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Thursday, September 13, 2012

The Art Of Heartfelt Communication








I vaguely remember a TV show from bygone days that ended with a line.."Letters...we've got letters". When I walk back from the mailbox these days, sadly, that's not the case. Not letters, cards or notes. Bills, ads, catalogs, sifted through looking for an envelope with my name written on it, in longhand, and an address of a friend in a distant city, a parent, a relative, someone, anyone, coming in for a visit over coffee while sitting at the kitchen table.

Long hand. Penmanship. I remember practicing for hours making my loops and swirls, page after page, because good penmanship was a rite of passage in our home. Both of my parents learned the Palmer Method by rote, and their handwriting was exquisite. My father's especially. My mother was a stenographer during the war, and she tried to teach me the Gregg system. I thought it was cool, a short hand code for everything you needed to say. It reminds me, now, of the short hand code used today in texting and email. Similar to tweeting, a 140 character or less message, short, concise and to the point.

Which leads me to the conversation I had with my son the other day. He was talking about texting and email. How he sometimes misunderstood what the writer was communicating because it lacked feeling. So he would read it and think, well maybe they're mad at me...then a few hours later, read it again and think, no, it's no big deal. But still, just a tad bit unsure. The messages with emoticons helped clear things up a bit, but still...what was the intent of the message?

I grew up in a somewhat different environment. We communicated by mail. Calls home or to family were Long Distance and reserved for special events, holidays, birthdays or serious business. Instead we wrote letters. Notes. Cards.

It was serious business for me. My Mom bought me a box of stationery for my birthday. Baby blue onion skin paper with matching envelopes and a fountain pen with replaceable ink cartridges that leaked onto your fingers when you switched them out. The paper was semi-opaque, so that if you held it up to the light the words seemed to flicker with importance.

Like the letters I wrote from my first away-from-home camp in Wisconsin, begging and pleading for intercession, for release from my captor, the inimitable Lila Pugh, camp counselor from hell. Miss Pugh demanded that we eat everything on our plates at dinner or we could not swim the next day. I was a picky picky eater and had survived up till this time on a diet of oranges and bacon. I also had a well developed gag reflex. I learned a trick of how to pretend to eat, then shovel the food into a napkin on my lap. It worked well the first few times. The night with the lapful of peas, a disintegrating napkin and the plop plop plop of escapees rolling across the floor and landing on Miss Pugh's left foot, ended my days in the lake. I was confined to the cabin. So I wrote. Long, pleading letters of misery. My mother, my father and my brothers wrote me back, with words off encouragement and a secret stash of homemade brownies. When the bus pulled into the parking lot, scores of tan, hale and hearty campers rushed into loving arms. I looked pale and wan as though I had spent the week under a rock. But in my bag, a pile of notes and cards, from the people I loved most, and there was no question in my mind of their intent. They were my safe place to land.

Years later, my Mom would write to my children, for no reason at all, except to say I love you, but always with a lesson. A sneaky life lesson. Sometimes she would tape pennies, nickels or dimes to the inside of the card, and tell the boys to count them out, as they put them in their piggy banks. It was her way of helping them to count from one to ten, then by 5's and by 10's. And it was her way to teach them to save their pennies for a rainy day.

When I left home and married, we lived far away from family. Letters kept us close. Pages and pages of letters, with silly stories, news, newspaper clippings, once a week. Letters that didn't hit the trash, but sat on my desk, for a quick read and then a longer linger at the end of the day.

My Mom was the champion letter writer. She could convince anyone of anything, and make an end run when needed, just by whatever she enclosed. Once, when her check bounced, not at all uncommon with three kids in college and every dollar stretched to the limit, she sent a warm and sincere apology to the Dean of Administration, plus a colorful new tie. I was chagrined, as the tie cost as much as the amount on the rubber check, but that was the way her heart worked. Her message? Stick with me please, we're trying really really hard to make this all work. The Dean found me a small part-time job to cover some of my expenses. The day he called me into his office, he was wearing his new tie.

I would like to tell you that I have piles of love letters from my husband, full of passion and deep sentiment. He is the exception to the rule. His motto, if he had one, would be, it is not how many words we speak, but the words we choose, that matter. Therefore, after we got engaged, he sent me a thank you note and signed it ..Your Friend. I smile, even now, at that memory, because he was telegraphing to me the trueness of his heart. I already knew that he loved me, but more importantly, we would always be exactly how we started...friends. Best friends.

When the children moved away to school and beyond, letters evolved into phone calls and email. I wondered whether all the silly notes and cards meant anything to them, or if they were an embarrassment, until I walked into my son's apartment and there on top of the refrigerator, a gallery of cards...his home away from home.

In my basement, where the family museum is housed, I have several stacks of letters. Letters from my Mom to me and mine to her that she saved. Letters from my father, during the war, from his post in Iceland, to my mother, his special girl waiting at home. Letters in crayon and cards covered with glitter from my children.

Artful conversation.

Intentional communication. 

No question that they were meant for someone special.

No question that they were received in kind.

Do it today.

Take out your favorite pen.

Pull out a sheet of paper.

Or a card.

And in 140 characters or more, tell someone, somewhere...


Jot down a line, make your point and make their day.

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