Snail Mail, Lent and Chocolate

I will not be sad to see the cold go away.

I will not be sad to see the cold go away.

Miles run yesterday: 6

Temperature outside, with rain (my least favorite weather): 36

Bags of Cadbury’s Mini-Eggs almost gone: 1

Lent has the distinction of falling across another season: race season.

Two years ago, I was training and running my first marathon. Last year, I ran another half-marathon.

But also, there was the annual giving up of something, a skill set I am not entirely equipped to handle. And I was very, very hungry.

The year I trained for the marathon, I kept waking up in the middle of the night wanting to eat something; my stomach felt cavernous at least 23 hours a day.

One year, I gave up wine. (Not advisable.)

The next couple of years, the kids and I gave up chocolate. My kids were even more rigid than I was (“Hmmm. I’m pretty sure hot chocolate is in liquid form, which may not count.” “Mo-om!”) We were not very nice people during those days. And people kept offering us chocolate.

So this year, my kids put their feet down. Been there, done that.

They decided to add something instead of taking it away, which I find much easier. Much easier.

Each week, they are writing old-fashioned, handwritten, snail-mail letters.

My daughter whips several out in about 15 minutes.

My son sits at the table with a pen and stares at the paper. “What can I write about?”

My daughter starts listing: “The Y pool, middle school, the movie we watched, how we’re excited about summer camp, the book we’re reading…”

“Okay, okay!” My son leans over the paper and laboriously writes two sentences. “Now what?”

Last Saturday morning, I looked over my daughter’s letters. One to a friend in the neighborhood right next to ours said, “Hey, do you want to come over and play on Sunday?”

I looked over at my daughter. “Um. You do know that Monday is a federal holiday, and the mail won’t run, so your friend won’t even get this until at least Tuesday, right?”

Expression: horrified. “What? I’m putting it in the mail today.”

“Right. And… well, it’s not like email. It doesn’t get there the second you close the mailbox door. There’s like… travel and processing time.”

Disbelief. Sighs. Stomping. Re-writing.

And then, as I beg the Saturday mail carrier to stop at the corner of our road because our letters aren’t ready, my own disbelief: my daughter does not know how to address an envelope.

The address: written across the top of the envelope, no name, just an address. Barely room for a stamp. We had to send it sans name because the mail carrier was experiencing his own disbelief: Dude, is this really a matter of national significance? Just give me the mail, and let’s call it a day.

Her friend’s family received the letter and wondered, “Why, it’s a mystery! A letter for our house!”

And when her friend got the letter, she told her mom, “I got a real letter, through the mail, handwritten and everything! I want to do that, too!”

Sometimes things work out the way you think they will, sometimes things happen that you don’t expect.

I thought the letter-writing would be a feel-good, easy-to-accomplish Lenten activity. But it turns out, it may be almost as difficult as giving up chocolate.

Well, almost.

Storytelling Superheroes

Detail vs. Big Picture: Do you focus on the tiny detail at the center or how the bright yellow petals make you feel?

Detail vs. Big Picture: Do you focus on the tiny detail at the center or how the bright yellow petals make you feel?

Miles run today: 4.5

Hours school was delayed today: 3

Wintry accumulation: 0

My college best friend and one-time roommate had a superpower.

She could remember any conversation verbatim and recite it back 15 times to 15 different listeners in exactly the same way.

From this, you may infer that:

a.) she was an excellent student, recalling every single tidbit a professor uttered, and

b.) listening to one side of her multiple phone calls reciting the same experience over and over was both maddening and fascinating.

And Lord help you if you ever changed your mind. My whole life, things have come out of my mouth that I can’t recall five minutes later. And I might have a whole other opinion five days from now.

We would be standing in someone’s room, and I would say, “Wow, Julie, that is a gorgeous orange comforter you have!”

And my best friend would say, “You said last month that you hate the color orange. In fact, you said, ‘Please kill me if I ever wear, decorate or eat something orange.”

Awkward.

But probably true, given her total recall.

She had the kind of memory for minute conversational details that any writer would love to be able to access. On the stand at a Congressional hearing, she would be an ideal witness, reciting with perfect clarity words spoken by colleagues or friends nine years earlier. No “I cannot recalls” for her. No sirree bob.

Lyrics to every song written between 1975 and 1994? Not a problem.

One night, my best friend, a few other friends and I were heading out on the town. One of our friends fell down the concrete steps of our dorm headfirst, in slow motion, then popped up, unscathed, and proceeded to carry on a previous conversation. My best friend was able to tell the story of the exact song we had been listening to (“Divine Thing” by the Soup Dragons), The Slow-Motion Fall and all the way up to the last thread of conversation (a wild night in Shallotte).

I lived the experience, then heard about it at least seven times with the boring parts left in when retold to other friends, each time exactly the way it happened.

Over the years, I have decided that storytelling requires two things: a good memory and an ability to know what to leave out.

My mom is a natural storyteller, something I didn’t realize until I was grown.

Didn’t every child’s parents tell about the boy who came to school with no shoes? Or the scientist who walked through the chemistry lab carrying bubbling beakers while wearing full, Ebola-level-clearance gear?

My mom can recall names, dates and stories from each era of her life; she (mostly) edits out the boring parts. Unlike my college best friend, however, the details may be slightly editorialized or ahem, embellished.

My mom has some really good stories.

The difference between experiencing situations with my mom and my college best friend is that with my college best friend, I wished she would change it up a little each time she told the story. Just for the sake of her BFF.

And with my mom, well… I often felt that I didn’t live the same event. Or that maybe I had missed something.

We would go to a store, have to return something, and come home.

Here is how the dinner conversation played out as my mom explained the situation to my dad:

“So, I marched right up there to the desk and told the cashier (she was about 22 and couldn’t stop chewing gum; I wanted to say something to her, but I didn’t), ‘This hose doesn’t work. It is the most poorly engineered gardening implement I’ve ever seen. I demand my money back.'”

I would sit there, chewing my stir fry, wondering if my mom had maybe visited a different store than the one I had.

“And then she said, ‘Well…’ and I said, ‘If you can’t do any better than that, I will take my business elsewhere,’ and I slammed my hand down on the counter. That pretty much woke her up. She opened that cash register and refunded my money.”

My dad would say something like, “Good for you, honey,” and my mom would smile.

I would think: There was no slamming. There was no demanding. My mom was perfectly nice to the cashier. The cashier seemed like she wanted to give the money back.

But the stories always sounded pretty good, and the big picture was the same, so I learned from her that the actual details were less important than what you did to the story: the editing, the tone, the description, the way you felt about the event.

And I always wondered how I would be represented by the storytellers in my life, considering I didn’t remember my own utterances word-for-word as my college best friend did, and I did plenty of things to make my mom less than happy. She could have a field day telling stories about me.

Ultimately, I took a page from their books: I learned to remember, use the details I needed and editorialize when the mood hit me. Correction: I’m still learning.

What about you? How did you learn to experience, synthesize and share your stories?

I Spy

What do fellow people-watchers wonder about you?

What do fellow people-watchers wonder about you?

Miles run today: 5

Temperature at 3:45 p.m. (in January!): 63

Stars I give to Carrie Rubin’s novel, The Seneca Scourge: 5 (It was so good. I know, I’m late to the party.)

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: I’m a little miffed I wasn’t recruited for the CIA.

Back when I was 10 or 11, my friends and I often wrote up elaborate spy missions. We devised long forms with official-sounding terms: Location. Description. Activity. Conversation. Action to Take.

We brainstormed about who we could shadow; someone who, when overheard, would provide scintillating tidbits for us to scribble in our notes.

My sister, four and a half years younger than we were, was often the quarry.

We would crouch in the guest room, the one next to hers, waiting for her to say something. Anything. But as she was usually alone, the espionage forms remained blank for long minutes, and our legs developed cramps.

Location: her room

Description: age 6 1/2, brown hair, brown eyes

Activity: combing her doll’s hair

Conversation: N/A (I learned that one from my mom filling out medical forms at the doctor’s office.)

Action to Take: Find a new subject. Who says stuff.

By high school, we were more mobile.

We drove to the MARTA station and took the train to the end of the line: the Atlanta airport, one of the busiest in America.

Back in the glory days of air travel, random teenagers from the ‘burbs wandering through the terminals weren’t considered a security threat. Out of sheer boredom, we watched families arriving from Europe, couples reuniting after long absences, and business travelers in rumpled suits retrieving their suitcases from baggage claim.

Sometimes we would play, “That’s Your Boyfriend,” a game that today seems horribly cruel but provided us with hours of free entertainment.

You would find the most unwashed, outdated, grizzly man at the airport and present him to your friend as a gift. “Hey, girl, That’s Your Boyfriend.”

To our credit, we never pointed.

When my dad found out about it, he was horrified. “You do know that those men are other people’s fathers, don’t you? A group of teenage girls looking in his direction, giggling? The poor men probably think their zipper is unzipped or something.”

Now at the ripe old age of many of our “That’s Your Boyfriend” subjects, I still watch people and wonder about their lives.

People are curious about other people. It’s in our nature. And if you are a writer, you’ll understand that we want to know why, and how, and what makes her tick.

A few months ago, I was standing in line at our local warehouse store. The man in front of me, age 50, brown hair, mustache, stubbly facial hair, jeans circa 1995, logo t-shirt, was fascinating. I wanted my old Spy forms back.

Here is what he bought:

One case of Corona

One 55-pound bag of dog food

Two 20-pound bags of Dixie Crystals sugar

I’m sure you can imagine what I wanted to ask him: what time is the margarita party, and how many limes will you need me to pick up first?

Was the dog food thing just to put me off the scent of the real story here? I imagined a Mel-Gibson-in-Lethal-Weapon existence for him.

Or maybe he was lonely and baked homemade brownies for the homeless each Tuesday afternoon while sipping a beer.

Or maybe he and his dog filled up a plastic swimming pool with colored sugar water and splashed around on warm days in late fall.

Or maybe he baked large cakes for prisoners with nefarious tools hidden inside.

I kept my mouth shut.

But I am glad that I’ve found a career and vocation that allows me to ask a lot of questions and then write about the answers.

With each person I meet, with each person I interview, I find I gain no more insight into what makes people tick. But I do gain compassion: I never, ever play “That’s Your Boyfriend” anymore.

And I gain many more questions than I’m able to answer, which makes me happy.

Do you people-watch? Where is your favorite place to go to wonder about people’s lives? What was your biggest surprise while people-watching?

Follow These Rules and Live

Is your life gothic or epic or merely suburban?

Is your life gothic or epic or merely suburban?

Miles I ran today: 4.5

Temperature when I ran: 69

Excellent memoir I just beta-read: 1

[Content of conversation below may have been altered to suit my needs. Sorry, Mom.]

Setting: The mid-’90s

Me: Mom, why didn’t you do some horrible thing in my childhood so I could write a best-selling memoir? You gave me no material. Couldn’t you have beat me up a little bit?

Mom: You were obnoxious enough for me to think about it. Several times.

Me: But by having self-control, you have left me with nothing. Nothing. To. Write. About.

Mom: I weep for you.

Back in the ’90s, there was a rash of tragic, horrible, tell-all books about alcoholic parents and people chasing other people with scissors and heroin overdoses and running away from home.

It was enough to make any writer feel a bit, well, under-prepared for writing a best-selling memoir. Or anything that anyone might want to read.

But then, a gift:

At least one of those writers lied. Big time.

And then another gift:

Elementary school teachers started teaching about writing in terms of “small moments.”

And then another gift:

Blogs.

All of us who had childhoods full of homemade cake and Atari and mean words from other kids but no near-death experiences were given the opportunity to write for other people who were A-okay reading about the Little Things In Life.

Writers like Elizabeth Berg flourished.

There is a small moment in her collection of short stories, The Day I Ate Whatever I Wanted, when the main character (MC) and her husband are preparing for their grown kids to come over for Thanksgiving dinner. The MC sees a small stain on the crotch of her husband’s khakis, and she is annoyed by it because (and I paraphrase) “we all know what that is.”

I must have read that part 12 times for the sheer genius of it.

And as my husband pointed out, there are dozens of small moments in Gone Girl. It’s like a writer’s workshop of how to incorporate details without overwhelming the reader.

He re-read me a sentence where author Gillian Flynn writes about the torn felt of a mini-golf hole, which allows the reader to fill in the rest of the scene. She doesn’t need to tell us that the mini-golf building has crumbling paint or that the plastic palm trees have torn places.

Today, after spending my early adulthood wondering if I had any scrap of material to write about, I see material everywhere.

Like last weekend.

We got out from under the evil clutches of the cable company and bought an antenna for our TV.

Victory!

I was wandering around the house a few days later, picking up miscellaneous bits and pieces and relocating them to the trash can, when something caught my eye, typed in all caps on the antennae instructions:

Follow These Rules and Live.

Somewhere, there is a technical writer with a sense of humor in the face of boring material.

And I want to thank her for the name of my future memoir.

You Can’t Escape Your Themes

How much have you changed? Or have you?

How much have you changed? Or have you?

Miles run today: 0

Cookies eaten today: 0 (big improvement)

Blog posts read over Christmas break: 0

My parents moved from my childhood home when I was in my 20s, so returning “home” for the holidays is to a different home: no ghosts of 10-year-old Annes greet me as I climb the stairs; no boy band posters cling to bedroom walls.

But many, many things from my childhood haunt the closets, the bedrooms, the bookcases… One night, cozy under my mom’s quilts, raindrops pattering on the windows,  I woke from a nightmare where someone was calling my old name, my maiden name. And when I made my way in that direction, no one was there.

Because my sister and I want my parents to move up to our area in the not-so-distant future, we cleansed some of the spaces of our junk over Christmas break.

My sister, Dancer Extraordinaire, went through boxes and boxes of old dance costumes: ruffly can-can skirts, sailor-girl get-ups, swirly ballet skirts and funky jazz shorts.

I finally packed up my middle and high school yearbooks and put them in the back of our minivan. I’m surprised that the covers closed: you would not believe the amount of Big Hair photos contained in those pages.

But as you can imagine, the things that stopped me cold were the written things… my tenth grade English journal, my AP English papers, the letters.

The letters, for someone sentimental like me, were heartbreaking.

People used to write letters! I can picture these younger versions of ourselves spending time sitting out on The Quad, balancing a notebook on their knees, writing four pages, back and front, about boyfriends, girlfriends, parents, school, work, the weather. And wow, did we write! How did we find the time?

Of course, I only had the letters from other people; I have no idea what I wrote that prompted the letters or what I wrote in response. In some cases, I prayed that I had responded: one acquaintance from high school wrote from her first semester at college saying that everyone else had opened their mailboxes to get letters or care packages from home. She got nothing. She begged me to write to her.

Did I? I don’t remember.

I was busy falling in love. I was juggling too many class hours and, unfortunately, Calculus (aka Bane of My Existence).

This past week, my family and I sat around my parents’ dining room table, and I read them snippets of their letters from when I was away at college: they often described the same mundane weekend events in very different ways.

My parents’ letters often opened with, “I’m worried about you. Are you feeling better?”

And my sister’s: “Mom and Dad are mad that you haven’t been to the doctor yet.”

I must have picked up every cold the freshman dorms offered that semester.

Most touching were the ways that we have not changed: my mom still searches for the perfect home phone, simple and indestructible. My dad still gets baffled by home improvement projects. My sister is still in pursuit of the perfect haircut.

But here is the letter from one of my best guy friends the summer after we graduated, the one that showed me exactly how little I have changed in 20 years:

Anne,

Ah yes, the glorious summer–that which we longingly wait for each spring. Too bad it kinda sucks, huh? You didn’t sound too excited in your letter. What’s wrong?

So you don’t have a job… big deal. Jobs are just time-consuming anyway, you know. I mean, I can see how you might get a little stressed not having one, what with jobs being the popular thing to be doing these days…

He went on to get a Ph.D. and is figuring out how to wipe cancer off the face of the world.

I waited tables for six months while I looked for a “real job.” And when I got one, I made less money than I had while I was waiting tables.

And here I am, 20 years later, looking for a “real job” after freelancing for years. And like before, wondering if it will ever happen.

Where are all of those pep talk letters and the young people who had so much time?

And why can’t we escape the themes that keep coming up in our lives, over and over, as evergreen as the three basic arguments we recycle with our spouses over a lifetime?

What are your personal themes? And do they show up in your writing?

Celebrate My Unofficial Handwrite-a-Letter Day

When this English tree lost its leaves, it snuggled up in a secondary, fuzzy coat.

When this English tree lost its leaves, it snuggled up in a secondary, fuzzy coat.

Miles run today: 4.5

Chapters still needing revision before submitting to writing group (Sunday–eek!): 1

Handwritten letters most people write per month: 0

Happy birthday how oil are you now. Can You send a note back to me.

My son received this note from a first grade neighbor the other day. The paper is taped together, and the words are way, way up near the top, very carefully considered.

I love it.

I would not dare suggest that I believe we should all go back to the days before email and texting and dial-in conference calls and Skype.

However, I believe a handwritten letter is special.

I receive hundreds of emails each week. I love hearing about writer friends’ accomplishments through Facebook. I am thankful that I can interview people over the phone for work; it saves time and gas expense.

But when I walk out to the mailbox and once in a blue moon receive a handwritten note, my heart skips.

Back when I was away from home for the first time as a freshman at college, we had tiny mailboxes in the large dorm lobby. Each day, I would open the small door and hope for something from home or something from a friend away at another college.

When I saw my mother’s steady, loopy cursive or my father’s sharp, diagonal scroll, my grandmother’s warm script or my friend’s careful blend of cursive and print, the envelopes themselves made my day before I even ripped open the seal. The stamp or the sticker used to secure the envelope was often chosen with care.

After I opened the letter, I might be able to tell that the writer was short on time: their writing seemed labored and cut off quickly without completely finishing the thought.

Or perhaps the edge of her coffee cup had rested for a moment on the edge of the paper; I could picture my mom writing at the kitchen table, gazing out at the birds stopping by the birdbath right outside her window. Maybe my dad had been sitting in the recliner, resting the paper on a magazine and taking the time to describe a recent dinner before he lifted the leg rest and let his eyes grow heavy.

When I was away from college and home for the summer, my boyfriend sometimes sent letters with intricate drawings of things he had seen or places he had been.

Before we met, my husband spent many months in England away from his American girlfriend in the days before the Internet. He wrote pages and pages that made the trans-Atlantic voyage, laboriously penned while his friends were napping or headed out on the town.

As I addressed our Christmas cards last night, I thought about how glad I am to receive the photos and good wishes around the holiday season from friends and family far and wide.

But even better are the notes and cards that come without any warning or expectation. Almost no one is expected to write thank you notes or to send letters that make no demands; words that simply shoot the breeze.

What if you were to choose one lucky person to write to? Not for the holidays, but for today.

For all of you young people who can’t remember life before the Internet, choose someone older, someone who remembers the joy of receiving a letter. Or better yet, choose someone young who never checks his mailbox because there is never anything of value inside.

I urge you to take pen in hand tomorrow, Saturday, December 1, and write to a neighbor, friend or family member. Tell them anything: thank you for existing, what you did last weekend, how you think about that trip you took together two years ago whenever you need a pick-me-up.

I guarantee that when that person opens the mailbox, she will smile. And you will be the reason.

Reading is Sexy

My husband went out in the windy cold this weekend to take some awesome photos for my blog. I love this one.

Miles run yesterday: 3 (icky, rainy, didn’t-wanna-be-out-in-it run)

Book club meeting I attended last night: 1 (We discussed 2030.)

Words I have written in my novel today: 0

Sometimes you have to hear things over and over and over for the words to sink in.

Sometimes when you hear the words over and over and over, you say words without thinking about them.

Sometimes this is a problem.

When I went on the field trip to Old Salem with my daughter’s fourth grade class recently, I embarrassed her beyond imagination. (A very, very easy thing to do.)

Every single restored home had large signs throughout the building; signs that the girls in my group were able to overlook with daunting regularity.

“Second Floor for Staff Only” placed on a stair riser became: “Oooh! Let’s go upstairs!” And “Private Residence: Do Not Knock” became “Hey! Let’s go in this house! Let me knock!”

I was beginning to wonder whether I was chaperoning juvenile delinquents or illiterates.

Finally, as five girls started to lounge against a stair rail that said, “Do Not Touch,” I yelled out:

“Reading is Sexy!”

My daughter wanted to crawl under an 1800s-era rock.

A few years ago, my husband had seen a bumper sticker–Reading is Sexy–and every time our kids now disregard the printed word, one of us laughs and says, “Reading is Sexy.”

Sexy is apparently a bad word among the fourth grade set.

Blurting out inappropriate words made me realize that all of the things we repeat in our daily lives sink in somewhere in the crevices of our gray matter.

Last weekend, when I was at the writing conference I attend each year, I walked into a “Slushfest” with two friends. Slushfest, for the uninitiated, is where two anonymous, laminated first pages of someone’s novel are thrown up on a screen, and agents riff on why the passage would be something they would consider reading further or not.

After four years at the conference, I was starting to get that apathetic, senioritis feeling. I was tired; I felt I had heard it all before.

An agent we had sat at dinner with the night before then said something that felt like he was talking directly to me: “We have all heard these things before. At times, you may think you don’t need to hear them anymore. But I think it takes many times and ways of hearing things for wisdom to set in.”

I perked up. If only a teacher had said those very same words to me years ago, maybe I would have sat up straighter in my seat; maybe I would be sitting in a swank office somewhere, contemplating string theory.

Or maybe not.

I’ll leave you with words of wisdom gleaned from these experiences:

1. Reading is Sexy.

2. We need to hear important information over and over for it to sink in.

3. Be careful what you tell yourself over and over. You may start to believe it.

What is a helpful mantra for you that has led to success? What have you needed to hear over and over that eventually worked its way into your psyche? Have you ever embarrassed your child beyond belief?