“Never Let a Good Crisis Go to Waste”

‘Never Let a Good Crisis Go to Waste’ was the theme of my priest’s sermon during yesterday’s Zoom church service. The saying is attributed to Winston Churchill and before that, Mark Twain, but I’d been thinking, even before I heard her sermon, about when we will begin to emerge from the pandemic and more important, what I will bring with me and what I will leave behind when I do.

I’ve had my shots, thanks to the Benzie-Leelanau Health Department, and many of my close friends and family members have as well. Although we don’t know yet what is the safest course of action for ourselves and for others going forward, we continue to learn and consider as we come squinting out of the darkness into what feels like bright sunlight.

I realize there will be no return to life as we knew it. Too many of us have lost loved ones or know those who have, we’ve lost countless opportunities to spend time with family and friends, we’ve cancelled much-anticipated travel plans, and postponed funerals, weddings, and other gatherings. Even during our own medical difficulties, we’ve sometimes found ourselves more worried about being exposed to COVID than getting the treatment we needed.

When we experience a difficult time, it changes us.

The question I’m asking myself these days is whether and what I’ve learned from this crisis. Whether the slower pace of life I was able to experience was a positive by-product of the pandemic or whether, when I’m able, I’m going to jump back on the horse and gallop ahead at full speed like I used to do, missing the scenery and the insights that come with a more relaxed way of living. Whether the class I took on Zoom or the books I read (all the novels of Jane Austen, among others) because I was stuck inside the house enriched my life enough to make me want more of those experiences.

Sure, those of us who admit to being introverts had an easier time during this long shutdown than the extroverts who need to be around other people to recharge their batteries. But no matter which slot you fit into on the Meyer-Briggs Personality Inventory Test, I invite you to make the time just now, while you’re pondering what happens next in your life, to examine what you’ll take from the crisis we’ve all experienced and what you’ll happily leave behind in the darkness when you emerge.

I already know that on my list of what I’ll carry forward is letter writing. I don’t want to lose the benefits offered and received when I make the effort to slow down and share my thoughts on paper. Writing and sending letters to friends, family, and those of you who also found value in the art of slow correspondence has become a treasured part of my life and I’ll definitely be taking this habit with me.

But what about you? What will you bring with you into the light? What will you leave behind?

Keeping in Touch

Last week Canada Post announced it would deliver 13.5 million postcards, one to every postal address in Canada.  Recipients will be able to write a note and mail their postcard free to anyone they choose, anywhere in Canada, simply by dropping it in a mailbox.

Six versions of these cards will be randomly distributed, each offering a simple message of love, appreciation, or thanks, written in both English and French.  The postcards are part of Canada Post’s “Write Here, Write Now” program launched last September to encourage Canadians to use letter writing to connect in a heartfelt way during the pandemic.  Doug Ettinger, President and CEO of Canada Post, said, “Meaningful connection is vital for our emotional health, sense of community, and overall well-being.  Canada Post wants everyone to stay safe, but also stay in touch with the people who matter to them.”

In a similar vein, a few weeks ago my Michigan health insurance company sent out “Wellness Packages” to its customers.  Besides a list of suggestions about how to handle the physical and mental health challenges we’re all facing during the pandemic, each package included a mask and two stamped postcards.

These colorful postcard illustrations are by six-year-old Elle and eight-year-old Imelda.

Keep in touch with those you miss, was my insurance company’s suggestion for the postcards they sent me. And though I’m currently more of a letter writer than a sender of postcards, I’ve become intrigued by the idea of sending off short messages of love, appreciation, or thanks to someone I care about. So I’ll be sending my two postcards off soon.

One more thing . . .

Have you seen the postcard stamps our U.S. Post Office is issuing these days? They’re exquisite little illustrations of four different kinds of corals and sea creatures, painted in tropical colors. Besides being beautiful, these stamps, featuring Elkhorn Coral, Brain Coral, Pillar Coral, and Staghorn Coral, are tiny lessons in oceanography.

A Book of Letters

I have a fascination with novels in which the stories are told through letters written by one or more of their characters.  These stories, fictional epistolaries, don’t easily translate to the screen so, with exception, they mostly sit quietly on library and bookstore shelves, waiting to be discovered. 

 Here’s a list of some of my favorites:

 84 Charing Cross Road by Helen Hanff,

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Schaffer and Annie Barrows,

The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova, 

A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki,

Vanessa and Her Sister by Priya Parmar,

Ella Minow Pea, by Mark Dunn, and 

Gilead by Marilynne Robinson. 

For me, reading an epistolary is like probing the minds of the individual characters.  Their letters zero in on the circumstances, the places, and the times in which they live.

Meet Me at the Museum by Anne Youngson, is one of my new, favorite fictional epistolaries.  It’s a contemporary novel entirely composed of letters between Tina Hopwood, a sixty-something farmer’s wife from rural England, and Anders Larsen, a recently widowed professor who is the curator of a Danish Museum.  

The story begins when Tina, who feels ignored and undervalued by her husband and adult children, can’t remember choosing the life in which she now feels trapped.  Questioning her own failure to pursue a girlhood fascination with Tollund Man, an Iron Age fossil (circa 250 B.C.) discovered in a Danish bog in the 1960’s, she writes a letter to the curator of the museum where the remains of Tollund Man are preserved.  Although the person to whom she initially writes is, by then, deceased, the current curator, Anders Larsen, obliges her with a polite response, inviting her to visit the museum.  

But when Tina answers his letter, she tells him that she has no desire to visit the museum, that the real reason she is writing, is “to make sense of myself”.  The childhood friend with whom she shared her interest in Tollund Man has died and Tina wants to understand why she (Tina) never pursued this passion.  She writes that she is not expecting a response but that she needs to be honest with herself and believes writing these letters will help her figure out some things about her life.  

Anders, an urbane academic who deals only in facts and figures, responds again, discussing whether Tollund Man, whose neck was encircled by a rope when found, was the victim of a primitive ritual or was being punished for an offense against his community.  Anders also shares that his wife recently passed away and, he mysteriously adds, he has no place to visit her remains.  He asks Tina to continue to write because her letters are making him think. 

Now also curious to learn the story of Anders’ wife, Tina writes again and Anders begins to open up about the details of his lonely personal life.  Without giving away too much of the story, I’ll just say that over the next year, the pair relies on snail mail and eventually email (In my opinion, the story’s only disappointment), to exchange their stories, becoming more and more open with each other as they do. Because they are geographically insulated from one another as they pen their missives, each possesses the sense of security needed to share the disappointments and elations of their private lives. At one point, Tina writes, “If I destroyed the first half of this letter, it would be to disguise myself from you, and I do not want that, so I will send it.”  

Through their letters, Tina and Anders better understand the choices they made during their lives. They also discover that, despite their vastly different backgrounds, they have much in common.  When a dramatic and unexpected event befalls each of the correspondents, they find themselves relying on the bond they’ve developed through their letter writing to cope with their respective situations.  

I think I was drawn to this little book because I’d previously read that, like me, the author of Meet Me at the Museum, began writing after she retired and this story, like some of my own writing, focused on the lives of people who, because of their age, were viewed by much of the world as neither having value nor being interesting.  But I didn’t have to read far to see that the characters in this unique, understated work were very interesting. There’s an intelligence to Meet Me at the Museum, a richness that’s revealed as these two people, well past the prime of their lives, continue to discover who they are and, in the process, realize that perhaps their own love stories are not entirely over.  

This simple tale, well-told, captured not just my interest, but my heart.  If you’re looking for a quiet, thoughtful book and you, too, appreciate a good epistolary, I recommend Meet Me at the Museum.  

Do you have any favorite epistolaries? If so, I’d love to know what they are. Write to me or email me at marilyn@leelanauletterwriters.org. (Some day I’ll figure out how you can add comments to my blog posts.) In the meantime, happy reading and, of course, letter writing!

Oh– and copies of Meet Me at the Museum are currently in stock and available at Bay Books in Suttons Bay.