Monday, July 11, 2011

Monday Letter Lore: "I Dont Know What Art is All About"

Georgia O'Keeffe, 1918
There are careers, and there are passions, and then there are the friends who help you sort them out.

I've been told I'm very good, and I'm fairly compensated, in my career in non-profit member communications. And while I do like my job, I can't say I love it.

What I love is handwriting letters to friends and family and endeavoring to inspire others to do the same. These activities are my passion, but I often do wonder, am I really any good at them? (The inspiration part, I guess. I'm willing to believe that I'm pretty good at writing letters.)

I felt a little bit better about my self-doubt when I read the subject of this week's Monday Letter Lore, a letter from legendary artist Georgia O'Keeffe to a friend in New York. (This letter is yet another from the simply extraordinary America 1900-1999: Letters of the Century.)

At the time O'Keeffe had spent several week in her beloved New Mexico, the new home that inspired some of her most amazing work. In the letter she recounts reading an art book--one that features a profile of her and is the lone piece of printed material she has brought along:

July 31, 1931

I dont know what it is all about. I look through the rest of the book and decide that frankly--I dont know what Art is all about--

Georgia O'Keeffe didn't think she knew what art was all about. Georgia O'Keeffe--one of America's most important modern artists and a celebrated cultural icon--doubted she knew what ART was all about.

Reading her words, I realized two things:

  1. I ought not let my worries about whether I excel at my passion keep me from pursuing it.

  2. How precious is the person or people in our lives to whom we can admit anything, even the seemingly self-incriminating.
 For me, one of those precious people is a bestselling author friend. As I have struggled to establish my own writing career, she has encouraged me, serendipitously put me in touch with people who could help, and most of all served as a role model for never losing sight of your true passion, no matter what other accomplishments you accumulate along the way. (She was a successful interior designer before becoming a multimillion-dollar selling author.)

My friend once said to me that I have this dream--to write with the intent of helping save the art of handwritten correspondence--because it is attainable. I'm not dreaming about being an astronaut, or a supermodel, or a Supreme Court justice. I'm dreaming about something that is within my abilities to achieve. I took the opportunity of a letter to thank her for those special words, which have pulled me through many of my own "I don't know Art is all about" moments:

You're right--I had the dream because I'm supposed to fulfill it. So, so amazing ... thanks for being a reason to believe that dreams can come true, that dignity, class, dedication and faith will prevail and the universe is listening more closely and actively than we know.

When I've pondered my life's work--What it should be? How can I do it? Do I really know how to do it?--there have been seemingly endless resources to help me sort it out. Life coaches, websites, seminars and books have all helped, but nothing can replace the words of a friend who knows me and knows what I'm trying to achieve, and has spotted at the end of the tunnel the light I thought had long since been extinguished.

I'm reminded, too, that inasmuch as my friend was my cheerleader, I may wittingly, or unwittingly, play the same role for someone else in my life. It is a privilege and an honor I can't take lightly.

Write on.

DID YOU KNOW LETTERS & JOURNALS MAGAZINE HAS A FACEBOOK PAGE? If you're like me and can't get enough of lovely stationery and journals, you'll want to become a fan and watch for the regular, lust-inducing giveaways offered along with news and curiosities from the world of handwritten correspondence.

Friday, July 8, 2011

Precious Time

Lately, far more often than I'd like to admit, I've found myself thinking, "I don't have time to write a letter today," or "I'll write tomorrow" or "Maybe I'll find time this weekend."

It's not that life hasn't indeed been busy. A family member was recently hospitalized. My toddler--despite being on the run and up the walls and down the stairs all day long--never seems to get tired. Expanded responsibilities and new technologies challenge me at my job.

No, it's not that extra time and energy aren't scarce. Rather, it's the conclusions I draw about that reality--that somehow, using some of my precious minutes to write a letter is either too relaxing (shouldn't I be cleaning the refrigerator instead?) or not relaxing enough (why not just unwind with some channel surfing and chardonnay?)

But when I do compose a note, as I did recently to my friend L from college, I am reminded that letter writing offers both discipline and release. Sure, putting pen to paper is a mental exercise requiring a bit more time and physical labor than texting, but, done right, it's a spiritual practice too. I suppose some letters for some people are a blood pressure-raising experience, but I have chosen to devote none of mine to settling scores with adversaries or hashing out bygone dramas with estranged relatives. Instead, my letters to friends and family reminisce on shared good times, recall old jokes and recognize how enriched I am by the blessings my relationships have bestowed. Like I told L:

I am so glad we have kept in touch through our Christmas cards. I look forward every year to your letter--I so enjoy hearing about your travels and your charity work, and I am so inspired by your sense of adventure and optimism.

It's when I'm most busy, my days filled with opportunities and obligations, that I most need a practice that encourages me to slow down, be thankful and think abundantly. While letter writing can seemingly threaten to leave me with less precious time, in the end it helps to make more of my time precious.

Write on.

MUCH MORE THAN COOKIES: More than a dozen women who were Girl Scouts together almost 40 years ago have kept their friendships strong. I am inspired, and a little nostalgic for our my own fond memories of Camp Wood E Lo Hi.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

No Two Alike

In the past month I've been to two communications conferences where the focus has been, not surprisingly, on all things digital. So much content for us to consume--websites, wikis, blogs and social networks. A next big thing called content curation.

And so many ways to consume --smartphones, tablets, Internet TV, to say nothing of those antiques, the laptop and desktop PC.

It's all so simple. And so fast. Talking to so many people, in so little time.

It was enough to make a girl say, "Tell me again why I'm handwriting letters?"

Fair question. But here's the thing: for all the things electronic communication can do, there are some things it can't:

Create a tangible connection. When I receive a handwritten letter in the mail, I know that the sender touched that same piece of paper. No matter how many thousands of miles I erase when Facebooking with my friend in Japan, I still can't create that same intimacy.

Leave something valuable behind. Yes, emails can be printed and saved. But how many are? And when an email is printed, in that Times New Roman or Courier font, on that run-of-the-mill (literally) white printer paper, how personal does it seem? At a glance, does that letter look any different than the water bill? A stack of letters saved in a box looks like a piece of history. A stack of emails printed out looks like, well, a stack of printouts.

A handwritten letter is a representation of the sender, with all of his or her idiosyncrasies and eccentricities. The paper. The handwriting. The color of the pen. The straight, or decidedly not straight, lines. Drawings in the margin. The postscript(s).

Case in point: I recently received a letter from T, a public defender. When I was learning the ropes as a newspaper reporter he was my nemesis; when I earned his trust he was a valued source; now I'm proud to call him a friend. I wrote to thank him for all he taught me. His response noted, in part, that he'd shown my letter (which he described as "a pretty large rock thrown into the tranquil pond of my cognition") to another reporter "I done went and scared/offended/pissed off at the courthouse."

T could have typed all that in an email, and I would have still smiled at the sentiment. But somehow the words weighed more written on the nice stationery, in that same tall, skinny scrawl I remember from all those court filings. I knew T didn't start and stop and delete and spellcheck--it was one time through, no rehearsals, from the heart.

And that's the thing about handwritten letters--and the snowflakes that illustrate this post--no two are alike. Because no two of us are alike. A letter is uniquely personal, someone's blood, sweat and ink. The product of his or her hand, to be held in yours.

Write on.

HANDWRITING IS GOOD FOR YOU? Believe it. A recent Los Angeles Times article notes that "Emerging research shows that handwriting increases brain activity, hones fine motor skills, and can predict a child's academic success in ways that keyboarding can't."

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Monday Letter Lore: "Unpack"

Today's letter, a reminder that not all letters need be lengthy, comes courtesy of one of my favorite new books: America 1900-1999: Letters of the Century. Hundreds of the letters by the famous, the infamous and the unknown. When a letter writer stops to read, and her mailbox is empty, this is what she picks up.

After disproving the predictions to win the White House -- and holding high the erroneous Chicago Tribune proclaiming Dewey's victory for the now iconic photo -- President Harry S. Truman received this short and sweet letter from his friend, comedian Bob Hope:

November 3, 1948

President Harry Truman
The White House
Washington, D.C.


Bob Hope

Some of my letters have been brief (though Mr. Hope, naturally, was far more successful at finding the wit that Shakespeare so lovingly associated with brevity) but others seemed to march toward some mysterious word limit that must be reached in order for a letter to have meaning. I can definitely think of times when I've rambled on needlessly, times when shorter indeed would have been sweeter.

So while I've certainly had opportunities to write one -- or two or three or seventy-seven -- word fewer, could I ever express myself with just one word? An interesting proposition indeed; what might it be? "Thanks"? "Sorry"? "Help"?

Write on.

ONE-WORD WISDOM: To discover what can really be done with one word, check out my friend's blog, Jen has cleverly surmounted writer's block by sending cards to friends, asking them for words to use as writing prompts. Just as fun as reading what's she produced so far is perusing the "word list" and seeing what's to come!

Monday, March 28, 2011

Monday Letter Lore: "A Quarter Century's Worth of Thanks"

If The Letter Jar project has had one consistent theme, it's gratitude. At times it has seemed there are as many reasons to be grateful as there are names in the jar (a wonderful situation indeed). I've thanked:

*A former employee for his dedication and creativity

*A one-time presidential candidate for treating me with respect when I interviewed him as a cub reporter

*My son's daycare teacher for her extraordinary support and skill

*The public defender who made me a better reporter

I've thanked an airline customer service agent who made a difference for me at a crucial moment, favorite musicians for sharing their gifts. Old flames for teaching me how to have fun. My parents for raising me well.

The dozens of thank yous I've penned have humbled me -- I've wondered at times how an average gal like me gets so lucky and deserves such riches. However the letter below, discovered through the truly amazing Letters of Note website, shows that not even the most "un-average" among us are above acknowledging help. Here, on the 25th anniversary of the lunar landing, the first man on the moon thanks the makers of his "EMU," or Extravehicular Mobility Unit:

To the EMU gang:

I remember noting a quarter century or so ago that an emu was a 6 foot Australian flightless bird. I thought that got most of it right.

It turned out to be one of the most widely photographed spacecraft in history. That was no doubt due to the fact that it was so photogenic. Equally responsible for its success was its characteristic of hiding from view its ugly occupant.

Its true beauty, however, was that it worked. It was tough, reliable and almost cuddly.

To all of you who made it all that it was, I send a quarter century's worth of thanks and congratulations.


Neil A. Armstrong

The perfect thank you -- humble, heartfelt and even a little humorous (the "almost cuddly" EMU?) Who doesn't have someone to thank for working for us, for giving us a lift when we needed it, for a boost in our critical hour?

Write on.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Monday Letter Lore: "In the end you are sure to succeed"

Today marks the debut Monday Letter Lore, a weekly offering of  memorable letters in history as fodder for our imaginations, grist for our mills.

At times throughout The Letter Jar I have found myself writing a letter of encouragement -- to a friend or and family member facing illness or infertility, even simple indecision. While I sometimes struggle with what to say, I always feel better stumbling over a few well-intentioned words than saying nothing at all. I know that when I am hurting, it makes a difference when someone tells me they're thinking of me. And while any comfort through any medium is welcome, there is a special feeling that comes from knowing  someone took the time to pen a note and find a stamp and a mailbox.

For George Latham, a friend of one of Abraham Lincoln's sons, that someone was the would-be president himself. While Lincoln probably didn't have to find the stamp or mailbox himself, and indeed didn't have the option of firing off a quick text instead, it is nonetheless remarkable that he, while campaigning for president in July 1860, reached out to George after learning that the young man had been unable to get into Harvard.

My dear George

I have scarcely felt greater pain in my life than on learning yesterday from Bob's letter, that you failed to enter Harvard University. And yet there is very little in it, if you will allow no feeling of discouragement to seize, and prey upon you. It is a certain truth, that you can enter, and graduate in, Harvard University; and having made the attempt, you must succeed in it. "Must" is the word.

I know not how to aid you, save in the assurance of one of mature age, and much severe experience, that you can not fail, if you resolutely determine, that you will not.

The President of the institution, can scarcely be other than a kind man; and doubtless he would grant you an interview, and point out the readiest way to remove, or overcome, the obstacles which have thwarted you.

In your temporary failure there is no evidence that you may not yet be a better scholar, and a more successful man in the great struggle of life, than many others, who have entered college more easily.

Again I say let no feeling of discouragement prey upon you, and in the end you are sure to succeed.

With more than a common interest I subscribe myself Very truly your friend,

A. Lincoln.

(Special thanks to for the text of the letter. Check it out for much more history of and wisdom from our 16th president.)

"... In the end you are sure to succeed." Words with power, whether uttered by one of our most famous American statesmen to a family friend, or just you or me to someone near to our hearts.

Write on.

STILL TIME TO ENTER LAST WEEK'S MIDWEEK MOTIVATION: I've started my letter to S, my running companion and confidante. To whom are you writing to this week, and why? Comment through tomorrow for a chance to win a set of notecards from the chewytulip etsy shop.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Winner, Week 1

Congratulations to "chewytulip," an artist and etsy shop proprietor who is the first randomly chosen winner after leaving a lovely comment in response to last week's Letter Jar Challenge:

I used to make postcards regularly and send them to my grandfather. The cards would be bright, colorful,and weird. He didn't ever say much, but he displayed them all on his coffee table. :)

What a wonderful memory! Indeed, displaying your postcards "said" more than words could convey.

Thanks also to LisavVi and Karen for your comments. I appreciate your interest in The Letter Jar project!

As for me, I've been sick enough that rest has taken priority over writing, so no letter to report this week. However, I certainly wasn't going to let Wednesday pass without picking my first winner and issuing a new Midweek Motivation (that makes two letters for me this week):

I've pulled from the The Letter Jar the name of  S, whom I met while training for a half-marathon six years ago. I'm friends with S on Facebook, but have never really expressed how much her companionship during those training runs meant to me. Of course we cheered each other on, but we also just talked (being able to keep up somewhat of a conversation, of course, being a way to keep overexertion in check). And what I ended up talking about with S was my dissolving marriage -- I wasn't ready to talk to the friends and family who had attended my wedding, but this new, neutral friend was a sounding board and confidante whom I'm never forgotten. I look forward to thanking S for all she did for me, more than I'm sure she ever knew, just by listening.

Do you know someone who seemed to appear in your life just when you needed him or her, someone you've been meaning to thank for their help, their friendship, their contribution?

THIS WEEK'S PRIZE comes courtesy of chewytulip's etsy shop full of fun, original postcards and lettersets, as well as animal magnets, paintings, scarves and a line of pickle-themed schwag. I'll be ordering a set of owl notecards for myself, and this week's winner will also be treated to a set of chewytulip notecards that strike his or her fancy.

Write on!

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Introducing The Letter Jar Challenge

I've discovered the answer to the question I posed in my last blog post -- now that I've spent a year writing letters, what do I do next?

Of course. I'm going to encourage others to join me.

In the letters I have written to family, friends, old coworkers, teachers and all order of long lost mentors and pals over the last year, I've referred to The Letter Jar project as "one woman's crusade to save the dying art of the handwritten letter."

But must it really be the crusade of just "one woman?" Surely there must be others like me and my friend T, who in a recent letter back to me referred to himself as a "post-Luddite -- one who eschews technology and is yet high tech." In fact, I know there are others like us -- letter-writing bloggers like The Missive Maven and Jackie from Letters and Journals.

And who else? That's what I hope to find out.

Let's start a letter-writing movement.

Let's put down the iPhones, if even for a moment, and pick up our pens.

Let's write to our mothers, our dear friends, our old teachers and bosses.

Let's tell them what we remember about them, how much they mean to us, what we learned from them.

Let's be brief and witty or long-winded and soulful.

Let's write on our best lined paper or that stationery with frogs on it, that we just couldn't ever find a use for.

Let's express our thoughts in handwritten waves, seal them up in envelopes and send them on fantastic voyages.

Then, let's talk about it here. You don't have to name names, or reveal exactly what you wrote. But how does the person to whom you wrote fit into your life? How did writing the letter feel? Were you thankful or joyful or wistful or pensive? Why did you choose who you did? Why -- or why not -- do you think you'll hear back?

Any good challenge needs a worthy prize. Let's kick off our first week with something every letter-writer can use: postage. From all the comments I receive through next Tuesday, March 8, about the letters being written -- and the people writing them -- I'll choose someone at random to receive a book of first-class stamps.

With further ado, let me issue the inaugural Midweek Motivation. I'm pulling a name from The Letter Jar and it is ... B, a former work colleague who was not only a good collaborator, but also a friend who still inspires me to be my best professionally and personally.

Who is a current or former coworker who has had an impact on your life? Have you ever expressed just how that person influenced you? What might you say to thank him or her?

Write on!

ALREADY DONE? WANT TO WRITE SOME MORE? Then check out the love letter contest that author Kristina McMorris is sponsoring to promote her debut novel, Letters From Home. Her  prize is a WWII memory box full of gorgeous stationery, a fleur-de-lis wax seal and nostalgic goodies. Contest ends March 31 -- get the details here. Letters From Home comes to bookstores this month.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Now What Do I Do?

Day 365 passed, without fanfare, on Sunday.

In a year, I wrote 221 letters -- impressive in some ways, yes, but still well short of the 365 I had envisioned.

There are a couple big reasons why I didn't meet my "letter a day" goal:

1) My letters turned out to be actual "letters," not "notes." Some were as long as 8 pages, the average was probably 5. Such an undertaking just wasn't possible on some days, and it never felt right to shortchange a recipient by saying less than what was on my mind.

2) "Those days" when letter-writing went to the back burner, bubbling away in the front were things like childcare, housekeeping and my day job. I suspected from the beginning that fitting such a project into my busy schedule would be tough, and it was. But so rich were the rewards of letter-writing that I persisted even after dry spells and letters that took days to write.

So now what do I do? Write the last 144 letters, and celebrate completion of my project on maybe day 525, versus 365? Or just give up?

Who am I kidding? There is no way I'm throwing in the towel (or pen, as the case may be). "A letter a day" might have been a glorious goal, but it was also one that turned out to be just beyond my reach. That's OK, because throughout the pursuit, I've been enlightened, amused, humbled, empowered and simply reminded time and again of how terribly, terribly lucky I am -- lucky enough, indeed, to have 144 more people to thank for touching my life.

HOW DID I MISS THIS? Not that trying to finish The Letter Jar project will likely leave me much time for reading, but I still must get my hands on "Letters of the Century." This 2008 release "comprises 423 letters that are by turns intimate, bureaucratic, officious and epoch-defining ... the letters offer remarkable glimpses of various facets of American life." I can't wait to see for myself.

Thursday, January 27, 2011


I always heard as a child -- and slowly have come to believe as an adult -- that everything happens for a reason.

It would seem the Letter Jar and the responses it  attracts are no exception.

Recently I wrote to my friend M, a graphic designer whom I met while working at a community college in New Mexico. I told her how much I admire not only her creativity but also her openness, inquisitiveness and energy.

You approach life with the attitude that there is always something new to learn, always a way to expand your horizons and your understanding. That kind of living is unique and refreshing and something I aspire to ... you're not afraid to test your own limits and I think that's very, very awesome.

I should have known that news of M's latest exploits -- which she recounted briefly in an e-mail after receiving my letter -- would serve as a well-timed, much needed boost when I was weary in the pursuit of my own passions. Turns out M recently quit her job as a designer and is one month away from a degree in massage therapy, an achievement she'll follow by moving to Idaho to train as a Kung Fu instructor. Ultimately she'll move back to New Mexico to open a studio where she'll offer -- you guessed it -- massage therapy and Kung Fu lessons.

I decided sometime at the beginning of last year that I needed to change something in my life. I was feeling very unhappy at [the community college] and it was more because I needed a change ... I'll do massage therapy during the day and Kung Fu at night. Sounds dreamy! Doesn't it?

Were it anyone else, the whole dream might seem odd. But I know M and I know that one day I'll be visiting her highly successful studio -- when she sets her mind to something, she doesn't let up. I call her unique brand of ambition "ferocity and focus."

And what do I call the fact that her e-mail showed up on a day when my own confidence was sagging, when I needed inspiration to stay true to my own odd -- but just as beloved -- dream of the Letter Jar project and accompanying book?

I call that luck. Or, as my Jewish friend A would say, "bashert." I wrote about my good fortune of sharing dinner with him when he traveled to Chicago from Albuquerque for a conference last year, just days after he received my letter. That night we marveled at how I just happened to write when I did -- we hadn't talked in several years. "It's Bashert, he said. "It's a Yiddish word and there's no exact translation in English, though fate comes close."

Truly. Call it bashert, or fate, or even just plain old luck -- responses to The Letter Jar seem to consistently bring me the right words at the right time. I can only hope that's true for some of the letters I send, as well.

MAIL FROM A FELLOW MAILER: I guess I ought to have expected that respondents to a blog about letter-writing would be an eclectic bunch. One such reader is Sheryl at, a website whose name kind of says it all. Sheryl e-mailed to let me know about her new blog post, "10 Reasons Why Mail Can Be Late." Wondering why that letter bound for Phoenix took a detour through Fayetteville? Read on. And thanks Sheryl for visiting The Letter Jar!

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Unique Blend

I have written before about how this project sometimes finds me in two worlds -- a 17th century world where people waited weeks and months as their handwritten correspondence traveled miles and mountains and seas, and a 21st century one where I wait just seconds as the Web produces the address of my high school ecology teacher in response to my typed query.

This blend of old and new seems all the more striking when I find myself writing, longhand with paper and pen, to people I've met only over the Internet. There have been seven such letters, all addressed to some of the amazing women I have met through an online message board for stepmothers like me. I recently wrote to J, who has inspired me by overcoming adversity and never losing sight of her dreams even amid major turmoil:

While it might seem in some ways odd to be so moved by someone I've never met, I guess it's a testament to the power of the Internet (this whole letter-writing project might make me appear to be a Luddite, but actually I can still appreciate our wired culture) and more specifically the power of what [the stepmom site's founder] created -- I'm looking forward to writing to her and thanking her! I am really thankful for the chance to "meet" so many amazing, strong, imaginative women.

That I can count these women among my friends, and write to them along with my childhood and college friends, teachers, coworkers and family, ever reinforces the gratitude The Letter Jar project has instilled in me. It may be, as many people say, a Facebook/Twitter/e-mail world, and we're just living in it. Turns out that's fine even for an old-fashioned writer like me.

NEXT READ: I can't wait to get my hands on 365 Thank Yous by John Kralik. After hitting what seemed to him to be the indisputable rock bottom in his life, Kralik embarked on a journey to focus on what he had, versus what he didn't. What resulted were 365 thank you notes to a bevy of people that, he discovered, enriched his life in myriad ways. Hooray for the power of gratitude -- can't wait to read of his experiences.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011


I was delighted this past weekend to find in my mailbox a letter from K, whom I babysat some 25 years ago.

As a babysitter I probably dispensed valuable advice such as "Don't touch the oven because it's hot" and "No, Barbie doesn't want to go swimming in the toilet."

But with her letter, it was K's turn to impart wisdom:

After going home as an adult I realized that the grass is not always greener. At least we have the memories to warm our hearts and keep us young.

I had waxed nostalgic to K about our hometown in Western New York, how as a Chicago suburbanite I missed the slower pace and seemingly purer nature of small town life.

K, herself now living in a busy metropolitan area in the South, acknowledged that her life can also sometimes seem too busy. But, she added, our recollections of the old neighborhood aren't necessarily the reality: on a recent visit she witnessed how the economic recession has ravaged the area, leaving it run down and boarded up.

It is amazing how things change.

K is right. As I pondered her words -- and marveled at how I was receiving counsel from the little girl who used to beg to stay up for the first few minutes of "Dallas," so she could dance to the theme song before going to bed -- I realized my hometown is probably not the only place where the grass isn't greener. Were I to literally see so many of the locales that I figuratively revisit in my letters, I'm sure I'd find the vegetation less lush than it grows in my mind's eye.

The point isn't, as K pointed out, to try to recreate our beloved memories but instead use them as fuel and inspiration. Which, of course, is a compelling argument for stepping out of the past in order to experience -- and make worthwhile memories in -- the present. As Kacy Crowley sings in "Kind of Perfect": someday these will be our old days, let's make them worth remembering.

Indeed. In writing more than 200 letters I have been blessed to be able to reflect on some exquisitely beautiful -- vibrantly green, if you will -- people, places and events, and I look forward to doing the same in another year, or 10 or 25.

AS GOOD AS ESPRESSO: I started my day today by writing to a former coworker. Remembering her unique combination of discipline, diligence and humor was just the inspiration I needed to start my week. Thanks J.