Friday, April 14, 2017

A Letter Is a Gift in Your Mailbox

Getting a personal letter in the mail is like getting a surprise present. It’s all wrapped up and you’re eager to find out what’s inside.

Actual physical letters are rarer and rarer these days, though ironically the availability of beautiful and/or interesting note cards seems to be greater than ever, thanks to ease of printing small batches and all the special effects possible in print, not to mention on-lineshopping at etsy, for instance.

Note cards come in an amazing variety.
So maybe you’d like to send someone a letter or card, just to give them a pleasant surprise in the mailbox. Why not have some fun writing it? There are so many options.

First, there's the paper. Really, any paper will do. Notebook paper is fine, if you write better with blue lines to guide you. Otherwise, there are all those amazing cards to choose from, as I mentioned earlier, or nice stationery (though I suspect the choices in plain stationery have decreased.) If you're feeling creative, you can always make your own card. Pen-and-ink, rubber stamp, colored pencil, cut-and-paste (actual or virtual), watercolor-over-crayon,… Making the card by hand is traditional when it is from child to grandparent, but there’s no reason an adult can’t make a card for a friend. 

postcards from museums, living history museums, beaches, and art postcards
Postcards can indicate places you've been or seen, or not.

Then there's the pen. The paper you are writing on may limit your choices. Fountain pen on loose-leaf tends to bleed. But there are still plenty of ball-points and gel pens, not to mention pencils, that are a pleasure to use on even the cheapest notebook paper. (Can you tell I love pens?) And if you are using nice paper, go ahead and use an elegant fountain pen (or a cheap, yet chic, one. Pilot MR, for instance.)

pencils, ball points, gel pens, and a fountain pen uncapped
Various pens and pencils

Of course, what stops most people is not a lack of pen and paper, but figuring out what to write. The first thing to remember is--given how rarely most people receive personal letters now, the bar is set fairly low. And while you may want to write a letter that is full of wisdom and will be treasured forever, letters like that have always been in extremely short supply!

(Letters used to be the main way to convey basic things like “Please send money,” “I miss you,”  “Your father has been ill,” or “We are very disappointed in your behavior,” going back to ancient days. So a lot of letters were probably not such a thrill to receive.)

So what will you write? There's the usual "what I've been doing recently." It may seem dull to you, but to someone you don't see often, it's still news. However, if this is someone you talk to on the phone all the time, you might want to write about something else.

What are you excited about? You must be excited about something. (If not, stop your letter and go work on your life instead.) For instance,

The latest season of "Death in Paradise" is now showing on PBS. I'm excited! Of course, they've replaced every character from the original except Dwayne, and if they replace Dwayne too, M and I may quit watching altogether.
The original detective inspector Poole was so delightful—why was that? Something about his grouchy, fussy, detail-oriented self was really entertaining. But the actor wanted to spend more time with his kids, instead of spending time in the Caribbean, and who can blame him for that?

You could be excited about something small, like a book or a movie. Or it could be an idea or a project you’ve started. Or maybe you are about to go on a trip, move, or change jobs. Even if the fact of it isn’t news to your recipient, some of your thoughts about it may be.

Maybe you talk to this person on the phone so often, you're thinking, "What's left to talk about?" Well, give it some thought. There may be things you didn't have a chance to go into detail about, or you've thought about some more since the last conversation. Or maybe it would be fun to do something else entirely and just describe what is happening around you at the moment--set the scene for your reader, so they can share the moment with you, at long distance and delayed in time.

I'm sitting in my kitchen typing on my iPad. I don't know why I often sit here instead of at my desk, or the little table I put near the window with the nice view, or out on the porch. Well, I sort of  know why. My desk is too messy, and right now it is over 80 degrees outside, so the porch is a bit too hot to be pleasant. Still, the seat by the window would be an improvement. Maybe after I make a cup of tea. (In this heat, I'm still drinking hot tea? Maybe I'll make that iced tea with orange juice, instead. Or regular sweet tea.) The cats are lying around the living room, Pearl on the sofa, Conga sprawled on the floor (she was outside, and black cats do heat up on sunny days). I wonder if she would enjoy having a cool cloth laid on her. Probably it would be too strange a sensation for her.

If you're up for it, you could send a riddle or a puzzle, or draw a doodle, or clip something out of the paper/magazine. (Yes, I know, that's what Facebook is for. But getting an actual clipping in your mailbox is still more like a surprise present than seeing a post on Facebook.)

Having written, you enclose the note in its envelope. If you have stickers, you can put one on the back for decoration. Or stamp it with a rubber stamp, or draw a doodle on it. Or none of these, if doing so would delay you in getting the thing in the mail. Remember,

A plain letter that gets in the post is 100 times better than a great letter that never leaves the house.

gold ink doodle on the back of an envelope

Friday, April 7, 2017

From the Annual Easter Egg Hunt to My Favorite Children's Books--five books I remember fondly

Very shortly, as soon as we get our trinket-prizes collected, the Third Annual C&C Easter Egg Hunt will begin. This egg hunt is not a casual look for hard-boiled eggs in the grass, but a serious week- (or more) length search for plastic eggs cleverly hidden around the house. Each of us will hide ten of these--blue, purple, or green--and then hunt for the others whenever we have a bit of spare time.

I love this event. I love the clever hiding places (my husband is the master of hiding eggs in plain sight, and my daughter tucked some away that could have stayed hidden for months if we hadn't begged to know where they were) and I love to seek. Systematically.

The Great Easter Egg Hunt is also when I do some of my most thorough cleaning. After all, if I pull everything off a pantry shelf and wipe it down and then replace everything with careful attention, I ought to be quite confident that there are no eggs hiding on that shelf, right?

This hunting-cleaning invariably makes me think of the chapter “Dusting Is Fun” in All-of-a-kind Family (by Sydney Taylor). Mama, tired of constantly having to remind her daughters when it is their turn to dust the front room, hides ten buttons in the room and tells them they are going to play a game. The game is find the buttons, obviously, but while dusting. It's Sarah's turn, and by paying attention to all those difficult-to-reach spots, she finds them all.

Mama is wise enough not to make the game permanent. After everyone has had a turn, she only puts the buttons out occasionally, without warning, and in varying numbers. And once--a penny! A whole penny! (And for them, a penny buys a significant quantity of candy.)

Just recently, I was making a list of books from my childhood that I particularly liked and wanted to give to a friend's daughter. (See also my post on books, nostalgia, and death.) After settling on Little House in the Big Woods (Laura Ingalls Wilder), Understood Betsy (Dorothy Canfield Fisher), Beezus and Ramona (Beverly Cleary), The Book of Three (Lloyd Alexander), and the aforementioned All-of-a-kind Family, I started wondering: why those books? How had those books influenced me, and how might they have influenced my writing?

It struck me that all the parents and guardians in those books had a streak of practicality, a kind of matter-of-fact common sense.  Mama handles chore-shirking, lost library books, bouts of stubbornness, and scarlet fever with admirable calm (which I admire even more now that I am a mother myself). And though I always thought Laura's Ma was a touch too proper, she not only knows how to make everything from rag dolls to butter to straw hats, she also occasionally loosens her rules, allowing the girls to mold their cooked pumpkin into shapes, though normally they aren’t allowed to play with food, or (in a later book) declaring that they will play games instead of studying when she knows they are desperately worried about Pa and in need of distraction.

The Putney cousins, in Understood Betsy, are the calm contrast to devoted but fluttery Aunt Frances. They say almost nothing about to Betsy about how upsetting it must be to be whisked away from her family to a strange place, but it’s easy to imagine that Aunt Abigail is thinking, "Poor mite. What would make her feel better?" just before she scoops up the kitten and drops it in Betsy's lap. And a few words from Aunt Abigail at bedtime, "do you know, I think it's going to be real nice, having a little girl in the house again," makes it clear that she is welcome.

The Book of Three is set in Prydain, a land of high kings, evil lords, enchanted swords, and deathless warriors. But Taran is frustrated that his life is far too ordinary—“I think there is a destiny laid on me that I am not to know anything interesting, go anywhere interesting, or do anything interesting. I’m certainly not to be anything. I’m not anything even at Caer Dallben!”. His guardian Coll obligingly responds by giving him the title of "Assistant Pig-Keeper” to Hen-Wen, the oracular pig. Taran is to “see her trough is full, carry her water, and give her a good scrubbing every other day.” When Taran points out that he does all those things already, Coll says, "All the better, for it makes things that much easier." 

Beezus and Ramona was not, strictly speaking, one of my childhood favorites. I read a lot of Beverly Cleary's books and enjoyed them, but I didn't fully appreciate them until I read the Ramona books to my daughter. Ramona's world is the most similar to mine of the five books, and yet Cleary manages to make it incredibly entertaining by focusing on the little things--how a bored but imaginative younger sibling can interfere with baking, or the way the first bite of something is somehow the best--and turning them into adventures. Ramona is definite challenge to the adults around her, as well as her sister, but they find practical ways to deal with her (buy a cake rather than try for the third time to make one, don’t mention the apple incident as it would feed her desire for attention, and—oh—why not make applesauce out of those apples?)

Am I making too much of this? Perhaps all childhood books are like this, especially those for younger children. After all, it is reassuring to think that parents are wise and calm. Probably most stories have some character with that quality. But not all children's books feature the parents particularly (Secrets of Droon, for instance) and not all parents are good (Matilda, for a rather drastic exception).

At any rate, did reading these books lead me to be a sensible and matter-of-fact parent? It left me with the aspiration, certainly--I think I yell too much and get flustered too easily to actually qualify. In my defense, I'm not a fictional character.

I suspect the fondness for sensible parent/guardians does show up in my writing, though. In Persephone, Aunt Sarah and Aunt Mira are both practical in their own different ways. In Adrift, Aunt Kenata manages new babies and bad dreams, in contrast to the easily-upset Aunt Visala and taciturn Utanu. And I think Nana Sylvie might qualify as the common-sense influence in The Slipper Ball, though time will tell.

Till next post.