A Man of Letters Part II

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“Is the mail here yet?”

This is a favorite question at our house.

Why? Because we communicate with people through this archaic, often forgotten, totally inefficient system of paper, pens, stamps and patience.

Do you get excited when you receive a card for your birthday? Not an email but an honest to goodness, physical card that you can prop on the mantle, stick on the fridge or tape to the wall. Do you look forward to the ever dwindling number of cards that arrive as a precursor to Christmas? Does the idea of a package coming across thousands of miles, bringing you something special make you excited and eager to hear the delivery person trudging up your walk?

Me too!

I love letters, cards, packages, postcards, all of it and all of the romance, expectation, exhilaration and yes, the patient waiting that comes along with it.

I come from a time before email.

I come from a people that wrote letters, all of the time to people all over the place.

I come from a point of view that says that a piece of paper, marked in pencil, or pen can carry with it the magic of the person who marked it, and that magic with a little care, can remain with you as a memento for as long as you live.

My mother kept her stationary, whatever type had recently caught her fancy, in a large wooden box that had originally been a silverware case that she had simply removed the molded forms from and lined with emerald green velvet. Within that box were stacks of blank pages, a bundle of pens and pencils wrapped in a piece of navy blue suede and a zip lock sandwich bag containing stamps. She kept it tucked under her desk on top of an old, brown accordion file that held hundreds of letters, cards, post cards and notes that she had received during her life. That file was a chore to lift but I would often find her with letters spread all over her bed as she re-read, researched or reminisced.

Dad’s stash was drawer in his desk that contained small stacks of notecards, always of a nature theme, a hodgepodge of different sizes, colors, shapes and textures of writing paper that he had gathered from gods’ knows where and a small cigar box that contained stamps, refills for his Cross ballpoint pen and a wax seal that he seldom used but that he treasured nonetheless. It was in the form of a capital letter C for his surname and it had been made for him using his own handwriting.

Mom, dad and I exchanged letters even when we lived in the same town. Mom and I exchanged seeds from our herbal pursuits and for a couple of years, dad and I would swap back and forth snake sheds, (which the challenge was to guess the species of) dried leaves and flower petals.

My grandparents were the same, we wrote because we loved to write and because we loved each other.

Out there in the ether, in the “cloud” on the web, we store all of these dots and dashes, all of this history turned into pixels and light. But to me it is worthless in a blizzard when the power goes out, but I can still light a candle, spread out the cards, letters and notes I have saved and have the spirits of my clan around me.

There is a feeling, so fulfilling and romantic about choosing stationary, appropriate for who you are writing to, choosing a pen whose ink stands out against the paper, yet melds with it instead of clashing. Then addressing an envelope and for a long moment, pondering what that place looks like if I have never been there, or remembering something amazing about it if I have.

I constantly look for greeting cards everywhere we go, I have found beautiful ones, opened but unused in goodwill, or at the thrift store. I can easily lose an hour in the bargain bins after the holidays looking for just the right cards. The Papyrus store in Ross Park Mall used to be an Eden for me and though they were often expensive, they had such beautiful things…

I hoard smooth writing pens in my favorite letter and card writing colors, black, burgundy, purple, dark green and copper. I favor uni-ball or gel pens but for years wrote with nothing but a fountain pen but my favorite one was stolen from a café several years ago and I have not replaced it, yet.

I have owned and will own again, dozens of seals. The type that you press into hot wax to close an envelope. How I lost them is another story but there are those who will read this that have gotten letters from me, pressed closed with emerald wax with a spreading oak tree sunken into it, or purple wax, embossed with a coiled serpent.

I believe that the power that lies in magic is so often in how you create it and so I make a ritual of letter writing, I gather my tools around me, I add music to the atmosphere and almost always candlelight and then for however long it takes me to write, I do nothing else. No distractions, no side projects, no multi-tasking, there is nothing but me, the paper, my tools and my intent.

Our post office employees know me by name and will instantly show me whatever beautiful new stamps came in since my last visit and I will often agonize over which ones to add to which envelopes. By the way, stamps can be SO beautiful that there are some that I hesitate to use, but I always do.

Why?

Because writing to people is an act of love.

The letters and the cards need not be romantic, they need not be love letters, but there is a sacrifice, a mindfulness required when writing a letter, there is an honesty that is called for, there is an intention in creating something that may well out live us and then sending it off through a series of human hands, machines and various way stations along the road.

And I defy any of you to say that you have never been moved by a card or letter you have received. Or barring that, that you cannot imagine being moved by one, that you could not find yourself humbled and touched by the act of someone creating something for you out of their thoughts, effort and intention and then trusting it to strangers to bring it into your hands.

Some of you young folks may never have received, nor sent a “snail mail” letter or card and my heart breaks for you. As a matter of fact, I will go a step further. If you have never received a card, or a letter, hand written by someone, get in touch with me and I will personally remedy that, because you deserve to know how it feels.

That extends to any of you. If you wish to write back and forth with me, I would be honored, and perhaps we can reinvigorate the art of the letter, now wouldn’t that be beautiful!

I promise you, that once you have tried it, once you have jotted some thoughts, a quote, a poem, or have even torn your very soul out and put it on the page for another person to read, that you have missed one of the greatest and most honest feelings that you will ever have.

We all love to receive evidence that someone is thinking of us, and we should do that for each other, for as long as we can…

Take care of each other…

A Man of Letters Part I

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Dear Friends,

 

That is how I often begin.

You see, I write to people. To people, to companies, to commercial entities, to heroes, to inspirations, and to people that I hope to be friends with, and I have done it for most of my life.

I am gregarious, an extrovert, one of “those” people, a force of nature, a person that will talk to absolute strangers about anything, at any time, for any reason and nearly always be better for having done so.

I live for interaction, I thrive on conversation and feel at my best when engaged with people in personal interactions, face to face on any subject that is genuine, honest and filled with life.

It is for this reason that I write to people.

My grandmother, who I have mentioned before was every bit as gregarious as I am, taught me a valuable lesson when I was just a kid, maybe six or seven years old. We were eating in a little Italian restaurant, the whole family was gathered together, and mom, dad, grand-da, grandmother and I and we witnessed a man angrily complaining to the manager at great volume because his dinner was not up to his expectations.

My grandmother explained to me that as a consumer, the man had the right to complain if the service or the product wasn’t what he felt he had paid for. “But…” she said, “He also has the obligation to pay compliments for services or products that exceed his expectations, but few people do that anymore.”

So when it was time to pay our tab, the waitress, who had been very nice to us through our entire visit, asked us if everything had been okay and I spoke up. “The meatballs with my spaghetti were the best I have ever had, thank you!”

The waitress, who had also served the complaining man lit up as if she had been given an award! She smiled, she told me that that was wonderful and it was so nice of me to say so, and then she said, “Hold on a minute.”

She disappeared into the kitchen and returned a minute later with a diminutive old man in an apron covered in tomato sauce stains. He has an enormous hawk nose and bright, almost angry eyes. He came up to the table and the young lady pointed me out. He looked me up and down and just at the point that I thought he was going to yell at me or something, he smiled, hugely, and stuck out his hand.

That is how I met Angelo Capriatti. The meatballs were his recipe, as were most of the things on the menu and he was very proud of them. He focused on me, talked to me, thanked me for the compliment and then do you know what he did? He took me into his kitchen and showed me around.

It was an incredible experience to see all of that stainless steel, the huge stockpots simmering away and all of the produce waiting to be transformed. I left the restaurant that day with a carry out container that held six of the amazing meatballs and a new addiction; complimenting people.

I never made things up. Never said nice things where they weren’t deserved, but if I had an amazing meal or even a component of a meal, I would say something. If I saw someone with a beautiful article of clothing on, an exquisite car or an amazing dog, I would speak up and watch their faces transform.

It made me happy, it made them happy and also gave me some amazing experiences and even a few lifelong friends.

It was a few years later, when I was in my teens that I read an amazing book called Bard: The Odyssey of the Irish by Morgan Llywelyn and was so moved by it that I decided to sit down and pen her a letter. I found an address for her publisher and sent my gushing, heavy handed fan letter off to her in care of that office.

My mom had encouraged me to write the letter but had also given me fair warning to not expect too much if anything in return.

It turned out that she was right. For a while.

It took nearly three months but then suddenly one afternoon there was an envelope in our mailbox, addressed to me by a careful and feminine hand. Inside was a beautiful, hand written three page letter, answering all of my questions, replying to each of my compliments and saying how my letter had been the nicest she had ever received. I was moved beyond words and kept that letter for many years until it was lost to a flood in a storage locker I once kept.

I maintained a correspondence with Ms. Llywelyn for many years after that and we still exchange the occasional email and I am eternally grateful to her for the kindness she showed in replying to that overzealous teenager’s massive letter.

From these experiences grew a habit, a way of life, a way of looking at things that has served me well to this day and I am going to share this poorly kept secret with you right now.

Write to people.

That’s it.

Have you ever sat down and pounded out a strongly worded email to a restaurant about finding a bone in your chicken cordon bleu? Ever sent a complaint to a chip company because they were selling you more air than chips? Have you ever complained to a company about how a piece of clothing fell apart or because their deodorant made your armpits feel like the Everglades?

Most likely you have dropped some kind of missive bomb like that at some point, but how about on the opposite end of the spectrum?

I send dozens of emails a year. To restaurants, clothing companies, car manufacturers, food companies, writers, teachers, journalists, naturalists, to pretty much anyone really. And you know the honest truth? I have about a 90% response rate. I consider a response as something that is actually written by a human being, directly addressing my message. Automatic form emails don’t count.

But I don’t do it for the responses, though they are wonderful and I do cherish them, I do it because I feel that people work hard to create things, people struggle to add things to the story of your life while simultaneously adding to their own and I think that they hear constantly from people, telling them what a crappy job that they are doing and I think that they deserve to hear the upside of what they are doing as well.

I try to never sound mechanical. I gush a bit, because truthfully, if something made me happy enough to write, then it deserves to be complimented. I always introduce myself, describe how I encountered their product, or my experience with their goods or service and I always leave them a couple of methods to reach me back and offer to answer any questions they have.

I receive emails, letters, coupons, free products, invitations behind the scenes at museums and zoos and occasionally I am asked to review products for them and all of those things are a wonderful bonus, but the truth is that my addiction is to saying something nice to someone who deserves it.

Do it. Sit down and write to the restaurant you had the great tacos at. Tell Hyundai how much you absolutely adore that one thing about your car and how it makes you happy every day. Write to your favorite author, drop a journalist that moved your spirit a line, send a letter to a hero and then, with your heart full from the act of doing it, move on with your life.

You never know what may turn up in your inbox a few days, weeks or months later…

But does that part really matter?

 

Tomorrow in Part 2 we will talk about the beautiful art of sending letters, cards and packages…

 

Take care of each other