The Joy of Correspondence (In Praise of Snail Mail)

When I quit my job a few years ago, I had some specific goals for the year I was going to take off. I planned to read as much as I wanted to, and I wanted to learn to cook from scratch (beans and whole grains, soups and such). I wanted to learn more about medicinal herbs and make some simple remedies, preferably from my own herbs. And I wanted to start a blog.

I did not have correspondence on my radar. However, correspondence has become a major part of my life over the last few years, a huge unexpected joy.

It started with the haiku project in 2013. Write a haiku a day, put it on a postcard and send it to a friend. My Montana friend gracefully agreed to be the recipient of said postcards, and I decided to try to do a postcard a day for a year. I missed only a very few days, and I’m still doing it.

A friend in Colorado read about the project and started her own version of a postcard project with a variety of recipients (some receiving daily postcards and some receiving weekly postcards). I was one of the weekly recipients (and some weeks I received more than one). I am still one of the weekly recipients (we postcard project people clearly are not quitters), and she started her project back in August of 2014.

Fast forward to the fall of 2015. I started having serious computer problems. Email longer than a few sentences became untenable. It took a few months to figure out, but in the meantime, I was losing touch with some of my out-of-town friends, including Jami in Colorado.

So I started sending letters and cards via snail mail. This might seem extreme, but when it is taking two or three days to send an email, snail mail begins to look quite inviting. And I had an entire drawer full of cards that I had collected or received as gifts over the years, so there was no expense except postage. (Oh, and the obsession I developed with finding fun writing pens—you may not realize it, but sometimes you need to use different kinds of pens on different kinds of paper. Slippery paper requires special care.)

Jami (Colorado) almost immediately asked if I wanted to move completely (almost) from email to snail mail for the duration of my computer problem. Yes! And so it began.

With a weekly postcard and a weekly letter or card from Jami, plus occasional mail from other friends that responded in kind, getting the mail became much more fun. And the more fun it became, the more I wrote. The computer got fixed, and Jami and I continued our snail mail correspondence and still do. But now, it’s more like three or four cards a week (blank notecards that we usually write on both sides and the back), and it’s come to the point where I’m more likely to get something personal in the mail on a given day than not. And it’s not just Jami. I have several friends in town who send occasional cards and notes, and just today I got a postcard from a friend visiting Hawaii.

Sometimes I run across a funny in the newspaper that makes me think of a friend, and I clip it and send it to them with a note in a card (and it usually ends up being a longish note, because these are friends, and there are always things to say; also, smaller cards can be used if you are feeling somewhat less verbose on a given day).

I have one friend that I like to send scandalous postcards to because they make her burst out laughing when she finds them in the mailbox.

The payback? The payback is pure joy. First, I love writing (hence blog), so there’s that. But writing to close friends is more personal than the blog, and it can help me process feelings simply by writing them down, which is very grounding, so that’s a second thing.

Third, I get to support the U.S. mail system, which I think is one of the best things in this country. (And it also gives me an excuse to buy lots of the fun stamps the post office puts out, which I am tempted to count as number four but I won’t.)

Fourth, it brings joy into other people’s lives (a funny postcard, a poem, various goings-on, updates on important things like cooking successes and failures)—it singles a person out, and that means something; when the card is from a friend, you know it was chosen specifically for you; the words are written only to you. This primitive act of finding just the right card (or stationery), writing it, putting it in the envelope and addressing it (which of course means finding the address book), stamping it, and dropping it in the mailbox—somehow this primitive act does so much more than email. (I’m not sure which end experiences the greatest benefit, but I’m guessing the writer.)

Fifth, if you’re lucky, you might find a bit more personal mail on your porch floor (or wherever your snail mail lands). It’s fun. You pick it up, hold it in your hands. Read it (or tear it open and then read it), and if it’s a card, you often prop it up so you can enjoy it—usually for several days. (When’s the last time you propped up an email?)

Sixth, even if you don’t get more snail mail, you might strengthen relationships. I copied Jami’s weekly postcard idea and started sending a weekly postcard to my niece. This has led to a lot more correspondence (via text and email) and we’re both learning more about each other, which is a lot of fun.

Seventh, the correspondence can also be a form of artistic expression (especially with postcards). On my best days, the postcard picture reflects the haiku, and on the very best days, the stamp does too.

If this is new to you and you’re intrigued, you might want to consider starting small. Dig out some old postcards you got on vacation; send a note to a friend you’ve lost touch with.

Or perhaps you jump in with both feet and start your own project. A weekly postcard to an aunt or an old high school friend. A monthly riddle to your family….

If you like to write, you might be surprised at how much fun this can be. Addicting, really. Don’t say you weren’t warned.

Advertisements

Postcard Project, What?

I got several questions after my Postcard Project Mid-Year Summary, most commonly about the content of the postcards and especially about the suggestions. I decided that rather than reply to each query in kind, I’d write a post in response.

[Brief recap: At the start of the year, I, a liberal in Minneapolis, began a weekly postcard project, writing to our new Senate Majority Leader, Paul Gazelka, a Republican from northern Minnesota; in late summer I added Republican Senator Julie Rosen to the project. So far, I’ve sent more than 60 postcards, most to Gazelka, but 10+ to Rosen.]

Here are some of the things I’ve suggested:

Early on (possibly in January) I suggested a statewide survey, specifically looking at concerns of urban and rural residents. Much is said about the urban/rural divide in Minnesota, but I think a bit of it might be manufactured in our state Capitol. Certainly there are issues (e.g., grass buffers for farmers, mining near the Boundary Waters—but even these are not completely rural/urban). But who knows? Anyone who has filled out a questionnaire from a political party knows how badly the questionnaires are designed. I am talking about a survey done by a reputable firm with a track record (local, please), that would actually help us understand where we agree and where we disagree. I suggested either the survey center at the University of Minnesota, or Wilder Research (fairly well-known in Minnesota and respected on both sides of the aisle). For funding (since I am sure that would be a concern) I suggested that one of our many local foundations might foot the bill.

It is amazing how much you can get on one postcard.

This is an issue that has my heart, because I have a foot in both worlds: I grew up in rural Minnesota and visit frequently. I always loved going to “The Cities” when I was growing up. Pretty much everyone I knew did. It was a bit special. People back home still go to The Cities—to shop, for sporting events and entertainment (I ran into my second cousin, from my hometown, at the Guthrie Theater not so very long ago). I think rural Minnesotans want and value a vibrant Twin Cities. And I think most urban Minnesotans want strong rural areas. After all, where do most of us go over the weekend?

I think this is being exploited as a divisive issue by politicians, and I want to get to the bottom of it. (As you can imagine, I’ve written more than one postcard about this issue.) Ok, I will stop that long song.

I also asked the senators to consider a tiered minimum wage in Minnesota. This was after Minneapolis started talking about a $15/hour minimum wage and the Legislature tried to legislate that the minimum wage had to be statewide (wanting to avoid a patchwork quilt of minimum wage rates across the state, which I think is quite reasonable). But a lot of things are more expensive in the city. A minimum wage of $15 makes a lot of sense in Minneapolis. Maybe not so much in my hometown, where I could get a much bigger and newer house for a lot less money.

Additional suggestions, including several in the healthcare arena, since I’m in that special class of people that purchases individual health insurance: Expand MinnesotaCare (our excellent statewide health insurance program for low-income people) so that people on the individual market can buy into it; allow people on the individual market to join the state health system; and consider something like credit unions, but healthcare unions (I am not sure exactly how the model would transfer, but it seems like someone smarter than I might be able to figure it out).

Also, I asked them to consider increasing the gas tax (because who would notice after two weeks?) to facilitate road repair; support a bill that would ban hand-held devices (e.g., phones and razors) while driving; and to please follow the single-subject rule (which is in the Minnesota Constitution) that no bill can address more than one subject. It makes legislation so transparent, and it would have avoided so much of the mess that our (MN) government is currently in (to wit: a standoff between the governor and the legislature).

I was also asked if I’ve heard back. Yes, I’ve heard from Senator Gazelka twice, once in response to my initial email introduction (he responded via email) and a few weeks into the project, I received a letter responding to the first three (or so) postcards. Very briefly, but my points were noted, and he acknowledged an area or two of agreement. I’ve not heard from him since, but I’ve decided to treat that letter as an indication that he is at least reading the postcards. I like to think this. Even if he isn’t, probably someone is—a mail carrier, an office worker.

And even if no one reads them, they’ve helped me. They’ve goaded me into thinking about things differently. I’ve expanded my horizons, learned how to think outside the box (or maybe I’ve gotten out of a box?) and perhaps become a little more creative.

Not bad for a postcard project.

Postcard Project Mid-Year Report (Belated)

At the start of the year, tired and frustrated with partisan politics, I decided to write a postcard every week to the Minnesota Republican Senate Majority Leader, who seems to be an amiable, well-intentioned man. My intent was not to rile or rage, but simply to impart my opinion in a respectful manner. He is a conservative from a small (but fun) town in northern Minnesota. I am a liberal in Minneapolis.

He had said he wanted to build bridges and work in a bipartisan manner. I, too, want to build bridges and work in a bipartisan manner. Hence, the postcard project. I thought if he received a thoughtful, well-reasoned (and occasionally entertaining) postcard from a liberal every week, that it perhaps might move the needle a little, if not in terms of beliefs or values, at least in how we view the person across the aisle.

And move the needle it did. But surprise surprise, not his needle—my needle. Totally unanticipated outcome from this project.

Being a person of moderate intelligence, I knew that if I simply wrote vituperative postcards, they would not get the kind of attention I was seeking. That’s not my style, anyway. I’d rather entertain, I’d rather educate, I’d rather provide suggestions that seem to at least have a possibility of being considered, even if only for a moment. And as I got more into the postcard project, I started reading much more closely about state politics. Because of course it helps if you know what you’re talking about when you’re writing weekly missives to a senator.

Of course I’m always looking for news in the paper about my guy, but I read everything. And I notice this huge difference across the Republican party. Why this surprises me, I do not know, but there are as many ways of being a Republican as there are of being a Democrat. There are Republicans who are environmentalists; there are Evangelicals that are earth stewards (yes!). There is common ground to be found.

I am starting to understand a lot of conservative principles. And while this understanding has not changed my values, it is making me increasingly aware of places where our goals might be similar, but we approach it in such different ways we don’t see our commonalities.

Yes, wow, can you believe it? All this from a postcard project? But wait, there’s more! Towards the end of July, I realized I was learning so much that I decided to add another Republican to my postcard fold—head of the finance committee and very involved in healthcare policy (which I am super concerned about). So far I have sent her 9 postcards. I’ve sent the Senate Majority Leader 50 (50! Clearly not a postcard a week, but rather “a minimum of a postcard a week.”). I had no idea how compelling and fun this project would be.

I like to think they enjoy getting the postcards. I have a huge assortment (birds, cooking, various artists, botanicals, WPA posters, science fiction, other bookish postcards), and I try to tie the postcard image/picture to the message. Sometimes they’re a wee bit funny, and I like to think that every once in a while they evoke at least a smile.

If a Tree Falls in a City….

Today the city cut down one of our boulevard trees. It wasn’t mine, it was my neighbor’s, but only a few feet from my property. I feel the loss keenly. (Ach! I have realized we have an uncommon use of the word boulevard in Minnesota. The boulevard refers to the space of grass [usually about 3’ wide] that separates sidewalks from streets.)

It was a big tree, a majestic tree. A tree of spirit. I will miss it dearly.

But it was dying, and had been for several years. Last Friday (a day of no wind to speak of) I was on the front porch and heard a loud crack and a thunderous crash, quite close to the house. A very mighty limb had given up the ghost and fallen to the ground. I was first on the scene, and the large branch was blocking the entire street. I tried to move it (fat chance!) and was happy to see three neighbors arrive (the crack and crash really was quite loud) and we moved the branch and cleaned up the debris in a couple of minutes. So we knew the tree was a goner. But seeing it dying and seeing it gone are two different things.

I watched the removal almost from the get-go. The noise woke me at 7:00 and I was on the front porch by 9:00. In spite of myself, I was absolutely fascinated. How do you cut down a tree that spreads over several houses, without causing damage?

First, you post no-parking signs. Then you close the street at both ends of the block. Then you unload the equipment (which included something very like a bobcat except it was designed to move logs—it completely fascinated me), park the equipment (truck for the logs), and move the equipment into position (the cherry picker—I’m sure it is not a cherry picker by name, but this is the lift that gets the sawyer up in the tree).

And while I mourn the tree, watching these men (I saw only men) work was almost like watching ballet.

(And I must say this just as an aside: Many people complain about lazy government workers, long breaks, and a lot of standing around. I am sitting on the front porch reading the paper, waiting for them to take a break. I don’t think they ever took a break.)

The linchpin seemed to be the guy up in the cherry picker. I have never seen an entire tree dismantled (I do hate to use that word for a tree, but it is still most appropriate from this perspective). There is a complete and total science (possibly also a bit of intuition, but I am only intuiting here) on taking down a tree. Some limbs you can let free-fall (this is what I saw mostly when I first arrived). This freaked me out for a bit until I realized that they only did it when they (the sawyer, actually) knew that it would fall directly on the road. He was never wrong.

So while I sing the praises of the sawyer, there was also this amazing ground crew, the rest of the ballet (because really, a ballet with only one person is hardly a ballet). When a branch dropped, the souped-up bobcat swooped to grab and move the logs; others gathered smaller branches and debris; and I kept waiting for them to take a break, to just stop for awhile, but they never did.

Back to the sawyer. I was particularly keen to know how they made sure these huge limbs don’t fall on people’s houses (having one hang above my very own house). It took me a little time (and a little coffee), but I finally realized they were using ropes. I watched one large branch, in particular, and as the sawyer made his final cut, I could not imagine how this would not damage something (my house, my neighbor’s house, or foliage at the very minimum). But I watched the limb, and the ropes, and it landed exactly in the middle of the street.

After all the limbs were cropped, the cherry picker moved, and they started sawing from the bottom. They sawed and sawed. The rest of the workmen were around, cleaning up bits of this and that, sweeping and raking up debris. One even sat down on a brick wall, for a moment. A bit of a lull. But the bobcat was moving and workers in the picture (though always at least two watching the tree and the cutting, which I found very reassuring). And then, the street is empty. No workers.

At the same time, spouse comes home and says the street might be blocked off all day, just as I say they’re almost done taking down the tree. Nah, he says, and goes out the front door to check it out. He gets 10’ from the door, and is warned back by the sawyer himself. The rest of the tree was down less than a minute later.

Right in the middle of the street.

I will miss the tree greatly. I’ve cried (several times now—it was very nearby and quite old, and I have a particular fondness for trees) and I have put flowers and some fresh currants (that the birds must have spared for this exact purpose) on the stump.

But I must also give kudos to the crew that arrived this morning and removed a tree that needed to be cut down, being in the city and dropping limbs as it was. They didn’t just take the big parts of the tree; throughout the process, they went around and picked up branches and twigs in the street and on neighboring lawns. One of the workers picked up a chunk of wood the size of a baseball. And then they swept the road and sidewalks after they were done.

Except for some sawdust and a few leaves and a stump, you’d hardly know they were here.

I will miss the tree, but I am thankful and slightly amazed at this ballet team that works together so well to do something so difficult.

In Search of New Life

A new month and a new book-reading theme. The June theme is celestial objects. I have a lot of fiction books that are calling to me: Shoot the Moon, by Billie Letts; The Almost Moon, by Alice Sebold; Leaving Earth, by Helen Humphreys; Walking to Mercury, by Starhawk (loved her book, The Fifth Sacred Thing); and Turtle Moon (as well as Here on Earth) by Alice Hoffman.

I thought celestial objects would be much broader (Alpha Centauri?) but mostly I am finding sun and moon and a very few stars. I have a galaxy and a few universes, a satellite, and two planets so far (Earth and Mercury).

In the world of fun, I have a Star Trek graphic novel: To Boldly Go. Good silly summer porch reading.

I was most surprised at the sparsity of nonfiction on my shelves. On the bright side, most of them are quite intriguing and I’m not yet sure which I will start first.

The Accidental Universe, by Alan Lightman, I will read for sure (as I am discussing it later this month in the world’s smallest bookclub with my friend Sheila). Although now that I’m looking at this book I am wondering if I haven’t already read it. But then again, if I did, it was several years ago, and it might make a completely different impression now than it did then (if indeed there was any impression at all), and reading a book to discuss always adds a nice element of interest.

Also among the few but valued celestial nonfiction books: The Universe in a Single Atom, by the Dalai Lama; Earth Democracy, by Vandana Shiva; The Exact Same Moon: Fifty Acres and a Family, by Jeanne Marie Laskas; and Walking Gently on the Earth, by Lisa Graham McMinn and Megan Anna Neff.

It’s odd to have so few nonfiction books and such a plethora of fiction books (most especially as I’m mostly in a nonfiction place these last several months). But it’s June, and at least at this moment, a light novel sounds appealing, so who knows?

As for the May reading theme (land/terrain), I will report that I have learned a lesson: Never place a reading theme that you are Most Particularly Interested In during the peak of bird migration. One would think I would have learned that by now.

Nonetheless, I managed to read myself through a gorge, a field, a prairie, the shore, a couple of landscapes, a point, a quarry, and your basic land. The one book I most wanted to read for this theme I have not quite finished, but will do in a day or two: Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right.

After reading this book, I am finally starting to understand where the tea party (and other hard-core conservatives) are coming from. This is not to say I agree, but I am beginning to understand.

I don’t often talk politics on this blog, but I am all in favor of at least Trying to understand the other point of view. I think it’s a little hard-headed to have a blanket opinion that the “other side” (are they really?) is wrong. Why do they think that way? Sometimes (not always, but sometimes), when we talk about why we disagree, we find that we in fact agree on many things. This can provide a path to resolve the things we disagree on. But even agreeing to disagree is not a bad thing. (Granted, it’s a low bar, but compared to open animosity, it seems to be a small but achievable goal.)

I am going to be very local for a moment and say that I favor cooperation and compromise (among people in general and government in particular) and am appalled at the sandbox fight taking place right now at the highest level of our Minnesota government. I don’t appreciate our Republican Legislature starting it, nor do I appreciate our Democratic governor massively upscaling it.

The anarchy model of government is starting to sound good. Oh oh. Was that left wing or right wing?

The May Basket Project

Two years ago I left May baskets for three of my neighbors early in the morning on the first of May. It was a lot of fun. Candy, flowers, a book—leave the basket on the doorstoop, ring the doorbell and run.

Just like I did as a kid.

It was great fun, both then and now. The making of something purely for someone else’s pleasure (hopefully anonymously) is hugely gratifying, for reasons I haven’t quite divined.

An unfortunate confluence of events kept me from May baskets last year, but this year I am back in the game.

I planned 7 of them—a significant increase from last time. I’m kind of hoping this thing will catch on in my neighborhood.

This morning I woke to rain, and when I thought of the books and dog biscuits in some of the baskets, I decided a belated May 2 delivery might be the wiser choice.  Who doesn’t like to sleep in on a rainy day? After newspaper and coffee, spouse and I went out for a late lunch. Halfway through lunch, the rain changed to snow. As we finished, we had a very decent snowfall going on. Too warm to accumulate, but very fun to walk through.

For sure we won’t deliver May baskets now, I thought; but the snow stopped immediately after we got home, and turned into a slow drizzle. I was putting finishing touches on the baskets (leaving only the flowers to add last-minute) when I realized that the rain had stopped.

Do it! I quick got the flowers and added them to the baskets (confession: One set got left behind on the counter, and another fell out en route—clearly we have a few kinks to work out). The first delivery was a total success: after running away, we saw the door open and the basket taken in. Next we did two neighbors to the north, and then two to the south.

As I was wrapping things up, our doorbell rang.  What? A shadow of someone running away.

A May basket! Truly! Flowers (magnolia and tulip), Shakespeare sonnets, and far too many chocolate candies. (Spouse counters that “far too many” is an overstatement.)

Later this neighbor stopped by, and I found out she gave three May baskets in the neighborhood. Perhaps it will catch on after all. I love this idea!

I don’t know if it is my small-town roots, my introvert nature, or simply the appeal of giving someone something unexpected that draws me so to the May baskets. We learned to do it as kids at school—we made them out of construction paper and hung them on our neighbors’ doorknobs.

I’ve ratcheted it up a notch, forgoing construction paper and staples for actual baskets (often free from friends and family who have piles of them in the attic/storeroom/basement), and trying to apply at least a nominal personal element. Dog biscuits, comic books, poetry, puzzles.

Whether it catches on or no, I plan to continue May baskets to my neighbors. It’s simply too fun, and why not?

Orchard Exuberance

The robin is singing in the backyard, exuberant. Nudging me. Having nothing to do with this post (already titled before the song), the song has finally put my hand to the keyboard, as I was stymied how to begin.

It started when we went to a neighborhood event, and among all the various opportunities, my spouse wanted to volunteer to help with the neighborhood orchard. Sign me up, I said.

I am not particularly fond of getting together with a lot of people I don’t know, especially if all we’re doing is sitting around and chatting. I opted out of an initial planning meeting, but when the opportunity for actual orchard maintenance came up, I was definitely interested. Our first activity: pruning.

We started at noon on Sunday (earlier, if you got the message that coffee and snacks were being provided by the church across the street). And this was one piece of the magic, or exuberance, of the day. When we arrived, there was fruit, breads, cookies, and coffee, spread out on a table in front of the church. Spouse introduced me to people he knew (from the meeting I avoided) and I was stunned.

I was totally comfortable.

It is pretty much completely unheard of for me to be comfortable in a group of strangers. I’m still processing it.

There were about 25 of us (way more than expected), mostly guys (which surprised me). I have never in my life felt comfortable drifting from small group to small group, but unbelievably, I did. I don’t know if it’s the common goal, or that all these people love trees, or if it’s the trees themselves. Perhaps all of the above.

When we moved across the street to the orchard, we stood in a circle and introduced ourselves: neighbors across the street, people in the neighborhood, a bunch of people knowledgeable about fruit trees, a bunch that didn’t know so much, and a whole lot of enthusiasm.

One of the older men in the group suggested that if you really want to get to know trees, here’s your chance. Stop by the orchard at least every two weeks. Not a drive-by visit. A stop and park the car and spend some time with the trees visit. It is not so often you get the opportunity to shape a young orchard, or even to engage in its long-term growth. I plan to visit the orchard frequently. I have a great fondness for trees, and while I find most trees grounding, there’s something about fruit trees (even very young ones) that makes me a little giddy.

We spent a bit of time as a group around a tree, discussing pruning, examples, try it yourself, questions, etc. Again, I felt so comfortable. I asked several questions and was also able to just let go of social stress and think about what would work best for the tree.

Aha, there it is. It is the tree after all. I love trees and I have happened upon a community of tree lovers. It was a lovely contagious afternoon—trees, joy, purpose, camaraderie, and a good bit of fun.

The pruning of these little trees was a bit more challenging than I had expected (learned a lot). We will have a mission regarding blossoms in the later spring, watering through the summer, and mulching in the fall.

I like tending an orchard. This little orchard is an experiment in Minneapolis. If we can make it work, just imagine: neighborhood orchards everywhere. Why not?