Thursday, August 26, 2010

Like Neon Ice Cream

Yesterday I received two pieces of personal mail. Both replies to letters I'd sent, these letters were sweet surprises: even as my "sent" number has reached almost 150, my mailbox most often yields a disappointing pile of bills, catalogs and other obligations and junk. What I believed at the beginning of The Letter Jar project is not becoming any less true--with ever more of our written, personal communication handled by text and e-mail the old fashioned mailbox is now the franchise of official, "boring" mail.

So much so that a personal letter stands out like a tub of neon-colored bubble gum-flavor amid the vanillas and chocolates at the ice cream parlor.

One letter was from my high school journalism teacher, who thanked me for my letter but also filled me in on her life--knowing how hard as she and so many of my teachers worked, it elated me to read that she was enjoying a retirement full of family and travel and personal passions. "As a teacher it is always wonderful to see previous students excel in their personal areas of interest," she wrote. "Only about a half dozen of my previous newspaper students have gone into some form of journalism--I'm glad to hear your career has been successful."

The other letter was something of a two-tiered surprise--I was excited at first to see another personally addressed envelope in my stack of mail, but then recognized it as one I'd self-addressed and stamped. I'd written a letter to D, a long-lost former work colleague in Iowa, and when it came time to send it, I'd chosen an address from three listed for people with his name in his medium-sized community. (Thankfully someone had given me a tip about the side of town on which my friend was rumored to have bought a house--that, along with the resident age information lists with its addresses, fueled my process of elimination. Once again the Internet came to the rescue of my 19th century project.) On the chance that I'd chosen the wrong D, however, I stuck a note to the letter asking that they please return it to me in the enclosed envelope.

I sent the letter to the wrong D, I lamented when I recognized my own handwriting.

My excitement returned when I opened the envelope to find a letter--from the right D, who had very wisely used my envelope to mail his reply. His letter was newsy and upbeat, the latter of which was notable considering D had recently been laid off from the company where we had both worked. "The layoff has given me more time to spend with friends and goof off. I've gotten into better shape being away from Vendoland junk food. I've had moments of despair over the past year (What am I going to do with my life? Blah blah blah) but overall things are good. There are people who have it a lot worse than I do."

D's letter would have been a treat at any time, but I especially appreciated his words--and more specifically, his wisdom--at the end of yesterday, a particularly long and trying day. Finding personal letters in the mail everyday could very well be wonderful, but perhaps there's something to be said as well for spying that bubble gum just when you have a taste for it.

DUTY CALLED: When a nasty stomach bug felled my son and husband--but thankfully spared me so that I could take care of them--The Letter Jar blog--and indeed, The Letter Jar project--went on a two-week hiatus. The law of opposites helps me to be unworried about making my 365 letter goal--for as extraordinarily exhausted as I've been recently, surely there will be a corresponding time in the next 26 weeks when I'll find myself especially energetic.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Writing in the "Slow Zone"

"Like an 'L' train."

That was my response when my husband asked the other day how I felt about my progress on The Letter Jar project.

Anyone who has ridden the Chicago L, even just a few times, is likely familiar with a "slow zone"--the train is moving along at a nice clip when it suddenly slows down due to track conditions. You creep along for a while, and then you're off again.

Experienced riders understand that there's never any doubt that the train will reach its intended destination. They know the system schedule is built with the slow downs in mind--if the schedule says a train will arrive in Oak Park at 6:03 a.m., it will, regardless of how many slow zones exist along the way.

I feel like I'm in my own "slow zone" when it comes to The Letter Jar right now. It's not that I feel like I won't reach my destination, but my current level of energy--and subsequently, the pace of my writing--is in stark contrast to when I began, or even just a few weeks ago. Letters take a little bit longer to compose, languish on my desk a few more days before making it to the post office.

But I'm not worried. Far from making me question my commitment or forcing me to think about giving up, this more leisurely pace is a welcome reminder of how life itself unfolds--peaks and valleys, cacophony and quiet. Moreover, writing letters brings a kind of great joy I refuse to sacrifice by pursuing some artificial production goal.

ENVY AND INSPIRATION: The Missive Maven wrote recently about her new writing desk, tucked away in her lovely sun room. I'm envious--our house doesn't allow for that kind of expansiveness--but also inspired. I tend to do my writing curled up in my recliner with a cup of coffee, but perhaps getting imaginative about creating another space will see the end of this particular slow zone.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

In Short

Shakespeare wrote that brevity is the soul of wit.

I am learning--and perhaps The Bard knew this as well--that brevity is also, at times, the soul of a good letter.

This thought occurred to me as I wrote to J, a college friend. J and I met very shortly after arriving as freshmen, and ran with a pack of friends from the university's honors program--yes, like good nerds we often studied together, but just as often you'd find us sharing dinner in the cafeteria, pondering life's big questions: "Do you think this fish filet is shaped kind of like Minnesota?" We had a standing date for Saturday Night Live, trekked through the snow together to late season football games and, as typical college students, enjoyed a party or two or seventeen (hey, even geeks have to cut loose).

What I really wanted to say to J--and the reason I put his name in the jar--was thanks for being a friend at a memorable time in my life--the start of my college years. I came to school knowing no one, but thanks to "the pack," it wasn't long before I felt right at home.

People are what make our memories real, I told J. Sure I remember the places I went, the places I lived, the classes I took and the jobs I had. But they really don't serve to cheer me or warm me or make me smile until I think about the people involved. I'm so lucky to have known some wonderful people in my life--more and more I understand that life's treasures are not material but instead the relationships and connections we form with one another ... Even as many relationships--like ours--were mostly transient and tied to a certain period in time, they still make up part of my history and part of who I am. They have had an effect on me that is lasting--and I believe positive.

Maybe the phrase "relationship was mostly transient and tied to a certain period in time" should have been my tip off that I didn't have a lot to say to J beyond the simple thank you. And yet I still felt the need to write more. "Quality over quantity" just wasn't occurring to me as I sat, pen poised on paper, wondering what to possibly write next. Maybe I thought I needed to justify sending a real letter? I mean, heck, if I was just going to pop off a few words, why not just write an e-mail?


As someone special remarked to me tonight, the beauty of a handwritten letter is not in how many words are written--it is in the words themselves, the spaces between, and how they are recorded and preserved on paper. "Just a couple sentences, depending on what they are, could be considered a beautiful letter," she said.

She's right, and fortunately I came to my senses before my writing-turned-babbling (wrabbling?) got out of control. I finished up the letter to J with a quick update on myself and an inquiry into how he was doing (I remembered him wanting to be a filmmaker, and he now lives in LA, which makes me wonder if that dream came true--just a few sentences back from him regarding his career could indeed be an interesting note).

J's letter isn't the first time I've found myself starting to "wrabble," as if I'm somehow getting more letter value by increasing the ratio of words written to postage paid. So I'm thankful for the reminder to refocus on the real point of The Letter Jar project--to tell people how I feel about them and the impact they've had on me. Those are sentiments worth expressing, whether it takes 20 words, or 2,000, or 20,000, to do it.

A RELATIVELY GOOD EDITOR: As a writer I've worked for a lot of different editors in my career, but none has ever been so kind--or so subtle--as my mother, who rightly observed that my blog post from earlier this week could have benefited from a little more work before it was published. "I liked your post about M," she said. "I did notice a few errors in grammar, which is very unlike you. I assumed you must have been very tired."

Leave it to mom to hit the nail on the head: yep, I was tired, and when I went back to reread the post, I cringed--describing my mistakes as "a few errors in grammar" was quite charitable. Thanks for reading, mom (and I did fix the post, and I promise I'm going to bed soon).

Monday, August 9, 2010

Family Matters, Part II

As I wrote tonight to M, my brother's mother-in-law, I was reminded how fortunate I am to belong to not only my blood family, but the extended family I have been privileged to inherit.

(My brother) became your son-in-law and you embraced his whole clan--mom, dad, sister, sister's husband and stepson too. It really feels good when to gather for Christmas or whenever as a big family.

Early on in The Letter Jar Project I wrote to M's brother, who shares his sister's welcoming spirit. I recounted to him how I will never forget a special Christmas spent at his house, and the way he reached out to my stepson.

It really meant a lot to me when you sat with (my stepson) at the piano ... I think the trip stressed him out a little because he didn't know any of my extended family, but he really enjoyed playing the piano and really enjoyed as you sat with him and taught him a little about playing. It meant a lot to me to see him relax and have a good time doing that.

I feel grateful that our holiday gatherings are filled with such warmth and love, and it doesn't matter who is directly related to whom.

A few days ago I wrote about my blood family, and how they make me feel rooted no matter how far I roam--they are my place to come home to. Writing tonight I realized that family, that welcoming place, is defined less by genes and more by the bonds we form and the care we show each other.

M, for example, was incredibly supportive and interested during my pregnancy last year. I was terrible at giving updates, but M still checked in regularly by e-mail and Facebook to see how I was doing.

And the blankets you and N (M's daughter, my brother's wife) made--so beautiful. I was so touched. Sometimes when I'm rocking my son to sleep at night I'll have one draped over him, and he likes to run it through his fingers while he falls asleep. Thank you again for such a loving gift.

I ended my letter to M by noting how I've come to understand that my son and stepson are parts of an ongoing story--my husband and I are building our family so that we can be roots for the boys and their families someday. And more than ever, I understand that it is not only our duty, but it is also our privilege.

A SURPRISE COMBINATION OF TWO OF MY PASSIONS: I've always loved discovering new music, and was intrigued to read recently that the new Arcade Fire album, The Suburbs, was inspired by love letters that frontman Win Butler wrote to a sweetheart in high school. He explained the song "We Used to Wait" to Britain's NME magazine:

"In high school I had a letter-writing romance with a girl. I was trying to remember that time... waiting an entire summer, pretty much half a year, the anxiousness of waiting for letters to arrive. All day every day there's almost this cloud of feeling hanging over everything. We'd (his family) be in Maine, I'd walk down to the post office and come back… the whole day was consumed by that feeling."

A song about the "anxiousness of waiting for letters to arrive." How completely cool--I must check out the song and the album. In the meanwhile, you can check out more of the NME  interview here.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Family Matters

Over the last few days I have written to two of my cousins, T and C, both on my father's side of the family.

I see T maybe once or twice a year, and C even less frequently, and yet I still feel a closeness to both of them.

You are still dear to my heart as part of my family, part of who I am and where I came from, I wrote to C. I still cherish the memories of hanging out with you and your brother ... Like I told T in a letter to her, it's nice to know that no matter where I wander in the world, my family are my roots.

It's true. No matter what branch of which family tree we're talking about--my father's side, mother's side, my husband's family--the shared experiences, inside jokes and preserved traditions feel like as much of who I am as my blue eyes or flat feet. And speaking of genetics, there is a certain comfort in knowing that I represent my family tree in not only my appearance, but through inherited personality traits I am proud to claim.

I told C that I hope our families can get together again sometime soon. I particularly love watching my dad, Aunt P and your mom together--there is definitely a family brand of humor and they just feed off each other's jokes. I always feel like I'm in on a family secret when around them. I guess I can hope that our boys feel that way someday when they think about me and my brother, or my husband and his brother (who are pretty funny together too).

While I certainly have enjoyed writing the many letters that represent places I've gone--to college, to new jobs, to relationships, to church, to therapy--it's also meaningful to write some that remind me where I started out.

REMEMBERING OUR TROOPS: In my letter to C I thanked him for serving in our nation's military--he has my respect, admiration and gratitude. That got me thinking about maybe writing a letters to soldiers, and a little searching uncovered the letter-writing team of Soldiers' Angels. I am going to check them out.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Friends in Spirit

This weekend, the "randomness" of The Letter Jar had me writing to S, a contemporary Christian singer whose music has affected me deeply, and B, a woman with whom I attended church some 15 years ago.

In my letter to S, I noted how the release of one of his albums coincided with my graduation from college and early days at my first job.

I was struggling to figure out "what came next" in my life, I wrote. I felt more than a little lost, and chased the answers in places I wasn't ever going to find them. Your album, which I listened to on my work commute, offered me peace, hope, and a different way of thinking about where my life was, where it was headed and what it all meant. To this day, I hear songs from that album and I'm transported back in time to my early 20s, and can feel the uncertainty turning to optimism and the fear turning to joy. I cannot thank you enough for the gift of your music.

B, as I told her, is someone I consider a spiritual mentor--she lived her life with faith when things were going well and, significantly, when things weren't going well at all. I told her that to spend so much time thinking about my religious and spiritual experiences--and friends like her with whom I've shared the journey--is particularly profound right now as I pursue the ever elusive family-work balance.

I have settled into a very blessed part of my life, but yearn for a spiritual practice. My family brings me so much joy, and I feel a great deal of gratitude as well for having been given these gifts of love. At the same time, things can get stressful ... there are times when I start to feel inadequate and anxious and irritable and a little sad, and it is then that I wish I had more of a spiritual practice to lean on to steady myself. I of course turn to God at those times, but I can't help but think I would feel more spiritually whole were I talking to God everyday, rather than in fractured conversations.

Some 100 letters ago, I wrote to D, a pastor in the United Methodist campus ministry at the university I attended. I related to him how the experiences of he and I and our fellow worshipers helped build the foundation of my spiritual life--lessons I read and hear and see now are all the more clear, having explored and inquired as I did back then.

I remember it occurring to me as I wrote to D that God works ways both obvious and mysterious--God brings us to exactly where we need to be, when we need to be there. That indeed seems the case with my recent letters--God in his infinite wisdom knows my yearning, and so has called to mind such powerful memories when I was in greater communion and took time to seek rather than think.

As I told B, remembering my experiences with you reminds me that the seeker in me has not gone, even if she has been drowned out at times by the cacophony of practical issues and concerns.

It is at times like these that I am struck by all that The Letter Jar project has turned out to be, that I never did expect. Each of my letters is making its own journey to a destination near or far, but it turns out the most important journey is the one I seem to be taking--back to my truest self.

SOME TIMELY WORDS: Love from Kaz, at the delightful blog I Love Letters, devoted a lovely post the other day to singing the praises of the "slowness" of handwritten correspondence. "I like the pauses between letters," she wrote. "I like that a little bit of life passes between the time a letter is written and the time I read it, and then a little bit more of life has passed by the time I write back, and then mores still by the time the recipient receives it. What I put into a letter is not information that needs to arrive quickly. It's more about capturing a few moments that can last a lifetime and will have the same value if they're read next week, next month or next decade."

"A little bit of life passes ...." Couldn't have said it better myself.