Friday, May 15, 2015

"Write me a letter, send it by mail"

“Write me a letter, send it by mail”
     Letter writing is seen today as a quaint relic of a bygone era.  Yes, I mean snail mail.
    Yet I like receiving letters and I also like writing them. I like looking at people’s distinctive handwriting and remembering the writer—my father’s angular style, a holdover from using German script, my mother’s less practiced style, my brother’s scrawl,  one sister’s typed letters with hand-written postscript, and another’s written on her lap or wherever she was perched with a few minutes to spare. Each letter brings back memories of the senders and draws them close. 
    I use email. It’s quick and efficient.  But when, later,  in conversation, I mention something I had mentioned in an email, I get a vague response, “Well, yes, I remember seeing something about that in an email from you…” I get the feeling that reading a message on the tiny phone screen doesn’t seem important and gets glitched over .
    I scroll through Facebook quickly because much of it is stuff copied from other people’s stuff and I am looking for personal stuff that will tell me what is going on in people’s lives.  
    So I like letters, real ones, with words written on personal letterhead or scrap paper, quickly or slowly penned, carefully or sloppily.    
    I thought about what real letters mean to me as I photocopied a stack of my father’s letters to send to an archivist.  I re-read the one he wrote shortly after my husband died.  He was about 1500 miles away. The year was 1962. “We don’t know what to say, Katie. But I do not want you to suffer.” “Not” was underlined several times.  He told me to phone his bank manager if I needed money. “I want you to write a check or checks as needed to our Blaine Lake bank… Don’t get stuck and suffer. I mean it.”  The last three words were also underlined in red. “Chin up, be strong.” 
     I have often wondered whether he was thinking of his own mother widowed during the typhus epidemic that followed the Russian Revolution. She arrived in Canada in 1923 from Ukraine with no real means of support. Did he remember how she struggled to make ends meet in the new land? 
     In another letter he reminded me, “Remember you are a Funk.” I tacked that to my bulletin board for a long time. His concern for me and my young children came through clearly.
     In a whimsical mood he began one letter: “Dear loving, talented, charming, devoted, unselfish, smart, clever, ingenious, loyal, honest, hard-working, admirable child!!!!”  Where did he get that string of adjectives?  Certainly not his usual language. We developed a bond through letters though he was several thousand miles away.  
     He sometimes retreated into the past in his longer letters to share experiences about his childhood, the Russian revolution and its aftermath of anarchy and famine.  These were the ones the archivist was interested in.  
     For decades he subscribed to a periodical to which I was a regular contributor. When I quit writing my biweekly column after thirty years, he let their subscription lapse. But he commented often – “Katie, I agree with what you said….”  “Katie, be careful, don’t go against the wind. You’ll get sand in your eyes.”  “Critics can be brutal…”

     Mother was the caretaker of the letters when they arrived. The envelope was carefully slit open and the precious pages removed to be read and re-read. Then they were placed in a basket on the coffee table to be able to check a detail again or to allow visiting children an opportunity to read them. Mother then stored them with other letters. You don’t throw away life blood.

     Mother and Dad were devastated whenever the postal workers in Canada went on strike and, sometimes, for weeks at a time, they were without this letter lifeline. Phoning was not yet the comfortable practice it is today. Words spoken over the airwaves were forgotten too quickly, not always clearly understood. And, in early days, too expensive. 
     So I cherish letter writing that still brings the passion and distinct personality  of the writer across the miles that Tweets, emails, texting with its new vocabulary never will.   These have their place in our modern, fast world, but let’s not neglect the personal message. Send me a letter, send it by mail. 

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Night Song

The mother of a friend died last week. She was my age.  It caused me to think again of what I had written in my book Prayers of an Omega: Facing the Transitions of Aging.

Night Song

Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me (Psalm 23:4).

Tonight, Lord, as I sit by the window watching the shadows deepen, I think about death, the passage to another life—eternal life. I too must travel that way. I don’t know when.

Each morning the newspaper brings news of those who died the day before. I check their ages. I pass over those who lived their allotted lifespan and then some.

But I linger over the obituaries of those who died while quite young—a fifteen-year-old in a car accident, a thirty-two-year old with no stated cause of death. But the word is already out that it was a self-inflicted gunshot to the head. And then there’s an infant who died at birth.

The spring of life is no time to die. Then, young people, like plants, rush into leaf and burst into bloom.
Nor is it time to die when you are strong and healthy. Nor when the much-anticipated retirement time arrives, bringing the opportunity to set aside former activities for the challenge of self-determined tasks.

It isn’t even time to die at my age. As long as I’m alive, every tiny cell in my body fights to hold off the invading enemy cells. But people die at every age, and the ranks of my friends are thinning with each year.

When I think about death, I’m like a child at play who doesn’t want to go to bed just yet Playing outside in the empty lot was always most fun at the magic moment just before Mother called us in. We couldn’t tear ourselves away to come in to wash up and go to bed.

I don’t want to die just yet.

I want to hear the Messiah sung against this Christmas.

I want to see my grandson graduate from high school and my granddaughter from middle school.

I want to hold in my arms my new great-grandchild and watch her learn to walk.

Today I laughed at Annette’s jokes until the tears ran. Tomorrow I want to laugh some more.

I want to hold my friend’s hand when she returns from the chemotherapy that doesn’t seem to help.

I want to tell my children again how much I love them. I never do it often enough.

And yet on the other side of the street stands a tree, bent by the wind, scarred by storms, bare of leaves. The city crew marked it with a big orange X, which means it will be cut down. It has finished living. Does it contemplate its dying? Does it fear it?

Am I afraid to die? Shall I be afraid when the time comes? It will come, I know.

At twilight, light loses and darkness wins. Yet night is the promise of day  even as death is the promise of life and love and of the joy of your nearness, heavenly Father. 

I don’t want to go just yet, Lord. But when I hear you calling it’s time to come in, I’ll be ready, for I trust your mercy. Amen.