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.