Wednesday, September 29, 2010

On Paper, In Person

Funny how writing so many letters to old friends can make you want to meet some new ones too.

A few weeks ago I wrote to A, a friend I made some eight years ago when we both attended a nonprofit management course at a local university. A was the director of a local Jewish center, and I was relatively new to a position in public affairs for the university health science campus.

A and I got to know each other in brief chats before and after class and during breaks, and when the course was finished we met a few times for breakfast. Writing to him I realized that as I have moved into a different phase in my life -- from working in public relations to a more solitary editing position, with another full-time job at home raising a toddler -- I miss the opportunities I used to have to meet new people.

As time has gone by I don't necessarily remember what we talked about during our breakfasts ... but what I do still remember very well is the experience of meeting someone new and broadening my horizons through shared experience and conversation and connection. If this letter-writing project has taught me (or perhaps more accurately, reminded me of) anything, it's that life is about relationships and the bonds we forge with others ... and the friendship I shared with you serves as a reminder of something I enjoy ... meeting new people from different walks of life and learning from and being inspired by them.

In my nostalgia for days gone by and the connections I made naturally working in public relations, I realized that I can still broaden my horizons even now. Forging new relationships may take a little more effort than it did in my 20s, but it's still possible -- I am aware that I need only be willing to show up in different places than I normally do, and reach out to the people I find there. That simple formula, after all, launched relationships with the dozens of friends whose names are in The Letter Jar -- we crossed paths at the beach as kids, at a church youth group, in a college dorm, at a meeting of a professional association.

I know I could find ways to meet new people once again, and the warm memories of getting to know you serve as an inspiration to do so. Thank you not only for the friendship you gave me at the time but for helping to rekindle a part of myself that has gone needlessly quiet.

I ended my note to A, residing a half dozen states away, as I do so many letters to far-flung friends: I told him I didn't know when our paths might cross again, but, until they do, to take care and God bless.

Turns out those paths will cross sooner than later -- A typed me a letter (he explained, apologetically, that I would be unable to read anything he handwrote) and said he'll be in my area for a conference in just two weeks. I don't know if you call that serendipity, or synchronicity, or what, but I am so glad A's name came out of the jar when it did. I'm looking forward to a chance to go "off paper" and "in person" for a while.

WELL-SCRIPTED: When I started my @theletterjar account on Twitter, I naturally used the #letters hashtag to search for like-minded "tweeps." (The irony of using the epitome of 21st century technology to find enthusiasts of a 19th century pastime is not lost on me.) I was somewhat bombarded at the time with tweets about the movie "Letters to Juliet," which was just hitting the theaters. Tonight I noticed the movie has made it to my Pay Per View -- perhaps it's finally time to indulge in a little "letter as plot device" romantic drama.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Stuck ...

in the 1800s.

That's how I'm feeling tonight, about my letter-writing project. I am fond as ever of my (almost) daily missives, but was just reminded again of how this effort might be termed "quaint" or "old-fashioned," or--far less generously--"archaic."

I wrote a letter to J, the lead singer of one of my favorite bands. Remember when you could "write" to the fan club of your favorite singer or actor? Write, as in take a pencil--or a silver glitter pen or a fuchsia magic marker, depending on your age, gender and level of ardor toward your letter recipient--to paper and express your thoughts, then stuff them in an envelope, slap on a stamp and send them to the fan club's P.O. box? (Yes, this is how I once got a signed photo of Hall and Oates, but I digress.)

Well, it seems times have changed. I was hard pressed to find a physical address anywhere for J and his band--clicking the "Contact Us" link on the band's online fan club page yielded an e-mail form, because doesn't everyone e-mail now?

Well, almost everyone.

I settled for sending the letter in care of J's record label, which assures on its website that it looks forward to hearing from fans of all its artists. That may well be true, in terms of the label now having my address to send me junk mail, but I put the odds of J ever receiving my letter at 50/50, best case.

Luckily for me, as important as J receiving the letter was the act of writing it--I've long wanted to tell him what an amazing songwriter I think he is, and how so many of his songs have profoundly affected me. And the act of expressing gratitude for gifts, from no matter where they come, is something worth sticking to.

SPEAKING OF FAN MAIL: Among the letters published on the website Letters of Note are celebrities' notable, memorable, and downright quirky responses to fan mail they receive. A recently posted letter from Tatum O'Neal, circa 1982, is a perfect case in point.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

All in a Day's Work

They were just doing their jobs.

That's one way of looking at my experiences with two people to whom I wrote this week. But the way N, an airline customer service agent, effectively yet unknowingly talked me out of a panic was nothing short of brilliant. And M, the first nurse I encountered on the mother-baby unit after having my son, is quite simply an angel.

N answered the phone on a fateful day in March 2005 when I called United Airlines--on the way to the airport, no less--to confirm I indeed had a last-minute ticket to Chicago purchased on a discount travel site.

You had the unenviable task of telling me that I didn't have a seat--that the online deal had not gone through. I was crushed, and you must have known, because you were so kind. You told me to hold a minute and you would see what you could find. I was starting to panic at the prospect of not being able to make the trip, but something in your voice, your calm and reassuring way, kept me believing that things might still work out.

Things worked out. N found me a ticket--at a cost no more than the discount site, even--and I made it to Chicago. To see, as it would turn out, the man who would one day become my husband and the father of my child.

Now I realize that in some ways you were just doing your job--you looked in the system, found a ticket and sold it to me. But, like I said, your calming manner made all the difference in the world to me at that point. I never told you during the call why I needed the ticket, but you knew somehow that there was emotional urgency and did your job with exceeding kindness.

When the aforementioned child was born last year, M was there to reassure and guide one exhilarated-but-exhausted mommy.

All the things you had to walk me through--particularly all that bathroom stuff--you did it with such kindness and patience. It takes a special kind of person to be a nurse, and you are that kind of person. At such a moment, when the new mommy is so physically and emotionally fragile (in a good way, but still fragile) she needs a reassuring voice and steady hand to guide her. And mommies at your hospital are so lucky to have you. Thank you, thank you, thank you for all you did to make me comfortable and able to enjoy every awe-filled moment with my new baby ... I know you were just doing your job, but you do it really well.

If there is one thing I love about The Letter Jar project, it's how my eyes are opened all the time to new sources of blessings. By reflecting upon random acts of kindness and grace encountered in the past, often in the course of short interactions with people during their workdays, I am ever more able to recognize--and not wait nearly so long to acknowledge--blessings in the present.

SINCERELY SWELL: I'm delighted to have discovered the letter-writing blog Sincerely Lauren. In a recent interview on another of my favorite letter blogs, 365 Letters, Lauren answers the question, "What is your favorite letter?"

Lauren: "Any letter that is sent to me.  I'm not picky.  I do like longer letters, but beggars can't be choosers."

Write on!

Monday, September 13, 2010

Change Just One Step ...

And the whole journey could be different.

That's what I was thinking tonight as I wrote to J, who as the editor of community newspaper in Colorado some 20-plus years ago, took a chance and hired me--a high school sophomore with no real journalism experience but a whole lot of desire to learn--as one of her reporters.

Throughout this letter-writing project I've written to (or plan to write to, in the case of names still in the jar) people who have influenced my path as a writer over my lifetime. My 7th grade English instructor. My high school journalism teacher. My advisor at the University of Iowa. And you. Of course I'm not claiming that one person made or broke my career, but I certainly do believe that each and every person made a difference, and the outcome just wouldn't have been the same if I'd changed even one step. So thank you. Thank you for finding a way to give an aspiring journalist a way to get her feet wet, cut her teeth (OK, enough with the metaphors) and collect some bylines.

In writing my letters I often have been struck, not only when writing to people related to my career, by the idea that every step--no matter how seemingly insignificant--influences the whole journey. And when you consider that "journey" is just another way of referring to "life," what are "steps" but experiences and connections with other people? Sometimes the interactions are with our close friends and relatives, people we see time and time again. And other times, we interact with someone briefly, and it's still enough to make a difference.

My experience with J was a positive one. I've found, however, the "don't change a step" pep talk most useful during negative times, whenever I start to think, "What am I doing here?" or "What could this possibly have to do with anything?" Or (my personal favorite) "Now that was a complete waste of time."

But if I change one step-any step--the journey could be different. So let me bless the steps I've taken, fully experience the ones I'm taking and be fearless about the ones to come.

LAST WORDS: I was fascinated to read that a note penned by John Lennon 15 minutes before his murder is now up for sale for $154,000.

Saturday, September 4, 2010


Though the first thing that popped into my head as I wrote the title of this post was Barbra Streisand and the "corners of her mind" (misty watercolor memories ...), I'm feeling a lot more a lot more Funny Girl than The Way We Were.

I just wrote a letter to D, a high school friend. D was also my senior prom date, and I couldn't help but smile as I recalled that spring 1989 night.

That dress of mine -- hideous. So, so 80s, what with the pepto pink and the hoop skirt, aye aye aye. At least the hoop provided comic relief when I got into the Barracuda at the end of the night--I remember the damned thing smacking me in the face.

The story is true. D and I weren't doing anything at all lascivious, he was just driving me home. But as I lowered myself into the deep, deep bucket seat of D's car, the hoop raised itself--in a rapid and too-hysterical-to-truly-be-mortifying kind of way.

Recalling funny memories like that has been one of the best parts of The Letter Jar project. Recently I wrote to A, who in addition to being my best friend for the better part of 18 years, is by far the best traveling companion I've ever had. Roadtripping all over the country, from Wyoming to Georgia to Louisiana, we've racked up some pretty hilarious memories. I laughed out loud recalling the Savannah port-a-potty to which I lost a t-shirt I'd just purchased, the North Dakota farms we toured on a construction detour and the shrieking noises to which we fell asleep camping in Yellowstone. (We would learn from a park employee in the morning that those dulcet tones were, in fact, mating elk.)

I enjoyed another night of laughing and writing and laughing when I wrote to K, who roomed with me and A my senior year of college. The things we did and said in that apartment (a "quote board," which K swears she transcribed at some point, served to record the "things said")--what a year. My husband had to think I was nuts, listening to me just cackling downstairs as I penned my recollections of our misadventures. Questionable boyfriends. Inside jokes. Too much liquor. Not enough sleep. Memories I wouldn't trade for anything.

(K told me that she too laughed out loud--and got a few raised eyebrows from her husband--as she read my letter, which she has kept for whenever she needs a pick-me-up. I'm glad to share the wealth.)

The list goes on and on. The high school friends with whom I "TP'd." The grade school buddies who were the Farrah Fawcett and Jaclyn Smith to my Kate Jackson in regular re-enactments of Charlie's Angels. The friend who took me in and filled me with gin to help me through my thirtysomething divorce.

Sure, I'd probably stumble across these memories in the--ahem, corners of my mind--from time to time even without The Letter Jar. But the act of sitting down, almost daily, to focus on just one person, brings back so many more memories--and in such surprisingly vivid detail. And I'm quite grateful that some memories aren't just happy, but hilarious--surely the sign of a blessed life.

Funny girls, the way we were.

SHOUT OUT: Just have to thank Twitter's @writerlydee for graciously following and cheerfully supporting The Letter Jar project. Never did I know how many fellow letter lovers there were out there--may your paper be plentiful and your pens never run dry!