Friday, November 5, 2010

Letters (Part 1)

I love a good letter. Even a card is nice. Usually opening the mailbox is more of a duty these days, an obligation. Almost all correspondence from the mailbox is in the form of advertisements or bills. It is rare to pull out the wad that is in there and find a real letter written by someone’s hand with carefully constructed thoughts and feelings.

I used to look forward to seeing what little time capsules of emotion and ideas made there way through the system to my home. Now, when Heidi is out of town for a few days I don’t even bother to bring in the mail – unless it is near bill paying time.

Writing a letter takes great effort in an age of instant communication, right? I mean there is the cell phone, email, texting, Twitter, Facebook. These are so fast, so immediate that your pocket vibrates to let you know that someone, somewhere – it could be very far away – has just sent a stray thought your way. Compared to leaving an electronic communication in someone’s in-box, writing a letter takes a lot of effort. I can totally relate to what Garrison Keillor has written about the lost art of letter writing.

We shy persons need to write a letter now and then, or else we'll dry up and blow away. It's true. And I speak as one who loves to reach for the phone, dial the number, and talk. I say, "Big Bopper here - what's shakin', babes?" The telephone is to shyness what Hawaii is to February, it's a way out of the woods, and yet: a letter is better.

Such a sweet gift - a piece of handmade writing, in an envelope that is not a bill, sitting in our friend's path when she trudges home from a long day spent among wahoos and savages, a day our words will help repair. They don't need to be immortal, just sincere. She can read them twice and again tomorrow: You're someone I care about, Corrine, and think of often and every time I do you make me smile.

We need to write, otherwise nobody will know who we are. They will have only a vague impression of us as A Nice Person, because, frankly, we don't shine at conversation, we lack the confidence to thrust our faces forward and say, "Hi! I'm Heather Hooten; let me tell you about my week." Mostly we say "Uh-huh" and "Oh, really." People smile and look over our shoulder, looking for someone else to meet.

So a shy person sits down and writes a letter. To be known by another person - to meet and talk freely on the page - to be close despite distance. To escape from anonymity and be our own sweet selves and express the music of our souls.

Same thing that moves a giant rock star to sing his heart out in front of 123,000 people moves us to take a ballpoint in hand and write a few lines to our dear Aunt Eleanor. We want to be known. We want her to know that we have fallen in love, that we quit our job, that we're moving to New York, and we want to say a few things that might not get said in casual conversation: Thank you for what you've meant to me, I'm very happy right now.

In writing a letter you must A) Gather the necessary ingredients. And they might be spread out a ways in your home. Paper (I prefer plane white), the proper pen, an envelope, a stamp, an address book. And B) Have some private time to think, muse, ponder, wonder and contemplate. This may be more of a challenge to come up with than all of the physical ingredients. Time among us busy humans is scarce. Finally C) Have the energy and commitment to gather all of A), apply B) and take the completed product to the mailbox. I will often get A) and B) completed and not get all the way to C) meaning I’ll have to repeat A) and B).

Writing an email could be nearly as effective but there is the actual handwriting on the sheet of paper that brings the whole thing to a higher level. So much is said through a person’s handwriting. Every person’s is unique and special. My dad’s was this crazy blend of squiggles and old-fashioned cursive that it was almost illegible. My mom’s is very tidy, she was, after all a schoolteacher for many years. My brother Pat’s is just the same as it was when we were kids. I’d know it anywhere. I’d recognize his scrawl if it was mixed in with a hundred other writing samples. A thousand. It is just so him. That’s one reason why the actual pen or pencil marks applied to paper, uniquely our own, make receiving a letter so special. It is like giving someone a lock of hair along with your correspondence, your DNA.

When Heidi and I were dating, just friends really, we wrote letters during the first summer we were apart. I had this overwhelming crush, not yet reciprocated, so they were precious. It was the summer between my freshman and sophomore year in college. I was SOOOooo in love. I was working in the steel mills in NW Indiana and long distance phone calls were still a luxury so we wrote letters. Hers were chatty, flirty, and newsy with big loopy feminine cursive. We wrote so often that we were answering old questions and completing thoughts out of sequence. But it didn’t matter. They were treasures. Over the years I have misplaced that bundle of letters, but what I wouldn’t give to read those simple earnest lines of friendship written all those years ago.

My mom is the best letter writer I know, although she and I are now much more likely to email. I have saved her letters, which also date back to my college days. Often they are filled with news of the natural world, what the squirrels are doing, which leaves have changed, how the air feels first thing in the morning. Many of my mom’s letters are written late at night for she is often awake when most are asleep. She speaks of life and love and the past and fears and dreams and sadness, regrets and hopes. They are capsules of who she was and who she has become. I don’t have them all, but a good many. They are among my most prize possessions.

I receive an occasional love letter from my young friends. Heidi has nothing to do worry about – they are from my second graders. Little ones, probably because they do not yet have access to the more modern forms of instant communication, have a sense for what is important in old school letter writing. I found one the other day on my messy table in the classroom. Who knows how long it had been there? It took a lot of time to pull together. It was on a green piece of construction paper, cut from a much larger piece. It was folded like a card. On the front there are purple pastel hearts in the corners with a large black peace sign meticulously drawn in the center. The inner part (the dove’s foot) was carefully rendered in ballpoint pen and is a half an inch wide. That took a LOT of pen strokes. The rim is black marker. The inside of the peace sign is filled in, stained glass style, in the same purple pastel. At the top is says simply, You are… Then you open it and it continues …My Teacher - yay I love you! To, Mr,O,Keefe Another big purple heart. Considering that there are only 11 words, it had a big impact on me. I mean yay. I love you. With an exclamation point! This little girl was thinking of me, in her off time, and took the effort to draw and write this message and just left it on my desk for me to find one day. I was so moved.

Another one I received the other day has a marker drawing of a little girl and me at the bottom of the page. I am wearing big glasses that make my eyes look huge and have flowers drawn on my shirt. She has this stylized pink triangle dress (I have never seen her wear a dress). Her message is written in her own invented spelling and in 6 different colors…


I love you, because you are nise, kind, loves animals, read relly good storys to us. I also love you becase: you play o’ball, feed the anamles in the llife take [live tank] and call me Babe wen you read Babe. I love how you are nise to the class. I also idmier your glassis. You are such a nise man becase (agan) you set with me at lunch. Love…

Here are a few other pieces of gold from this year…

You are the bast techer ever…

I geninuinly thak you for Being nies!

I like you all reddy!

And you and me like… ANAMles!

The thrip to the zoo was fun And when we saw the pingwins I saw one danse!

You are the best jokr

You are nice and funny and sweet.

You are a vary good gutarest.

The stuff that you teach us is very good and cool

Not many people, in their daily grind, receive such wonderful compensation as this. Within a month of us becoming a class this year, I had gotten over missing my old kids who have moved on to 4th grade and was able to move into a good feel with this class of young second graders. Nothing has helped me to make the transition more than the sweet words of children. They are too young to have forgotten how important it is to write the word love often - and mean it.


shirley said...

Tim, you have brought me a big smile with your blog. I have just read the piece on letter writing and it was wonderful. I am bookmarking your blog site. I was glad to see you today at Finlay Park.
Peace, Shirley Gossett

Chris Hass said...

Your post kept reminding me of the Frog and Toad story where Toad is sad and grumpy (as always) because no one ever writes him a letter. Everyday he walks out to the mailbox hoping to receive a letter but, alas, it's always empty. So Frog decides to go home and write him a nice letter telling Toad how much he means to him. He gives it to the postman (a snail) and after many days, or is it weeks, of waiting it finally arrives. It's very sweet and probably more meaningful now than when it was written.

You're right. Letters are quickly becoming a thing of the past. The only ones we receive are for our kids - written to them from a good friend or caring teacher.

I have a file at school where I keep letters like those you wrote about. You're so right - they're amazing.