The handwritten letter: dead or alive?

I used to sit in the back row of my university math class — or in the corner of a quiet coffee shop — writing poetry in a Mead 5-Star notebook.

Writing that way — inky pen to paper — was as much a part of the poetry experience as the words themselves, my inner voice overflowing to the page in quick, staccato sentences or pouring out slowly in deliberate, inky curves. Sometimes sideways, sometimes straight, sometimes with a doodle or a scribbled out passage. It was all part of the art.

Now, with the ease of a lap top and a more modern typing habit, I haven’t written that way for years. Sometimes I miss it — the slowness of it, the effort, the way thought leads to thought without the perfection of a delete button. The writing being an end in itself.

Author Wendell Berry says, “At first glance, writing may seem not nearly so much an art of the body as say, dancing or gardening or carpentry. And yet language is the most intimately physical of all the artistic means. We have it palpably in our mouths; it is our langue, our tongue. Writing it, we shape it with our hands.”

And we do — like potters at a wheel, the writer who prints with a pen grasped by bent fingers — is leaving a history of themselves. Handwriting stays with us: I can still close my eyes and picture the handwriting of almost all the people I love, even how my best friend wrote in 6th grade. Berry continues, “All good human work remembers its history.”

I thought about this last week while shaking my hand in the air. It hurt. I had been addressing Christmas card envelopes with a nice, slick pen, and my hand was out of shape. But the handwritten letter — which some have said to have died — is one of the most alive things I can think of. It lives on, even after its author has passed. I have many, in fact, stored in a box in my drawer that seem to speak to me in the voice of the author, like those Hallmark cards that sing when you open them.

And I do find myself at times, whether it’s dramatic or not, sort of grieving the mainstream loss of handwriting for my children.

Not just handwriting, really, but mostly, the more intimate, personal communication that comes with it. For as a generation growing up with courtship by text message and friendship by Facebook, I long for them to understand the anticipation of snail mail, the joy of a thank you card, the palpable thrill of a love letter, the nourishment of crafting words that don’t just disappear in a scrolling feed, but that stain the smooth surface of empty paper, waiting to be held, smelled, touched, folded, kept and read again years later. (My husband and I did write most of our early love letters via email, but even that seems to be dying in the wake of text short hand.)

My son penned a letter last week to a big fat man in a red suit.

He wrote the letter himself, addressed it to the North Pole, folded it up, stamped the corner and put it in the mailbox. I kicked myself when I realized I had not snuck out in the night to acquire it for keeping.

It was not spell-checked and clearly legible in Times New Roman. It was not fussed over and perfected. Rather, it was a misspelled, wrinkled hand-written note in the 6-year-old font of my first-born. And in looking at that letter and all that it contained when he handed it to me, it was as if time froze. I was able to see him as he is at this very moment. A part of his heart was captured on that paper with the carefully penned words he wrote and crossed out and then wrote again.

It is the same with the post-it note stuck above my sock drawer with a few simple words scribbled by my husband. And the note card that was tucked inside the heirloom necklace my grandmother gave me for my high school graduation. The inner front page of a book my mom saved from my childhood where she gently noted my name and the date I received it. Or the yearbook message from an old friend I no longer keep in touch with, but can still vividly recall in the dramatic loops of her L’s.

Those hand-scripted words are more than an art, but an artifact of the time and place they were written, an extension of the person who wrote them. Perhaps that’s why, even with the typed form letter, we still write (or at least copy) a hand-written signature at the end — as if to remind a world reading in print that the words come from a breathing, warm human.

As if to peek from behind the page and say:

I am here.

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The cat who chases the sun

Every day, in the middle of morning, he asks me to open the door. He has a date and he does not like to be late.

I oblige and crack the door just enough for him to run past my feet in anticipation of his partner’s arrival. Soon, there she is — in all her glory as beautiful as he ever remembered:

The 10 o’clock sun.

She floods through my bathroom windows, reminding me they need to be cleaned, and peeks through the half-shut bedroom door, resting in the shape of a lopsided triangle upon my bedroom carpet.

He saunters over as if he had forgotten she would be there. Oh, hello — fancy meeting you here. Mind if I just have a sit?

Then the plump, grey house cat — who has either a head too small for his body or a body too big for his head — curls up like a croissant with content, squinted eyes and settles inside his golden triangle for a sunbath.

This is serious business; this sun chasing. His courtship is not subtle.

He chases her from their mid-morning date by my bed to a noon rendezvous on the piano room rug. I may find myself wondering where Sam the cat is — and all I have to do is find her.

With all the eagerness of a young lover, he puts himself in the most precarious of positions to attract her affections. His belly bellows over the side of a too-small window sill; he perches on the corner of the couch like a laying hen.

In his self-aggrandizing way, he peers flatly with a bored yawn through the back window at our golden farm dog who killed a rabbit and left it outside her dog house as a gift. How barbaric, he muses with a turned up nose, sniffing the air.

For as a Creature of Leisure, he doesn’t have time to think about such frivolous endeavors. When he sees a lone spider scampering about the wood floors, he barely has the energy to turn his head in its direction. If it’s close enough, he may extend a paw for a simple pat. But the spider escapes him once more. He has better things to do.

And so he does.

He waits for me to take on a knitting project, so he can lay on his back and flail about, immersing himself in a tangled blanket of yarn — an experience both thrilling and infuriating for him.

He waits for me to feed him.

He waits for me to fold laundry so he can sit on it.

He waits for me to sit so he can sit on me.

And then, he looks for her. His familiar friend who he pursues with all the ambition of a creature in love. And when he finds her, he rests like one who has reached the end of his journey — only to find an hour later, she evades him once again.

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What we need never changes

They’re cutting more trees down by my favorite grocery store and naming new gated neighborhoods after them.

The view of green is giving way to mounds of dirt and construction signs boasting: “Coming soon: new high-end retail shops.” And for the first time, I realize that I now care about these sorts of things in a new way. In the way that a person who is planting roots now cares about the ground they’re stuck in. Why do we need more high-end retail shops? I thought, like a crotchety old woman, driving past. Ten minutes that way or that way, there are a dozen more. Why couldn’t we just keep the forest right there? It’s much prettier than that parking lot.

But someone, somewhere, decided we needed it and it will be there and then we will shop there and not be able to imagine a world without it there — isn’t that how it works? I didn’t know I needed another Starbucks with a fountain next to a J Crew until it appeared.

I see the same thing in my children — how quickly they fall into devastation at the store when I tell them they don’t need something they just learned existed 2 minutes ago. But I really need it, Mama. I know how they feel; I often feel that way at Pottery Barn.

There is so much novelty and distraction in this world — in fact, while writing this little post here, I went to google something and then got distracted by a frilly article I didn’t know I needed to read until I saw the sensational headline — but then I had to read. it. immediately.

And now I’m back, and I’ve lost my train of thought, but nevertheless, this helps make my point: I didn’t need to read that article. I don’t need another fountain and a J Crew.

I picked up a few new books for my children for the holiday season this year, my favorite of which I read before I gave it to my 3-year-old daughter. I sat on the dusty wooden floor by the front window while the afternoon sun fell upon my hands as I turned the soft pages. Sitting beside a to-do list and unfinished Christmas cards, some craft supplies and a bag of newly-bought stocking stuffers, I slowly read The Year of the Perfect Christmas Tree, by Gloria Houston.

The true story is set in the early 1900s in a small, Appalachian mountain town. It is a story of family, community and the true longings of our hearts. But what came over me as I was reading it during the hushed hour of nap time was how simple life was. Not perfect by any means. But simpler.

Ruthie, the sweet little protagonist, wants two thing for Christmas — a doll. And for her father to come home from the war. They have little money — nobody in the town does — so they have one tree for the whole community that a different family donates each year. They grow their own food. They sew their own clothes. And the highlight of their holiday entertainment is the Christmas program at the quaint town church that the whole village treks through the snow to attend.

As I read the story I have that same thought I have thought before: I am grateful for the age in which I live; but I can’t help but feel we have lost some things in all we have gained. I don’t have to make a litany of the temptations and distractions of our age, you know as well as I — but yet, I can tell you how I try to keep peace within them. For there are the things of this world that never change — and that is mostly, what we need.

For what we need is timeless: food, water, shelter, family, nature, friends, community, God, love, connection.

And therefore, there are sacred places and spaces in life that, like a time machine, join us with every generation that ever there was. They bring us side by side with Ruthie and her mountain town and a lone snow-capped Christmas tree lit by the yellow of a night lantern. They bring us in the same space as all the simple joys that will come forever more.

When I get off the internet and turn off the television and go into the forest for a hike with my kids, I am entering it. When I use my hands and heart to craft a handmade gift, or put ink pen to cold paper to write a letter, or let my creativity make something beautiful, I am there. When I gather with friends in a warm livingroom, filled with soul-quenching food and conversation, I am entering it. When my husband and I share a blanket, leg over leg, book beside book, in the quiet crannies of the evening; when grandparents and aunts and uncles fill our pine wood table, covered in white plates and the laughter of children; when bright-eyed babies wake on Christmas morning to discover the treasures awaiting them, we are there.

This is not meant to be an anti-consumerist holiday diatribe; I just picked up (another) order from Amazon.com off the front porch for goodness sake. But now, I think, I will go sit on it. And I will rock there in the rocking chair and watch the children play and let myself live in a time where children live: where there is no time.

Where needs are as immediate as a mother’s lap and a hearty snack. Where joys are as plentiful as the pile of dirt beneath us. And where all we have is all we need.

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Come to the table hungry

Come to the table hungry,

to be filled with apple pie and grape wine

stories of great-grandparents who look on with pride

from the frames hung there on the wall.

Come to the table hungry,

thankful for hands that are able

to roll pie crust and grasp each other in grace

holding children who prefer to eat off your plate.

Come to the table hungry,

To be fed with what’s consumed by the heart

showing gratitude in action over a hot stove

to delight in the work that made it all worth it.

Come to the table hungry,

and be filled with all that you need.

The ones you love sitting shoulder to shoulder

passing on nothing short of a miracle,

like potatoes

and babies

and traditions to share.

Come to the table hungry,

to be nourished by what needs to be known.

To be thankful

in these moments we have.

Let’s sit a bit longer —

it all goes too fast.

Come to the table hungry.

Education of the heart

“Educating the mind without educating the heart is no education at all.” – Aristotle

It is a day that begs to be lived outside.

The air is the perfect temperature where one isn’t the slightest bit too cold or hot, where long sleeves and sandals provide the perfect amount of coziness and comfort, where the orangey-browns of Autumn trees contrast beautifully against a pale blue sky. It is a day for the park.

My girlfriend and I loaded up our children and snacks and ventured to the playground for a welcome break. We sat at a sunny table. Our older ones ran off immediately, the younger ones swarmed like eager minnows in a pond of snacks, grabbing with open mouths for whatever edible item would emerge before them.

And then I heard her — beside us, a kind voice with a New York accent — “Hi there. I just have to say —”

We looked up into the sun to greet the face of a smiling grandmother who was there with her 2-year-old grandson.

“I just have to say,” she continued, “You have wonderful children.”

“Thank you!” my girlfriend and I said in unison, surprised, trying to feed the babies below us quickly enough to appease the whines and grabbing hands.

“No, really, they’re just great. I’ve been watching them with my little grandson. Often the big kids run away from him or push him away when I take him to the park, but they have been including him and playing with him,” she said appreciatively.

We thanked her for her kind words and carried on to another topic of conversation (about how she, too, had given birth to a child with Down syndrome 30 years ago, and all that entailed). And yet, as I sit here this afternoon, her simple appreciation of our children’s niceness is what has echoed in my mind.

Who knows, our older kids may have distractedly thought her grandson was just another little brother in our brood — and my own young children still need plenty of reminders about sharing and kindness — but yet, I am appreciative to that grandmother for making the point to say something. Their apparent kindness stood out to her — and that stood out to me.

As a mother and homeschooler, I put a lot of pressure on myself: are my children learning everything they should? Am I pushing them enough academically? Am I exposing them to enough this or that for whatever standards we measure these sorts of things by?

But then, on a beautiful day as they play and run and encourage and include each other, I think to myself: well, that’s sort of it, isn’t it?

There are lots of things to be learned in this life, but there’s not much more important than learning how to be a friend.

I don’t remember too many specifics from my academic experiences growing up, but I have been the new girl a lot — and I do remember the kids who stepped out of their comfort zones to say hi and invite me to sit at their table. I don’t recall who all of the CEOs at every job I ever had was, but I do remember the coworkers and janitors who took the extra moment to go out of their way to see how I was doing. It is something not all people do, but that all people need — to be noticed, to be connected with, to be included.

Every day I am grateful to observe and be part of a community of friends and families who model this inclusion. Big kids who aren’t too old or cool to indulge a doting little toddler. Children who aren’t too embarrassed or busy to notice that a new kid is standing alone. Parents who teach from a generous heart by treating others with the same kindness. This spirit of love and inclusion and coming out of oneself is lived within their homes and overflows into the greater community. It is a lesson that grows exponentially as families connect together, as friends meet friends, as love begets love.

“I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” — Maya Angelou