Fall 2020: touching lives, herding books, letters reaching across time and space

Not an actual Solstice letter, we may have to add a section for other letters to friends...

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Sixth Covid-19 Post to Family and Friends


Dear Family and Friends:

I`m sending another post during this extended pandemic, while trying to maintain a positive and constructive outlook

for the future. I hope you are each and all well and finding ways to reach out to others. This first wee tale has `reaching out` as its theme.

The Black Telephone Those of us old enough to remember when the phone was wired to the wall, usually in the kitchen, can relate to this story. I loved this read

When I was a young boy, my father had one of the first telephones in our neighborhood. I remember the polished, old case fastened to the wall. The shiny receiver hung on the side of the box..... I was too little to reach the telephone, but used to listen with fascination when my mother talked to it. Then I discovered that somewhere inside the wonderful device lived an amazing person. Her name was "Information Please" and there was nothing she did not know. "Information Please" could supply anyone's number and the correct time. My personal experience with the genie-in-a-bottle came one day while my mother was visiting a neighbor. Amusing myself at the tool bench in the basement, I whacked my finger with a hammer, the pain was terrible, but there seemed no point in crying because there was no one home to give sympathy. I walked around the house sucking my throbbing finger, finally arriving at the stairway. The telephone! Quickly, I ran for the footstool in the parlor and dragged it to the landing. Climbing up, I unhooked the receiver in the parlor and held it to my ear. "Information, please," I said into the mouthpiece just above my head. A click or two and a small clear voice spoke into my ear. "Information." "I hurt my finger..." I wailed into the phone, the tears came readily enough now that I had an audience.. "Isn't your mother home?" came the question. "Nobody's home but me," I blubbered. "Are you bleeding?" the voice asked "No, "I replied. "I hit my finger with the hammer and it hurts." "Can you open the icebox?" she asked. I said I could. "Then chip off a little bit of ice and hold it to your finger," said the voice. After that, I called "Information Please" for everything. I asked her for help with my geography, and she told me where Philadelphia was. She helped me with my math. She told me my pet chipmunk that I had caught in the park just the day before, would eat fruit and nuts. Then, there was the time Petey, our pet canary, died. I called, "Information Please," and told her the sad story. She listened, and then said things grown-ups say to soothe a child. But I was not consoled. I asked her, "Why is it that birds should sing so beautifully and bring joy to all families, only to end up as a heap of feathers on the bottom of a cage?" She must have sensed my deep concern, for she said quietly, "Wayne, always remember that there are other worlds to sing in." Somehow I felt better. Another day I was on the telephone, "Information Please." "Information," said in the now familiar voice. "How do I spell fix?" I asked. All this took place in a small town in the Pacific Northwest. When I was nine years old, we moved across the country to Boston. I missed my friend very much. "Information Please" belonged in that old wooden box back home and I somehow never thought of trying the shiny new phone that sat on the table in the hall. As I grew into my teens, the memories of those childhood conversations never really left me. Often, in moments of doubt and perplexity I would recall the serene sense of security I had then. I appreciated now how patient, understanding, and kind she was to have spent her time on a little boy. A few years later, on my way west to college, my plane put down in Seattle. I had about a half-hour or so between planes. I spent 15 minutes or so on the phone with my sister, who lived there now. Then without thinking what I was doing, I dialed my hometown operator and said, "Information Please." Miraculously, I heard the small, clear voice I knew so well. "Information." I hadn't planned this, but I heard myself saying, "Could you please tell me how to spell fix?" There was a long pause. Then came the soft spoken answer, "I guess your finger must have healed by now." I laughed, "So it's really you," I said. "I wonder if you have any idea how much you meant to me during that time?" "I wonder," she said, "if you know how much your calls meant to me. I never had any children and I used to look forward to your calls." I told her how often I had thought of her over the years and I asked if I could call her again when I came back to visit my sister. "Please do," she said. "Just ask for Sally." Three months later I was back in Seattle. A different voice answered, "Information." I asked for Sally "Are you a friend?" she said. "Yes, a very old friend," I answered. "I'm sorry to have to tell you this," She said. "Sally had been working part time the last few years because she was sick. She died five weeks ago." Before I could hang up, she said, "Wait a minute, did you say your name was Wayne?" "Yes." I answered. "Well, Sally left a message for you. She wrote it down in case you called. Let me read it to you." The note said, "Tell him there are other worlds to sing in. He'll know what I mean." I thanked her and hung up. I knew what Sally meant.

Never underestimate the impression you may make on others. Whose life have you touched today? Why not pass this on? I just did....Lifting you on eagle's wings.

May you find the joy and peace you long for. Life is a journey... NOT a guided tour. I loved this story and just had to pass it on. I hope you find it lovable too. (A good friend sent me this wonderful account today. I`ve shared it on Facebook on my timeline).

I have been recently given the title of `Librarian` for both my Unitarian-Universalist Mobile Book Table program as well as holding the same title for our small library in our Francesca Apartment Complex in our `Games Room`. I enjoy the tasks, but am hoping a few volunteers will assist me when Autumn begins.

I`ve been composing a little, writing poetry and submitting it in a few publications. I`ve also been reading very interesting and often exciting and edifying newly published novels and non-fiction. Our local bookshop: Books on Beechwood is one of the very best booksellers in Ottawa and the whole Valley. Peter continues to be a wonderful support for me and I try my best to be for him.

How are you coping with this longest pandemic in history? Please keep me in your `loops`.

September 5, Noon. I`ve just returned from our Francesca `library`, and have culled another carton of books to give away to the S.A. or our local jail. We`ve had so many donations of books from our many resident readers, that our books have been falling onto the floor. The week before last, I packed two cartons of books published before and up to 2010. I had to make a boundary or limit to which books we could keep. While we`ve asked the management/owners for another larger bookcase, nothing has been done about it. This morning I culled another box of old books, many quite well –used. These books immigrants, those on low income and those interred and those in hospital, will appreciate a good book to read. Peter has been very supportive, taking the books to the places where they will be used and appreciated. My next step is to try to organize a small team of volunteers to categorize the books and place them on the shelves where those who have specific preferences can find what they want easily.

I`ve also been involved in community activism. We`re trying to make our unique Overbrook neighbourhood safer, more lively and empower it to become a leading community in Ottawa. Our teams of people meet by ZOOM, and will probably be doing that until 2021. We have many enthusiastic people on our teams!

I`m posting this one poem by one of my favorite American poets. His work is so sonically, visually descriptive. It feels to me almost `tactile`.

To the Light of September BY W. S. MERWIN

When you are already here you appear to be only a name that tells of you whether you are present or not

and for now it seems as though you are still summer still the high familiar endless summer yet with a glint of bronze in the chill mornings and the late yellow petals of the mullein fluttering on the stalks that lean over their broken shadows across the cracked ground

but they all know that you have come the seed heads of the sage the whispering birds with nowhere to hide you to keep you for later

you who fly with them

you who are neither before nor after you who arrive with blue plums that have fallen through the night

perfect in the dew

For the Love of Mail: Letter Writing in a Pandemic

Lauren Markham on the Daily Magic of the US Postal System

By Lauren Markham

September 4, 2020

My favorite activity, my only faithful daily ritual, is to check the mail. My husband pokes fun, but whenever I`m not traveling he lovingly leaves the task to me. These days, it goes without saying, I`m always home. And while time has become a confounding concept of late (What day is it? How many weeks have gone by? How many months? How often have I cooked this exact same meal?), one reliable marker of pandemic time passing is that once a day the mail arrives, and once a day I go outside to lift the mailbox`s creeky lid. Some days something interesting comes, most days it does not. But every day there`s the possibility of arrival.

What is it that I`m waiting for? Some days I`m expecting a check from one of the various, and inevitably delayed, writing commissions I`m owed. Some days I`m expecting a package—a book, my new toothbrush head, one of the several floral onesies I`ve purchased on Etsy in the past few months in order to brighten my mood and rid my mornings of the burden of too much choice (a jumpsuit is the energy bar of clothing: efficient, a complete outfit unto itself.) But most of all, I`m hoping for a letter, that old fashioned language of love.

My correspondence with loved ones, and particularly fellow artists, is what has kept me aloft in recent months in this era of devastating loss. Their letters, postcards and care packages have reminded me that there is still real, thrumming life out there, on the other side of my door, through the toxic smoke of the California wildfires and the haze of so much uncertainty, and that there is a reason to keep writing.

If you think about it, the postal service sounds like a project cooked up by Miranda July. Okay, here`s how this is going to work: you write a letter to a beloved. You put it in an envelope onto which you write your beloved`s name followed by a special code related to where that person lives. There`s a sticker that you`re going to have to buy—only a few places have them—and you must place this sticker on the top right hand corner of the envelope (some of these stickers affix automatically, others you must lick with your tongue). Then you take the encoded, stickered letter and walk around your neighborhood for a while until you find a blue metal box, which will just be sitting there on a corner somewhere, waiting. You slip the letter into the blue box and close the hatch. Your letter will be safe there for a while. Eventually, someone in an official uniform will come to pickup the contents of the blue box, including your letter and many others like it—all these messages on their singular, baffling journeys. The person in uniform will book your letter a plane ticket or load it onto a truck. Within a few days, rain or shine or snow or sleet, your letter will arrive in the hands of your beloved—even if your beloved is very, very far away.

In reality, the US Postal Service is a vast operation employing more than 600,000 people and relying on machines, complex transit networks, and considerable federal funding to ensure that anywhere a package needs to go, it will be delivered.

The USPS began in 1775 with Benjamin Franklin as its first postmaster general. It didn`t issue stamps until 1848; before that, the postmaster would calculate the postage for each parcel based on the number of pages enclosed, and write it in by hand. (Until 1855 postage could be paid either by the sender prior to a parcel`s mailing or by the recipient upon arrival—kind of like calling collect, but with a letter.) Over the years the mail was delivered using horse drawn carriage, electric motorcar, Harley Davidson, bicycle, a motorbike called "The Flying Merkel," sleds pulled through the snow. Like midwives of correspondence, postal workers have long made sure the mail gets where it needs to go. (Except perhaps William Faulkner; before he was fired from his job at a Mississippi post office, he was known to deposit a person`s mail directly into the garbage can.)

It`s nice the unsung heroes of the postal service are finally getting their due. My uncle, now a retired mailman, spent his whole career walking through the outskirts of Reno delivering people`s mail: their paychecks, their medicines, their US census forms, their tax documents, their love letters, their draft papers. I always thought postal workers like Bunk were real-life tooth fairies or Santa Clauses: people whose jobs gave them wings.

In trying to destroy the United States Postal Service, the current administration isn`t only imperiling a critical public service and attempting to rig the election and further erode what`s left of our trembling democracy. They`re also stripping one more precious layer of magic from the world. Without a little bit of everyday magic, it`s going to be all the more difficult to survive. Or to write. Or for the world to unfold in ways that are unexpected, that we can only imagine.

To mail a letter is to send something out in the world with a faith that it will reach its destination. Writing is the same day. We write with hope that our work, like a letter, will find its way to where it needs to go. Ever since I was a kid, I have faithfully kept journals and written letters. My best self has always existed on the page.

When I was 17, my best friend Lindsay gave me a leather journal case. On it, an abstracted human figure reaches its long arms up toward a full moon in a star-spotted sky. "I saw this figure," she wrote in a letter to me that accompanied the gift, "this shining worshipper of high ideals and natural miracles, and I immediately thought of you."

Every year I buy a new notebook and slip it into the cover`s skin. I still keep Lindsay`s letter that accompanied the journal, along with many other letters from the past 20 years, tucked into the folds. Letters from friends who lived far away; letters from boyfriends and love interests; letters from my grandparents. A letter from my mom, when I was 20, telling me she had been diagnosed with breast cancer—the same disease that had killed her and Bunk`s mother before I was born. "I want to blame someone, somehow," she wrote, "but at the end of the day what I really want is to live a lot longer so I can hang out with you." She did live a lot longer, thank goodness; she`s still alive. And so is that grief-stricken desire of hers, forever sealed in that letter that I`ll never throw away.

As I enter middle age, I realize it`s rather predictable to be so preoccupied with the analog and the passing of time. But I can`t help it. I love the physicality of all my notebooks and letters, those stowaways of the bygone. In their physicality lies a risk; if my house were to catch fire, for example, they would certainly burn. This precariousness makes the letters and notebooks all the more sacred. They are singular; you can`t store them on some cloud.

For a while, long email correspondence offered a similar allure to letters. But the instantaneousness of it always felt like a cheat; a bing in the inbox wasn`t the same as receiving a physical object at the end of its long journey. Increasingly, email became the territory of logistics and commerce, less room for the slow sorcery of correspondence. Perhaps an ex-boyfriend put it best in a letter he wrote me in 2006. "I think daily of writing an email, but I feel there`s something more concrete and therapeutic about a letter."

In high school, I fell in love with a boy via the mail. We saw each other every day but, though we took long walks and read together in the city`s parks and rode our bikes through cow fields, we barely spoke. It was confusing, how little we had to say to one another in the daylight, how much we had to say on the page. "I just want to go around opening doors," he wrote to me when we were apart later that summer, of his thirst to truly live. "I feel like the world is so huge and my mind is being blown away so often that, well, I`m just missing stuff." I remember being so moved by these words; I felt the exact same way. We were so hungry for correspondence, hungry for the world.

To love, writes Rilke in Letters to a Young Poet, is the ultimate human task. "That is why young people, who are beginners at everything, are not yet capable of love. It is something they must learn." My old letters are, if nothing else, proof of this.

"Reading this over," one ex wrote me in a letter a few months after we`d graduated college and split for good, "I don`t really want to send it to you for a few reasons I guess. One, I don`t even really know if you`ll read it" (of course I read it—a letter from the boy who had snapped my heart in two) "or how you`ll feel to receive news from me" (I remember it felt like a stunned bird had reawakened, frantic, inside my ribcage). "Two, this letter is so factual and boring and dry. I guess that`s partly why all those past letters went unsent." But it mattered less what was in the letter than having received it at all. A record of his boring days? I treasured it. And now, after all this time, a record of his boring days is a record of my former life—an echo, a mirror.

For in these old letters written to me, clues of who I was—what was happening in my life, what my longings were, my preoccupations, the questions I posed and the answers I sought—lurk between the lines like rain shadows.

Some of literature`s most treasured artifacts are letters. It seems artists have always used the postal service to urge one another on and feel less alone.

"Now I have finally had the chance to read Ceremony," James Wright wrote to Leslie Marmon Silko in 1978, "and I am moved to tell you how much the book means to me." It seemed inadequate, he wrote, to just call it a "great book." "I think I am trying to say that my very life means more to me than it would have meant if you hadn`t written Ceremony."

This began a long correspondence between the two writers. "I just fed the rooster a blackened banana I found in the refrigerator," Silko began an early letter. She was afraid the rooster wasn`t getting enough to eat, but maybe it was his meanness, she considered, that was really killing him. She spent several pages writing about the roosters she`d known growing up, the stories her grandmother used to tell about the nasty old rooster that wouldn`t die.

"I never know what will happen when I write a letter," Silko writes. "I hadn`t intended to go off with rooster stories when really I wanted to tell you how happy I was to hear from you again." For the next two years Silko and Wright exchanged work, discussed their triumphs and fears. In 1980, after many letters written, the two had plans to meet in Arizona. Instead, Wright was diagnosed with terminal cancer. They met in his hospital room. Their relationship had been full and brimming, but in the end it was almost entirely on the page.

Rilke`s Letters to a Young Poet is perhaps one of the best-known literary exchanges, for it tells all young artists (and us old ones, too) some things they need to know. "Being an artist," wrote Rilke to 19-year-old Franz Xaver Kappus, "means: not numbering and counting, but ripening like a tree, which doesn`t force its sap, and stands confidently in the storms of spring, not afraid that afterward summer may not come. It does come."

These days, because I live with the man I love, most of my correspondence is with other writers. There are practical questions we ask one another: "But how to write a book and support myself? This damn puzzle I can`t seem to work." Care packages when someone`s feeling low: "Fuck racism, hooray for cheese!" And survival strategies: "The way I put my energy into moving forward is by mostly trying to ground into my present situation—the only way I know how to survive." Postcards from our travels, those tiny ephemera slipping through space and time. We write each other good news and memories; we send one another our books. ("An early copy of Heart Spring Mountain," my friend Robin wrote me in a note accompanying the galleys of her luminous novel. "Makes me think of our visit in fall 2011, and your drive down those Irene-damaged highways.")

"I read Katherine Mansfield`s notebooks when I was having difficulties last year," writes Yi Yun Li.

"Dear friend, from my life I write to you in your life," Mansfield wrote in one entry. I cried when I read the line. It reminds me of the boy from years ago, who could not stop sending the design of his dreams in his letters. It reminds me too why I do not want to stop writing: the books one writes—past and present and future—are they not trying to say the same thing: dear friend, from my life I write to you in your life. What a long way it is from one life to another: yet why write if not for that distance, if things can be let go, every before replaced by an after.

I`d been meaning to read this essay by Li for a while but didn`t until recently, when a young writer I`ve been corresponding with sent it my way. Some things arrive at just the right time. "I guess something I`m really struggling with," the young writer wrote to me, "is the truth that you grow and get better but the writing stays frozen in time. In the best case it is a time capsule but in the worst case it is just like something standing against the good and necessary motion of things."

We write each other good news and memories; we send one another our books.

Like I did, this young writer wants so badly to figure things out and to be on the other side of his unknowing. I remember that feeling, and all the letters I wrote in search of clues for how to manifest, how to be. Perhaps the best I could offer this young man is to send him something from Rilke: "You are so young, so much before all beginning, and I would like to beg you, dear Sir, as well as I can, to have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves as if they were locked rooms or books written in a very foreign language."

"One does sometimes have the strange feeling," writes Stephen Mitchell in his introduction to Letters to a Young Poet, "that Rilke is writing, across time, directly to his younger self, that desperate, miserable boy." Perhaps all letters are both a message to someone else, but also to ourselves.

These days, and I know I`m not alone in this, I find myself reading Petrarch`s letters from the Bubonic Plague, as if they could offer insight into how to live, instructions on how we might psychically survive these bleak and murderous times.

"Where are now our sweet friends," Petrarch wrote, "where their beloved faces, their soothing words, their mild and pleasing company? What thunderbolt has devoured these joys, what earthquake overthrown them, what storm submerged them, what abyss opened to swallow them? We were close together; now we are almost alone."

Note the almost—we are not entirely alone, only almost. The letter is what allows the almost to be.

My best friend is supposed to have her baby any day now. It`s been a rough pregnancy, and it`s a difficult time to be gestating new life and readying a place for it in the world. In lieu of a zoom baby shower (zooms and baby showers being two things we`d both agreed we`d had more than enough of for a lifetime) another friend and I organized a shower of letters.

"Write the future baby a note," we instructed their friends and family, "and put it in the mail." What do you want the baby to know about what`s happening in the world as it grows and gets ready to be born? What do you hope for the baby? What do you want the baby to know about their parents? Do you want to share a blessing? Do you have a funny story you`d like to tell? Do you want to offer the baby some counsel about the business of being alive? Every day during the month of July my friend, huge with baby, murky with grief, got to walk outside to her mailbox, open it, and find inside a treasure, a future time capsule.

"Oh happy people of the future who have not known these miseries and perchance will class our testimony with the fables," writes Petrarch in one letter. "We have, indeed, deserved these [punishments] and even greater…; may our posterity not also merit the same." I told the baby that I couldn`t wait to see what the world would become with them in it.

The gift of anticipation is that what you`re waiting for takes time to arrive. Years before, the silent teenage boy had written to me about the future. "I want you to know," he wrote, "that if you`re ever feeling like being frustrated about something, or really excited, or just wanting someone to care about something as much as you do—I`m here. I`m always up for hearing about all this. And dreams are good, too." What more can we ask of one another, what more can we offer?

We need the post office for concrete and basic things. But we also need its magical deliverance of dispatches from far-off places that make us feel only almost alone—I`m alive, I`m still alive, I feel there is still some future up ahead, and at this moment I`m thinking of you.

Lauren Markham Lauren Markham is a writer based in California whose work has appeared in outlets such as Guernica, Harper's, Freeman's, The New York Review of Books, and VQR, where she is a contributing editor. Lauren is the author of The Far Away Brothers: Two Young Migrants and the Making of an American Life, which was awarded the Northern California Book Award, The California Book Award Silver Medal, and the Ridenhour Prize. She teaches in the MFA programs at Ashland University and the University of San Francisco.

I know this is a long COVID-19 post. I hope you will find it helpful. I appreciate your comments and your thoughts. Please tell me more about how you are feeling and what you might want to do things differently in your life when this disease finally dies. You really `make my day` when you post me or send me a letter by land mail. (I guess you know by now, I keep any greeting cards you send me, and also retain most e-mails you send me.)

You are in my thoughts.


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Page last modified on September 10, 2020, at 11:22 AM