Posted in Comedy, Tragedy and What the F...?

A Life In Letters

Wax seal and old lettersWith the advancement of new technology, there is also loss. Today I mourn the demise of the letter. Yes, I know that email is faster and more efficient. I also know that you can get easily addicted to checking your phone every 10 minutes to see if someone has contacted you. Facebook has replaced the intimate chat once provided by letters with a very public façade of the personal life. Facebook and other social media have become the mask of happiness and rainbows that we wear for the world.

A few days ago an old friend, Kitty, emailed me that she was cleaning out a file cabinet and had found several of my letters. She scanned and attached two of them. And when I read them, I cried. It was a glimpse into the anticipation we held in our younger selves, and of course now, I knew how all of it had turned out.

I was punched in the emotional gut by those letters written in 1989. I’d just moved from Los Angeles to Boulder, Colorado. I was the in my thirties and in the midst of two enormous life-changing events. I’d become a college student, finishing up what I’d left behind. It was making me into a different person. AND I was falling in love with the man who would become my husband. Simultaneously my best friend, Kitty had recently given birth to a son. Her life was in a great state of change too.

The record and account of all this was documented in a series of long-distance letters in which Kitty expressed to me the fears and joys of being a first-time parent, the angst of wanting to do it right and how the ups and downs of all of that was affecting her.

I wrote about how getting a college education in my mid-thirties was giving me a sense of confidence, a sense of pride for going back and turning around something that for the longest time I didn’t believe I could fix. And then there was the tenuous narrative of my love life, words revealing the most cautious of hopes. I was in a relationship that I desperately wanted to work and feared might not, so I tiptoed around how I wrote about it. Of course looking back, I can see how much was said in what I chose not to write down.

Checking the mailbox to find a letter from Kitty brought me a rush of excitement. Her musings were a thoughtful deliberation on life, often accented by newspaper clippings and photographs from days when we were much more cavalier. I sent her short stories I’d written in school and a running commentary on my adjustment to Colorado. The letters reveal the depths of a friendship between two young women growing into their potential and purpose.

I appreciate that I can email a friend across the country and get a response in the same day, but emails are never as thoughtful as my letters once were. The anticipation of an email is more habitual than the delight of the ongoing dialogue contained in letters which were more emotionally honest. I miss that.

I am fortunate to have received many letters in my lifetime. I believe that their legacy can be found in my heart-felt love for stories. As a child traveling between divorced parents, my affection for the one I wasn’t with found expression in letters. And the connection I had from the absent parent was made up by hand printed reassurances. In my jewelry drawer, I still keep a letter from my husband, written to me one anniversary. It is a meaningful conveyance of his love and unwavering devotion to me. That he took the time to commit it to paper makes it a treasure.

When did Kitty and I stop writing letters to each other? It wasn’t a decision. It just unfolded that way. We are still in touch all of the time, but there is a sense of rush and hurry that was never in our letters. Our email sentences are shorter, and there is no longer the salutation of “Dear.” Many of our sign-offs are a promise to talk soon, knowing that the email was squeezed into a too-busy-day and that what needs to be said, what wants to be said does not exist in the paragraph on the screen.

I miss the letter. I fear that it is an art form that has met its death. I can’t imagine a title like Rilke’s Emails To A Young Poet ever gracing my bookshelf.

What about you? Have you kept letters from a friend or family member that you revisit from time to time? Do you still write letters? And like me, do you miss the delight of a letter in your mailbox? I’d like to know. Please share with me in the comment section.

Posted in Comedy, Tragedy and What the F...?

Give The Best In You To Others

Merry Christmas to All Letter in Vintage Red TypewriterThe front porch and steps of the old house were painted institutional grey. A swing holding two teenaged girls hung from the beams. They swung back and forth, the beam creaking under their weight, the thump of shoes catching and then pushing them back again. The watched me walk to the door. No smiles. “Hi,” I said, a little too perky. No response. My hand found the screen door and pulled it open, lump in my throat and “oh my God what have I gotten myself into” in my heart. Today was my first class at “Attention Homes of Boulder.”

I was a writing student at Naropa University, a Buddhist inspired school, deeply rooted in the traditions of meditation, creative expression and service to others. Attention Homes was the service to others part and it was for a class on community outreach. As a student of writing, I was expected to give back what I was getting to my community. Short of writing a letter to someone, I had no idea what that meant. Still, I had come up with my pitch to teach a class in poetry at Attention Homes. And did I mention that I had no experience in teaching and that my poetry sucked?

For twelve weeks, I would come to this place and gather the teenaged girls who lived here around the dining room table and find a way to get them to write the longings of their heart. That sounds prettier on the page than the experience. It was like learning to be the teen whisperer. The girls at Attention Homes were tougher than anyone should ever have to be, and had seen and experienced more in their young lives than most of us do in a long life. They were the stats that didn’t look that great on the graph. I was met each week by bored faces who wanted to kick my ass to the curb. Then one class, we wrote about our mothers. It wasn’t intended. It was just a happy accident that caused lines of memories and longings to pour forth onto the page, because what united us was that we all had a mother. I was too clueless to realize that these tough kids missed their moms. And I had wanted to separate myself from them. They were the students over there and I was the teacher over here. The day we wrote about our moms, there was just one of us, and it was the beginning of my understanding how we are all connected by our stories.

I finished my twelve weeks with a small book: a comb bound, copied at the corner store, typed by me, book of poetry that was beautiful. Talk about self-publishing! Each of the girls got three copies and each of them talked excitedly about what they had made and who they would give it to. Give away what you are getting. I never forgot that class or those girls.

Today I woke up to an email from Michael Larsen, the director of the San Fransisco Writers Conference. He had sent two lists. The first list was about all the things you do as a writer. The second list was about how you can give it away. In the spirit of the season of giving, I am passing the list on to you. As writers we all want to be read and that’s a good thing. But as writers, we all have a lot that we can give to our communities that goes far beyond the writing or publishing of a book.  May your days be merry and bright and may all of your Christmases inspire you to write. (Now you can see why I say my poetry sucks!–thankfully I write prose. ) Here is Michael’s list:

Here’s how to share your gifts during the holidays and the rest of the year. You can:

Write your own greetings cards by hand and use stamps to mail them

Write a letter to share your year

Write letters for those who can’t

Read books to those who can’t

Teach reading and writing

Mentor writers

Write a memoir to share your life and create a legacy

Share your knowledge with a blog, interviews, podcasts, webinars, and talks

Support groups that give books to people in need

Ask libraries, literacy groups, and charities how you can help

Join a book club

Share your passion for the value of books, reading, and writing

Encourage other writers and writer’s organizations to help

Help organize events to support your goals

Give new or used books as gifts

The more you share your gifts, the greater your gift for sharing becomes. Give the best in you to others, and you will receive more than you give.

Michael Larsen, Co-Director
The 13th San Francisco Writers Conference & Open Enrollment Classes

Happy Holidays everyone. See you in the blogosphere in the new year!iStock_000004610770_Small