Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Making it Home: The Letter-Writing Challenge

The day before my grandmother’s funeral, I found a postcard in her purse.  It was a card I had sent her some months earlier, and next to my return address, Grandma had scrawled, “KEEP - Write to her” in shaky letters. At first, I was tearfully amused; my grandmother’s memory had been deteriorating for years, and all around her house were various notes she had written to herself, such as “Billie - watch Sit and Be Fit at 1 PM!”  Knowing her habit of posting these reminders, I was nevertheless surprised to realize she had been carrying that postcard in her purse for months before she died. During college, I had tried to send her a postcard or letter every week, and while she rarely had the wherewithal to write and post anything in reply, I now saw that she had read, kept, and even annotated the little notes I sent.  
I offer this story as a preface to a challenge I am issuing to all of my readers: I want each of you to write a letter to someone today.  
If I think about what “home” means in very practical terms, writing and receiving mail comes near the top of my list.  For most of my life I have been shy, old-fashioned, and separated from many of my friends, so letter-writing has remained a more relevant medium for me than (I suspect) for most other twenty-somethings. However, one need not be a bookworm with Luddite proclivities to enjoy letter-writing. I am challenging each of you to write a letter to someone (anyone!) because I believe there is something wonderfully peculiar in the way letters help us build and sustain our homes. 
I love letters for many reasons. Unlike email (or blog posts), letters are tangible, offering tokens or fragments of the writer's presence.  The shape and color of the envelope, the handwriting, the postage stamp, even the smell of a letter varies from person to person. I have an old suitcase stuffed full of letters from friends and family, and I can recognize the sender of one of those epistles with just a glance at the paper or script.  When the people who make a place home are far away, having something to hold is comforting. 
Additionally, letters, can help us live in the tension between home and journey (or exile). This tension marks most of our lives, and perhaps young adulthood especially. When I write letters from Texas, I am trying to draw the reader into my life here, and when I receive letters, the writer is, mysteriously, present with me. However, as I described in my first post, letters also emphasize distance, and prompt me to consider how to sustain relationships when my friends, my family, or my church may be physically distant. 
Most letters I send from home, whether that means physically at home or emotionally settled, but I also write letters when I am most aware of distance, travel, and transition. Stamps stay in my wallet, so that when I travel I can send postcards from airports, letter boxes, and hotels. I scribble these cards when everything around me is strange, marvelous, or unsettling. Writing about my journey enriches the adventure, while sending a card reminds that home is still out there somewhere, even if scattered across fifteen addresses. 
Of course, I also love letters because they are such an easy way to make other people happy, and to help them feel at home. Even the most internet-savvy people are usually glad to receive real letters, and writing to them is a way you can very easily show love. Finding that postcard in my grandmother's purse reminded me how powerful a physical token of love can be. The message on the back was hardly three sentences, but she knew that the postcard was about much more than the hasty note I had scribbled. 
I realize, however, that few people, especially of my generation, have much experience writing letters. Therefore, the rest of this post contains a few specific tips and ideas for writing a letter (and hopefully, establishing letter-writing as a habit).  
First, consider a few examples. Letters can be meaningful in many different ways. If I survey the letters I have received in the last month, I find a number of approaches to writing a letter: 
* My mother likes to write brief little updates with brightly-inked pens. She writes a note about a good deal she found at Goodwill, or includes clippings from the newspaper. (I particularly enjoy the sarcastic comments she makes about the notices posted in the “Church Briefs” section of the paper.) 
* My father often meanders into ruminations about his reading, his garden, his canoe, or the work he and my mother do with college students. At other times, I receive an envelope with no message other than a bunch of pressed morning glories.
 * My dear friend Natalie always finds cute and clever cards to brighten my day.
* Emily, my favorite librarian, always sends me wonderful lists--most often lists of books, music, movies, or ideas, and usually on purple paper. 
* My surrogate Grandma, Jackie, reports the hometown news and warns me regularly not to study too hard. A WWII war-bride, Jackie sometimes reverts to her French spelling instincts, and I am always delighted to find a letter addressed to “Bethanie” in my mailbox. 
I hope these examples show that letters need not be ten-page expositions of profound thoughts (although those are lovely). Sometimes I write chatty accounts of my day, while other letters consist entirely of compelling or lovely passages from better writers. I have even written prayer-letters, in which the letter is  transcription of the prayer I have offered for the person who will receive it. Today, I would write about the two beavers I saw swimming in the river just after sunset. My college boyfriend (one of the best letter-writers of our generation) and I used to exchange individually-wrapped bags of tea, and yesterday I mailed an envelope containing a short note, a cartoon, and a paper snowflake. 
Here are some other ideas:
* Write to a friend who lives far away. Remind him or her of a happy memory the two of you share, and then write about the most interesting or beautiful thing you saw today. 
* Write to a homebound member of your church. 
* Write to a child you know. Send a coloring sheet, stickers, or paper dolls. You can print lots of fun, mailable paper toys here
* Write to your mother.  
* Give a note to someone who lives with or near you. Not only will you save money on the postage, you can enjoy sneaking across the hall to slip an envelope under your roommate’s door. 
* Write to a stranger.  In college, I would walk through the neighborhoods around campus for hours, and occasionally I would write a letter to the inhabitants of a house I thought looked pretty or interesting.  Without fail, I received a reply, and once the reply even included an invitation to come over for tea.   
* Send Christmas cards this year. Indulge in something with glitter. 
* Visit the Bureau of Communication. This whimsical website offers a number of “official” forms you can use to declare romantic interest, express gratitude, and more.  
* Encourage an imprisoned Christian.  Prisoner Alert, run by Voice of the Martyrs, provides profiles, addresses, and free translation services for men and women who have been imprisoned for their faith.
* Refresh your knowledge of Victorian letter-writing (here, for example), and see if you can write a letter that meets the standards of 1890s “ethics and etiquette.”
* Write government leaders about an issue that concerns you. Amnesty International and Bread for the World are good places to start. 
* Write thank-you notes to the men and women on your church staff. 
* Write me! I promise to write back. Use the "A Letter for You" tab at the top of the page to send me your mailing address, and I promise a handwritten missive in return.
Do you write or receive letters or postcards regularly? Do you accept my challenge? If so, whom will you write today? 


  1. I accept your challenge! (Thrusts imaginary sword into air). I'm not sure who I'll write to, but I'll make it a good one. And I'll probably write more than one...

  2. I accept! I just had a former youth who called in tears because her serious boyfriend had broken up with her-2 days before Thanksgiving and her birthday- because 'God told him to'. I'm sure she would appreciate an encouraging letter in the mail.

    I love getting mail too. My freshman year my father sent postcards from everywhere he travelled, reminding me how much he loves me and to study a little but each day :-)

  3. Sent a card to a hurting friend. My daughter sent a card, and today a drawing, to a friend who just started college. I hadn't read your post till after we did these things, but I actually haven't sent any personal letters in a long time. Thanks for the ideas- I had never heard of sending a letter to an address of someone I never met.