right track with this project. O related how he and a cousin were cleaning out the condominium of his recently deceased aunt when they ran across a stash of letters that O's mother had sent to her sister.

They were a hoot! We just giggled like kids at mom's odd silly view of things ... But while we were going through all these old letters and photos, we wondered if the same would be possible, or likely, in an age of electronic mail and images and password-protected computer files and delete buttons. And corrupted files. Probably so. People always figure out a way to dig up the past.

He could be right. Perhaps people will find a way to just as easily, or maybe even more easily, unearth a digital past as they do a paper one. And maybe my belief that digging through an old box of letters--with their handwriting and smells and yellowing, postmarked envelopes--gives you more a sense of connection to the owner than going through their hard drive makes me sentimental.

I'm OK with that.

Right now I plan to write just one letter to each person in THE LETTER JAR, so there likely won't be any stashes of letters from me for my recipients' relatives to sift through (or giggle at). But maybe someone's nephew or granddaughter or little brother will discover my one letter, and find a little extra comfort in the affirmation that their loved one was smart, funny, hardworking or brave.

I'll tuck O's letter, and the dozen or so others I've received during this project, into a box for my son to discover someday, maybe even while mommy is still around. I've often thought about how much I look forward to sharing with him the lessons I'm learning on this journey--well, perhaps the proof is in the paper.

STICKING IT TO US AGAIN: The U.S. Postal Service is proposing another 2-cent hike in first-class postage, to 46 cents as of next Jan. 2. This after a 2-cent increase in May 2009. "The Postal Service's plans to hike rates so substantially … may well produce a death spiral of fewer customers and ever declining volume," said Maine Senator Susan Collins. Want to try to stamp out this fire? 
Contact the Postal Regulatory Commission.

Monday, July 5, 2010

Equaling Success

Tonight I wrote a letter I've been meaning to write for almost a decade.

J was the vice-president for instruction at the community college in New Mexico where I worked. I had recently left behind newspaper reporting for a career in public relations and was cutting my teeth in my new position, which involved reaching out to the local media and managing the college's employee newsletter. J, on the other hand, was applying decades of experience and far more education than mine to his job of overseeing the curricula of the college's various programs.

I was struck by the level of respect you showed me, how you treated me like an equal. Trust me when I say ... this is not always the case ... That you, from the very first time we met to discuss something that would be published in the newsletter, treated me as if my knowledge, experience and opinions counted for something, was quite validating indeed. I have always wanted to thank you for that--it made an impression and I have never, ever forgotten. This letter-writing project gave me the chance to express my overdue gratitude.

As I wrote to J, I was reminded of S, another boss whose confidence in me inspired hard work. (I wrote to S very early in THE LETTER JAR project and received a lovely reply from her.) To recognize again the privilege I have had in working with some exceptional leaders makes me grateful and motivates me to treat my employees with the same level of trust and respect that I was granted. "Give people a fine reputation to live up to," Dale Carnegie wrote in his famous How to Win Friends and Influence People." I can't think of a better way to put it.

During the year or so I held the position at the community college (I soon departed for a more challenging position at a hospital) I didn't work one on one all that frequently with J--he clearly was much further up the institutional ladder than I. But, as I have realized in letters not only to former bosses but also former employees, whether someone will be your mentor has little to do with where they are on the organizational chart. Being a genuine leader day in and day out--as J was and is--creates infinite opportunities to influence someone the very same way J influenced me.

I'm glad I seized the opportunity to tell you how you affected me; this letter-writing journey is helping me to more deeply understand so many truths I though I already "knew" but needed to "know" even more convincingly. That in order to have hard working employees you must make clear your trust and respect is one of those truths. Thanks again.

PAPER TRAIL: Since beginning this blog and its companion Twitter feed I've happily discovered quite a few stationers. Do you savor fine paper, enjoy an elegant pen, appreciate having notecards for every occasion and recipient? Then you'll love browsing Felt & Wire, Broadway Paper and HotShoe Cards as much as I have.

Friday, July 2, 2010

"How are you? I am fine."

Tonight I drew from THE LETTER JAR the name of my cousin K.

I smiled as soon as I put pen to paper, remembering  how K and I corresponded as young adults--she in Colorado, I in New York. I wrote her dozens of letters, and I'm pretty sure they all started exactly the same way:

Dear K:
How are you? I am fine.

I shared that memory with K right away, noting that I had chosen a consistent opening that was upbeat, if not all that original. The more I wrote however, the more I realized that those six words probably sum up as well as any the theme of many of my most gratifying letters.

I haven't spoken to K in a while, and so I indeed wanted to know how she was. Granted, it was a little trickier than when we were adolescents--Did I ask about her daughter H, whom I'd heard through another family member was having problems getting her life in order? Should I acknowledge her parents' health issues, or was I not supposed to know about them? How did I sidestep the issue that I could not remember what K did for a living?

Ultimately I decided that there really was no point in taking the time to write a letter if it wasn't going to be heartfelt and genuine. I really did care how H was doing, and K's parents as well. And trying to write as if I remembered anything about K's job would be obvious and lame.

My mom told me about your dad's recent health concerns, and your mom's; please know they are in my thoughts and prayers. I've kept H in my thoughts too--I understand she has struggled a little being out west. I'm sure that has to be hard on you.

I feel a little out of the loop when it comes to what you've been up to ... I hope you're enjoying stress-free and fulfilling days.

I then went on to tell K, as I have so many other letter recipients, that life has been good to me. Listing off what I have to be grateful for--namely my son, stepson and husband and an impending holiday visit from my brother and his sons--I experienced a bit of that joy I used to feel when I was 11 and would recount in my letters how school and trips to the beach and library and mall were keeping me happy and busy.

"How are you? I am fine." It's a simple letter writing premise, perhaps, but it also feels like a good one. It seems a good letter not only details the activities of the letter writer but shows genuine interest, through specific acknowledgments and questions, in the life of the letter recipient. I can appreciate the gentle reminder  to view my cup as half full and not get too wrapped up in myself.

My letter to K also served to remind me of the importance of family. When I was young, my family would drive almost every summer from New York to Colorado to see K's family. My brother and I had a blast with K and her brother, riding a go-kart around their huge yard, playing with their dogs and just generally finding ways to goof off. Reflecting on the fun we had makes me all the more determined to make sure my kids spend time with their cousins, creating their own special memories.

STAYIN' ALIVE: My letter to K wouldn't have been complete without recalling the music we shared. K was a little older than I, and I always looked forward to the bands to which my more sophisticated cousin would introduce me. Thanks K--I still love The Bee Gees!