A GREEDY LITTLE SOUL

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Incredibly, she never missed a single day. Every single day I was away at camp there was a letter from my Mother waiting for me at mail call. Not once in five summers did she miss, not for me nor for my two sisters. She was, in fact, so concerned about us receiving daily mail that she actually started sending the letters before we even left home. Every summer evening she and my Dad drove ten miles to Birmingham to send out the mail. The post office was open late there. This was nice, of course but not a totally selfless act. Being out meant that my Dad might as well get some ice cream.

My Dad, whose voice was always hovering in the background of my Mom’s letters, actually sent his own letter to us once. He laboriously scratched out a few sentences on a page, used his pocketknife to cut it neatly into pieces and addressed three separate envelopes set to wing their way to Camp Walden. We had to find each other and put it together like a puzzle to read it. He was pleased.

Sometimes we sent letters back. We had to. If you didn’t hand in a letter three mornings a week you weren’t allowed into breakfast. Or so rumor had it.

Receiving an actual letter from someone today is as rare as spotting a harvest moon.   But I remember the pleasure of being able to identify people just by seeing their handwriting on an envelope. It was fun to think about just why someone chose a particular stamp. And there was always the delicious dilemma about whether to rip the envelope open or extend the mystery by opening the letter later. No matter if what was written was effusive or efficient, when I really think about it they were not letters so much as little gifts, something to hold, refold, and sometimes to cherish. Rants on reams of onion skin paper to stay in touch with friends overseas. Goofy cards doctored with bad poetry to soothe everything from a bad day to a sick day. Letters that sometimes took days and days to write to make sure something was said just the way one wanted to say it.   The relief and sheer pleasure of a long awaited response.

In thinking back it was not so much what was being said in a letter that mattered but the physical letter itself that counted. A letter proved that someone had not just thought of me, but had actually taken time to say so. The letter that I could hold in my hands proved it.

So here we are all these years later, starry-eyed and jazzed in a communications Wonderland. Like everyone else I constantly draw my phone out of my pocket and with a few quick swipes, am instantly in touch with practically anyone at any time. You bet that’s thrilling too. I wouldn’t give it up for the world.  Being in a communications Wonderland is especially wonderful when those we love most are often so physically far away.

But the truth is some of us are more quietly deliberate thinkers.   That can make instant responses of text and email, even phone conversations, pressured and terribly difficult sometimes. And of course, once something is said there’s no snatching it back. There are times when forty characters can be as crystalline and precise in expression as a haiku—others when a few more syllables might be needed to avoid utter misunderstanding and misuse.

I remember the beautiful, even curves of my Mother’s handwriting. The tight spikes of my Dad’s printing. The big balloon letters of my old friend Helene. The quirky print of my friend Ruth. The controlled scrawl of my husband.

Here I am though, as always, loving the rhythm and feel of my fingers flying over a keyboard. To some of us it’s sheer music. Leroy Anderson (go listen to “The Typewriter”) thought the same thing.

I adore Blackwing pencils. I’ve experimented with fountain pens. But as I’ve mentioned before, I’m left-handed, and I smear when I write. But that doesn’t have to be the case. The way I figure it, if Django Reinhart could use his mangled left hand to become a master of Jazz guitar, with a little effort I can manage the far simpler task of not dragging my hand through pencil lead or fountain pen ink. No excuses.

So here’s the plan. I’ll hang on to the cell phone, to email, to texting. But I can stretch and I can do more, I can really write with pen with pencil with paper. It doesn’t have to be often. But it can be once in a while. I can give myself the pleasure of writing. I can give someone else the gift of a letter.

I’m a greedy little soul when you get right down to it. I want to create lasting connections in any way I can. I want the people I love to know it, without any question in their minds. But here’s the thing: I’m greedy for all of us. Grab a pencil and write. And trust me about the Blackwings. Those pencils practically write for you. Just get them started. “Half the pressure, twice the speed.” Have fun. Let’s all keep an eye on our mailboxes.

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WITH LOVE AND AFFECTION

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Every morning it’s the same.

An over easy egg, a slice of Tuscan Pane, a squiggle of olive oil, a twist of salt and another of pepper. An entire pot of French press coffee doled out half a cup at a time. It has to be drunk very hot. Always the same diner cup.

30 years – over 10,000 eggs.

A sweep second hand watch belted to my right wrist, and rolled inward, just like my Dad. We are both left-handed. Our watches are timed to the second. Eyeglasses are polished and secured firmly around my ears. I sleep in my glasses. Every night. It doesn’t matter that in the dark there is nothing to see. But in daytime, when the sights around me become too harsh, sometimes I’ll take my glasses off for a few moments and let the hard edges of the world blur into gentle softness.

Flaubert said, “Be regular and orderly in your life like a bourgeois, so that you can be violent and original in your work.” Aside from the fact that I take issue with Flaubert’s somewhat patronizing view of the bourgeoisie, I clearly have embraced the “regular and ordinary.” For me, an egg and a perfectly timed watch are both touchstones and a rubric for the day, armor to protect myself from the unknown events that will surely come to pass. As for “violent and original,” even the word “violent” makes me tense. And I do find originality a bit of a fuzzy concept. I prefer to think that creation is something that is always enriched and textured by links to thought that both precedes and often surrounds creators. Maybe that’s why so many people who are so celebrated for originality feel as if they’re frauds. They’re not frauds—they simply are attuned enough to be part of the process.

But to return to the idea of “regular and ordinary” rhythms as a thrum through our days. Every so often there’s hard driving, guilt inducing article lashed out to the world on the steady, regular daily schedules and habits of either highly successful people or downright geniuses or more likely an envy-inducing combination thereof.

These are very Flaubert-like humans:  They wake early, go for long, bracing walks in all weathers, eat sparingly. Not to be overly critical but it’s rare to note that they rarely seem to spend their quality waking hours on little mundanities such as grocery shopping, house cleaning, cooking, and childcare.   I will be honest: I actually like the mundanities,  (I am a bourgeois to my soul, Flaubert!) I embrace them. There’s a fine sense of completion when I manage to fold a mountain of laundry or wrestle a mass of disparate ingredients into an edible dinner.

These small adventures are not for the faint of heart nor are they for everyone. But do I kind of like the thought of Dickens ambling through Target, Beethoven comparing jars of marinara at Trader Joe’s or Flaubert violently shoving a vacuum cleaner around the living room.

The order of my life does two things for me: it allows me pockets of calm. And gives me the possibility of safety.

I desperately need both. Genius or not, don’t we all?

I’m prepared then as well as I can be for real hurts, even the awfulest ones, where you lose a much loved companion. It happens. Of course it does. That carefully constructed structure, my egg, my watch, my grocery shopping, my rhythms, my whatever, is put in place to guard against inevitable pain. There is always happiness too, I revel in it, but I am always prepared for anything else. In this case, “anything else” will happen here soon.

And so in my pockets of calm I smile and remember. I think about one who really knows how to appreciate a good deep sleep. One whose generous heart has welcomed a lot of competition onto his beloved home turf.   One who (almost) uncomplainingly shares all the choice cuts as long as he is always is served first and rather fittingly gets the lion’s share. One who has managed to make all of us certain—in a million little ways– that we are each deeply loved. We adore him. He’s done good.

I don’t know for sure about Heaven. I cling to the idea of the Rainbow Bridge. I want so much to believe in both. All I know for sure is that memory is a powerful thing, a beautiful thing, an amazing thing that can and should infuse and enrich each and every day.

Okay enough. It’s funny. You never know where any conversation will lead you. I was comparing favorite Twilight Zone episodes with one of my sons recently. I’ll save my list of classics for another time. But he mentioned one of his favorites as Nothing in the Dark, starring a very young Robert Redford. The episode concerns an old woman who is terrified of dying. It’s never fair to spoil a Twilight Zone episode and I’m not about to do that here. But he did remind me of a key line from the show.  “What you thought was the end is the beginning.”

I hope that’s true for Big Nick when his time comes. I hope it’s true for all of us.  True for all those we cherish.

With love and affection, Big Buddy.