Awakening

Like many people, I entered the reawakening following the COVID shutdown with a long list of people I wanted to see, hug, and enjoy in person.  I’m still not caught up, but during the last couple of post-vaccination months, instead of writing letters, posting blogs, or preparing the latest LLW Zine, spending real time with friends and family was my priority, along with a large project here at our home:  reworking our tired perennial and herb gardens.    

The entertaining part was fun, easy, like getting back on a much-loved bicycle. The garden project was a whole lot more work. I’d neglected my perennial and herb gardens the past several summers and, coupled with this year’s unreliable Leelanau spring weather, updating them proved to be quite a challenge.  

I began planning the modifications during the winter months. Sitting beside our fireplace, gardening books and magazines on my lap, I studied soil types, growing zones, composting, and, of course, plants. But I soon became overwhelmed by the amount of information and recognized I needed the help of someone who had expertise in the world of horticulture. I searched online and eventually hired a garden designer to suggest an overall layout (because we wanted to add a gravel patio and path) and offer a list of plants he thought would work.

The actual preparation of the beds didn’t require a lot of expertise, just a willingness to get the job done. I was determined to handle this work myself. I spent days ripping out matted Cedar chips and pulling what seemed like miles of roots that had taken hold beneath the wood. Some days as I toiled, I needed a wool stocking cap and heavy denim jacket to protect me from the fierce winds.  Other days, salty sweat stung my eyes as I worked in the blistering sun.  My husband hauled rocks from our fields to define the edges of these beds and I worked with a second landscaper to select a revised list of plants hardy enough to withstand the conditions on our ridge.  

It became my mission to resurrect these gardens.  Always, after I finished my day’s garden work, I came inside the house dirty and tired.  Often the muscles in my hands ached so much that holding a pen would have been a challenge.  But as I began to see progress, the refreshed landscape reflected my own spirits. I found myself growing increasingly excited as the landscaper laid out the paths and patio and began moving and adding new plants to the surrounding dirt.  And after many weeks of planning and many long days of hard work, the garden I envisioned is now complete.

The air is close this morning, humid, and I’m settling into a calm space in my head, a reverie, admiring the gardens: the purples and yellows and pinks and whites, the spiky Russian Sages, the Lavender shrubs, the bushes of Baptisia, and the Catmint whose purple fronds explode like the final fireworks display at a Fourth of July celebration.  The fragrances of these plants are subtle, grace notes that float past if I’m not paying attention.  

Sitting in my rattan chair on our screen porch with a mug of tea ( 2/3 English Breakfast and 1/3 Earl Grey) on the glass table beside me, listening to the chirps of birds and the buzzing of insects from the nearby meadows and woods, along with the occasional hum of a motor as a car passes on M-22, I’m also holding my fountain pen. A pad of paper is on my lap, and I’m ready to resume my blogging, to work on the next LLW Zine, and mostly, to get back to handwriting letters. It’s time.

Spend Locally, Send Globally

Last week’s snail mail delivery included a letter from a friend written inside this beautiful notecard.  Look closely and you’ll see that Midsummer’s Day at Pyramid Point depicts a profusion of meadow flowers along a trail leading to one of Leelanau County’s dunes.  Roiling clouds cast ominous shadows on both the shoreline and the surface of Lake Michigan.  Butterflies rise from the meadow and dance in the upper border of this complex and intricate card, a creation of Leelanau County artist, Kristin Hurlin.  

I’ve admired Kristin’s work for many years and before I received my friend’s letter, I’d already reached out to ask Kristin if I could feature her stationery on the Leelanau Letter Writers blog.  This post, the first in a series highlighting and promoting stationery by Leelanau artists, is meant to showcase their artistry and help you obtain products from these individuals if you’re interested.  (Please note that I don’t market any of these products, nor do I receive any payment or products for writing about them.  I’m simply hoping to promote local artists and, of course, letter writing, and to suggest that if you’re looking for writing paper, you might think about spending locally and sending globally.  Besides, supporting Leelanau County artists can be a way of sharing the natural beauty of this peninsula with the world.)

Back to Kristin—

If you’ve spent time in this area, you’ve likely wandered into Kristin and her husband, Paul May’s, Glen Arbor shop on a summer afternoon to check out Paul’s handcrafted furniture or admire Kristin’s prints.  Or you may have spotted Kristin’s cards in one of Leelanau County’s many gift shops.  Kristin and Paul moved to Glen Arbor in 1983 with their two children.  Now longtime Leelanau artists, their creations have delighted visitors and residents for years.  In particular, the Leelanau scenes Kristin captures in her prints and transfers to her stationery possess a magical quality; the borders surrounding each card are their own versions of amazing.  

This past December I purchased several of Kristin’s winter scene cards from her website.  I selected cards showing a pine forest laced with lake effect snow, a somber orchard with unharvested apples capped with snow, a snowy owl sailing beneath a silvery full moon, and a cedar wreath hanging on stained glass adorned with chickadees.  From these, I chose the card I thought each person on my list would appreciate.  When I finished my Christmas letters and mailed them to friends and family, some of whom live on the other side of the world, I felt like I’d included a present, in addition to my handwritten letter.  

And although it’s not stationery, since this website is the Leelanau Letter Writers, I wanted to share a Kristin Hurlin product I only recently discovered.  While in Northport’s Pennington Collection, I came upon a jigsaw puzzle with Kristin’s version of a map of Leelanau County.  The artwork depicted the varying depths of Lake Michigan with soft shades of blues and greens, the intricate geography and topography of both the mainland and islands that comprise our county, and an imaginative legend and border.  I purchased the puzzle and spent the following weekend putting it together.  Once completed, I left it on my coffee table for several days just so I could admire it; Kristin’s use of color and her designs were, as always, one-of-a-kind, recognizable, distinct, and beautiful.  I found myself thinking that this puzzle would be a welcome addition to a Northwoods cottage.  Or a souvenir of a memorable visit to the Leelanau.  

A selection of Kristin’s cards and her puzzle can be purchased at Northport’s Pennington Collection or you can order more of Kristin’s cards, along with her prints and other art work directly from her website: glenarborartisans.com.  If you mention the Leelanau Letter Writers when you order cards directly from Kristin, she’ll include an extra card with your order. 

And the next time you’re in the market for stationery, consider spending locally and sending globally.  Support the artisans who enhance the quality of our lives.  But above all, keep writing and mailing those letters!  

“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.

Musing

Recently, I received an amazing package from my dear friend, Lynn. The Book of Correspondence, which she imagined and then created, quickly became one of my most treasured possessions.  I keep it on my writing desk because it’s full of images and words that inspire and delight me. I never tire of looking through it and I thought I’d share it here with you.

Lynn Parise is a Michigander who creates collage art from antique photos and postcards, decoupaged pictures, clever sayings, thread, postage stamps, old telegrams, wire, keys, drawer pulls, charms, beads, envelopes, and even dictionary definitions.  

Here’s a photo of one of my favorite pages in The Book of Correspondence:

See what I mean about inspiration?

Here’s another favorite page:

And if this amazing book wasn’t enough, last week she snail mailed me one of what she calls her “Tag Cards” with a handwritten letter on the back.  

“I have arrived, you may bring forth the frivolity and high jinks.”

Needless to say, this little girl has become my latest muse, reminding me to have fun and enjoy this slow correspondence journey I’m on.  

Besides being a unique and loving person, Lynn’s a mentor and an extraordinarily creative artist. Her tag card and The Book of Correspondence make me smile.  They also remind me that correspondence comes in many forms: not just letters but sketches, photos, poems, recipes, funny sayings, and any other creative way people send love to the world.

See more of Lynn’s creations at lynnparisestudios.com or email her at Lynnparisestudios@gmail.com.

Slow Food/Slow Correspondence

My sister-in-law is a marvelous cook.  “Come for dinner,” she answers when I ask what we can do for her during these difficult days.  Although we decline her invitation because of COVID, we’re aware that cooking for other people is how she chooses to spend her time and, consciously or not, it’s how she demonstrates her love.  

It’s never takeout or fast food when we dine in her home.  She makes a conscious effort to search through her cookbooks and recipe collections, to select just the right seasonal menus and dishes.  Every detail, from the candles and flowers to the after-dinner tea, is chosen. She carefully shops for the ingredients she needs, then chops, dices, and slices, before she measures and mixes the food she serves her grateful guests.

In an article titled “In the Day of the Postman”, social commentator Rebecca Solnit wrote,

         “The real point about the slow food movement was often missed.  It wasn’t about food.  It was about doing something from scratch, with pleasure, all the way through, in the old methodical way we used to do things.  That didn’t merely produce better food; it produced a better relationship to materials, processes, and labor, notably your own, before the spoon reached your mouth.  It produced pleasure in production as well as consumption.  It made whole what is broken.” 

My sister-in-law may or may not consider herself part of the slow food movement. I’ve never asked her. But I do know that every bit of her cooking is done from scratch, often from recipes her mother favored. I know that she takes great pleasure in preparing these meals. And we certainly take great pleasure in eating them.

In addition to the food, she offers us lasting and warm memories.   Because she took the time, our lives are enriched. We are reminded that we are loved.

Letter writing is how I spend a fair amount of my time these days. Because I do, I think I’m learning not just who I care enough to write to but what I care about as well.  When I pause and sit quietly, alone but also with a sense of the person to whom I am writing, I enjoy a clarity of mind I don’t usually feel when I’m elsewhere. At my writing desk, the space that surrounds me feels something approaching sacred.  It’s there that I can insulate my thoughts — there’s no television, no computer pop-ups, no multitasking, no email boxes filled with advertisements and selling, no other entities vying for my attention.  I have time to mull over the subjects I know will interest the person I’m writing to, decide which stories about my life I want to share, and search for the right phrases or the precise words that best express my thoughts. From my selection of the piece of stationery I will write on to the stamp I attach to the envelope before sliding it through the mail slot at the local post office, the process of writing a letter is a pleasure for me.  I think of my outgoing mail as offerings to my recipients.

Letter writing is slow correspondence.  And much like slow food isn’t so much about the food, slow correspondence isn’t just about the letters.  It’s slowing down, taking a breath, appreciating the days of this life in words we record on paper with pen and ink. It’s creating something from scratch and then sharing it, like a good meal, with pleasure and love.   

Winter view from my Writing Desk
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Who Invented the Christmas Card?

In 1843, the year Charles Dickens first published A Christmas Carol, the British Postal System initiated the “Penny Post”, enabling the Sender to mail a card or letter anywhere in England for the cost of a penny stamp.  Prior to that, although it was often cost prohibitive, people had mailed Christmas and New Year’s letters to close friends and family.  But when these cheap stamps became available, more people than ever began sending Christmas letters.  Because it was considered bad manners not to respond to mail during Victorian times, people who had a lot of friends found they couldn’t keep up and looked for a solution to their problem.

One prominent socialite and arts patron with this dilemma, Henry Cole, founder of the Victoria and Albert Museum, enlisted an artist friend to help.  The artist created images on a triptych: the inner panel showed a family seated at a table celebrating the holiday and on both sides were images of people helping the poor.  Henry Cole had a thousand copies printed on stiff cardboard approximately 5 by 3 inches.  Each card had a generic greeting and a blank where Cole could fill in the name of the recipient.  Although the idea didn’t catch on immediately, within a few years other prominent Victorians copied Cole’s idea and began sending out similar cards during the Christmas season.

In the U.S., the first credited Christmas card was created in 1875 in Boston.  It was a painting of a flower and it read, “Merry Christmas”.  During the coming years, most U.S. Christmas cards contained pictures of animals, nature, or autumn scenes rather than winter or religious scenes.  Card publishers began organizing competitions and people collected these cards, like stamps or coins.  Each season, newly designed cards were reviewed in newspapers.

The modern Christmas card is attributed to a Kansas City postcard printing company owned by the Hall brothers.  The Hall Brothers Company (which later changed its name to Hallmark) adopted a book format for its cards so people had more room to write their holiday messages without having to write an entire letter.  These cards measured 4 by 6 inches, were folded once and inserted in an envelope.  This new format became the industry standard.  The fronts of these cards included seasonal art and in the coming decades, Hallmark and their competitors hired artists like Salvador Dali, Grandma Moses, and Norman Rockwell to design their cards. 

In 1963, First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy created two paintings for Hallmark to display on a special edition of Christmas cards. One of these paintings is shown here. All proceeds from the sale of these cards were donated to the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. 

Nowadays, Christmas cards are often produced by small publishers and artists.  There are pop-up cards, photo cards, video cards, and audio cards as well as traditional paper cards.  And, of course, there’s always the Christmas letter; not a Christmas card but I’d venture, just as welcomed and appreciated as any Christmas card. 

[This blog post is derived from a 2015 article in Smithsonian Magazine]

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There’s Nothing Wrong with Emails

There’s nothing wrong with communicating by email. 

Emails are quick, productive, and simple.  They’re also efficient.  When we want to shoot out identical information to a bunch of people, emailing is ideal. There’s even a name for that kind of explosive electronic mailing: it’s called an “email blast”.  

Emails are great when we’re in a hurry or facing a deadline. Also, emailing (and its cousin, texting) offer us the ease of responding with clever abbreviations, memes, and emoticons so we don’t have to bother coming up with a more precise word or phrase to express exactly what we want to say.  With emails and texts, we simply pick and poke, react rather than respond.  It’s so easy.

However . . .

Although no one loves seeing the name of a familiar Sender in her Email Inbox more than I do, I recently concluded that an email or text, no matter how clever or heartfelt the message, just doesn’t take the place of a real letter. Maybe it’s because I read the message on a screen and when I close my computer or my phone, it disappears.  Maybe it’s that we’re all in this self-enforced seclusion where we can’t hug, we can’t socialize, and we can’t gather together; maybe because of that, I found myself seeking something more physical, a more tactile way I could connect to people I care about.

I began wondering whether our society’s transition from handwritten letters to emailing and texting was one of those changes we let happen without thinking it through.  Whether we mindlessly replaced a type of communication that some of us now look back on and miss. 

In a 2019 Opinion Piece for the New York Times, computer scientist and author Cal Newport argued that Steve Jobs never meant for iPhones to become our constant companions.  He wrote that Jobs envisioned the iPhone as a device to help us with a small, select number of activities like listening to music, placing calls, and generating directions. 

I’d go so far as to venture that even the forward-thinking Mr. Jobs never intended that emailing and texting should replace the art of letter writing.  Or that writing letters by hand should become obsolete or even disappear from our culture.

Not long ago, when I was in a COVID-fatigue funk, I stopped in my local post office to pick up our mail. Amidst the usual bills, advertisements, and political propaganda, was a letter, a real letter sent to me from a Florida friend.  She’s a visual artist so she’d decorated the envelope with rubber stampings of snails holding tiny envelopes in their mouths, with fun, illegible script, with washi tape, and with three different postage stamps.  Standing in the post office lobby, I got teary-eyed above my mask.  That letter, even unopened, was such an unexpected gift that it buoyed my spirits and inspired me to reexamine my own letter writing habits (or actually NON-habits).  That letter got me thinking. 

I decided that maybe it was time for me to cut the electronic cord, so-to-speak, or at least unplug it, to find a place where I can be alone with my thoughts, so I can reach out to friends and family who are dearly missed, through a handwritten letter.  Although the missives I’ve been writing are never perfect (often there are inserted words or crossed out phrases), if I’m honest, I can see that the rhythm of the words I pen resembles my speech patterns.  Which means the letters I’m sending are real.  Real in the physical sense and real in the sense that they’re reflections of who I am at this point in my life. 

During these challenging times, as the numbers of people infected by the COVID virus rise and we continue to hunker down, sequester, separate, and isolate ourselves, one antidote might be to write and send someone you care about a real letter.  Although it won’t be the same as an in-person connection, it might touch a chord and be a tangible link from you to that person in ways that emailing and texting, for all their benefits, cannot match.

These days, I still send emails and texts when the situation warrants it.  But I also make time to write real letters, hoping that when someone finds an envelope from me in their mailbox, it reminds them that they, too, are one-of-a-kind, special, and most of all, real.  Just like the letter they are about to open.

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