Letters – Part I

When was the last time you sat down and took the time to hand-write and mail a letter?

Do you remember the anticipation of receiving a letter by “snail mail?” Holding it in your hands as you wondered what you might learn from the words written inside, before carefully opening the triangle flap on the back? Or perhaps you ripped into it excitedly, as I sometimes did?

Did you first devour every word, perhaps searching for what you hoped the letter might say, flipping page by page, before reading it again and again to savor each word?

Was the stationary sometimes scented? If it wasn’t, perhaps you might have spritzed it with your favorite scent, if it was for that “special” person.

In the house where I grew up in California, our front door had a mail flap in the middle. The mailman would simply lift the flap in the door and drop all of our mail straight onto our living room floor. When a train roared down the track a block from our house, the metal flap would vibrate with the rest of the house.

Upon arriving home from school, I’d open the front door, running over the mail splayed on the floor. I’d close the door and kneel, gathering all the mail into a pile before flipping through the stack one-by-one to see if I’d received anything. Most days I was disappointed, seeing only bills or advertising, which I’d toss onto the kitchen table.

One mail-related memory still makes me smile. Our dog, Chim, a scruffy little terrier, would bark when she heard the mailman’s footsteps. She’d growl and attack the mail as it came through the mail slot, grabbing those evil envelopes and shaking her head back and forth. Snarling, she’d defend our home mightily from the paper intruders.

Those handwritten treasures didn’t always come in the mail. Sometimes they were dropped in my high school locker. Or perhaps they were written on the back of a senior picture, or inside a hand-delivered birthday card or yearbook.

I have many other memories of hand-written notes and letters—things I took for granted and never really thought about. In fact, I didn’t even take the time to assume we’d always have letters, because . . .

Why wouldn’t we always have handwritten letters?

Then came email.

I LOVED email at first–instant gratification! Though I no longer had to wait weeks between writing and response, emails, too, had an aura of anticipation. And it’s true, they’re as permanent as the sender or receiver wants them to be. I probably have more letters I’ve received by email than I do those I received by “snail” mail, simply because they’re easier to keep, and I know precisely where to find them.

But lately, I’ve felt something was lost when email came along and we quit hand-writing letters.

Years ago, my mother gave me a box of letters. She told me they were old letters between my father and her. It was sealed all around with tape, and she asked me not to open it until after she was gone.

And so, it was packed away, practically forgotten. After my dad died last year, we packed up our house and moved from Dallas to Cleveland. While unpacking boxes in our new house, I came upon the box of letters. I placed it on a shelf in my office, waiting for the “right” time to open it and start reading.

The “right” time arrived a couple of months ago when, while writing my memoir, I thought I might find some interesting details in the letters. Inside the decades-old cardboard box, I found not only letters between my mother and father, a few dating back to before I was born, but also letters from my siblings and me to my dad when he was away on his overseas Air Force assignments.

Reading these treasures, I learned much of my family’s history that I either never knew, had forgotten, or had remembered differently. I began to realize how much was lost when we transitioned from handwritten letters to email.

In my next post, I’ll share excerpts from a few of these letters. Perhaps you, too, will understand why I’ve decided to start hand-writing and mailing letters again.

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A Chasm Between Us

I’ve been thinking a lot about two events that happened in the last two weeks. Though handled differently, they shared the similarity of talking about our differences.

Event #1:

I participate in a virtual writing class with four other writers. A couple of weeks ago, one of the writers, a retired college professor, began to talk about gender identity, particularly in today’s generation. The conversation arose from our study of developing fictional characters—their wants, needs, and “shards of glass,” which is a metaphor for the internal wounds we (or our characters) carry within.

Bear in mind that I am writing about this “event” from my point of view and after the passage of two weeks, so it’s possible my recollection is either distorted by time or by perception. If I recall correctly, she commented that in her opinion, people today “use” gender identity as a means to stand out or to be different—in other words, as a means to get attention. She wasn’t making a judgement, only stating an opinion from her perspective.

As I listened, I began to feel uncomfortable for a couple of reasons. One, there have been instances when I wondered the same thing. Two, because another member of our group—someone I’ve considered a friend for ten or more years—has dealt with her own gender issues and the challenges of coming out as her authentic self. I felt protective of her feelings and was concerned hurt or anger about the comment would result in a verbal outburst, or worse, that she might leave the group, which would be a great loss. Lastly, I was uncomfortable because conflict is at the top of my list of things to avoid.

I should have known better, because I’ve seen how my friend handles these discussions in the past. Instead of showing she was offended or angry, she kindly thanked the woman for expressing her opinion. Then, she let the woman know that she is non-binary. She briefly talked about the pain her gender identity has brought in her life as she began to “come out” to friends and loved ones. She added that if anything she would rather NOT have had to experience that kind of attention.

She didn’t in any way reprimand the woman for her opinion, only tried to help the woman understand gender identity from her perspective.

Over the next few minutes, as they each spoke about their opinions and feelings about gender identity, we all were given an opportunity to learn and understand more about a topic that is often filled with so much emotion, even fear, needed discussions don’t ever take place.

Event #2

You probably heard about what happened with Whoopi Goldberg. On the Monday, January 31 episode of The View, she said:

“The Holocaust isn’t about race. It’s about man’s inhumanity to man.”

Her remarks drew backlash from many Jewish organizations, including the Anti-Defamation League and the U.S. Holocaust Museum. On Late Night with Stephen Colbert, she attempted to explain what she meant by her statement:

“When we talk about race, it’s a very different thing to me. As a Black person, I think of something that I can see.”

Unfortunately, her attempted explanation only made the situation worse, so she issued an apology via Twitter:

On Tuesday, February 1, Whoopi opened the episode of The View with yet another apology:

“I said something that I feel a responsibility for not leaving unexamined, because my words upset so many people, which was never my intention. I understand why now, and for that I am deeply, deeply grateful because the information I got was really helpful, and it helped me understand some different things.

I said the Holocaust wasn’t about race and was instead about man’s inhumanity to man. But it is indeed about race because Hitler and the Nazis considered Jews to be an inferior race.

Now, words matter and mine are no exception. I regret my comments, as I said, and I stand corrected. I also stand with the Jewish people as they know and y’all know, because I’ve always done that.”

Following Goldberg’s apology, Anti-Defamation League CEO, Jonathan Greenblatt, appeared as a guest and further discussed why Whoopi’s statement was incorrect and uninformed:

“The first page of Maus, the book you were talking about yesterday, Whoopi, it opens with a quote from Hitler and literally, it says, ‘The Jews undoubtedly are a race, but they are not human.’”

Still, ABC suspended her for two weeks. Kim Godwin, ABC News President, stated:

“Effective immediately, I am suspending Whoopi Goldberg for two weeks for her wrong and hurtful comments. While Whoopi has apologized, I’ve asked her to take time to reflect and learn about the impact of her comments. The entire ABC News organization stands in solidarity with our Jewish colleagues, friends, family and communities.”

What if more of us could talk about our differences the way the two people in my writing group talked? Respectful and open. Not judgmental or mean. Whether or not either mind was changed, I believe both women left the conversation considering what was said and respecting and understanding the other’s perspective. Whether change happens or not, this kind of discussion leaves open the possibility of change—of moving closer together rather farther apart.

What happened with Whoopi Goldberg offered no such opportunity.

With Whoopi, several issues come to my mind. First, I believe what she said was uninformed. Some have called it ignorant, and yes, it was ignorant in the true sense of the word, not the ugly, name-calling sense. Prior to The View episode, she defined race as the color of one’s skin—a definition derived from her own personal history. By saying the Holocaust was not about race, but about “man’s inhumanity to man,” in no way was she lessening the hideousness of the Holocaust. She simply did not think it was race-related. After discussion with the Jewish community, she learned otherwise and apologized.

I don’t think a mistake without malice should have resulted in such harsh disciplinary action, especially after a sincere apology. I feel very strongly that ABC’s decision to suspend Goldberg for two weeks had a detrimental effect.

Concern over making such a “mistake”– of possibly offending someone merely by asking a question or stating an opinion–lessens the possibility of future necessary, perhaps uncomfortable conversations.

I’ve experienced it myself. Whether the topic had to do with politics, religion, culture, sexual orientation, etc., I often will not ask a question or bring up a topic because I don’t want to offend someone, and certainly don’t want to arouse ire or anger.

Sad, isn’t it? Such a lack of discourse only serves to keep us entrenched in our own tribes as we miss opportunities to understand each other, whether we come to any agreement or not.

It used to be okay to “agree to disagree.” It seems today, “agree to disagree” is nothing but an outdated cliché.

Nothing good can come from continuing to grow further and further apart. Fear of our differences and failure to see our similarities grows the chasm between us, wider and deeper until it seems all that’s left is hate.

I see it far too often today.

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2021 Treasures

BEHIND THE SCENES: I’ve had a WordPress “new post” blank screen up on my computer for . . . let’s just say “a long time” . . . trying to think of a title for my end-of-year blog post. Finally, I realized the ridiculousness of such extreme writer’s block, and so, after deciding the title will come to me sometime before I publish my post, I’m going to just start and see what happens.

What a year two years it’s been. In my 2020 end-of-year blog post, I mentioned that 2020 “might very well be the worst year of our lives,” with a pandemic that separated us from each other and to some extent, kept us from living our lives in a way we were accustomed.

Little did we know what 2021 would hold. I summarized the year in my annual Christmas letter. Rather than re-hash the year, you can read about it here.

In the last couple of months, I’ve become better acquainted with an online friend, Corinne Westphal. Though I hope to have the pleasure of meeting in person one day, for now, I’ve been happy to be a part of her writing community. After purchasing her book, Unearthing Your Treasures: Journaling Toward True Self, I joined her NaNoWriMo-Lite group on Facebook in November. As a result, I began a memoir, something I’ve thought about doing for many years and managed to write over 12,000 words. That’s more writing than I’ve done in the last couple of years!

Now, with November passed, Corinne continues to hold what she calls “Tasters,” where writers from all over the world join via Zoom to sprint and sometimes share their writing. Yesterday, she led a “Celebrating 2021” Taster that I unfortunately was not able to “attend.” But, she shared some of her prompts on Facebook. I thought they’d be perfect to summarize my thoughts on 2021. So, thank you, Corinne!

How have events of 2021 changed your relationship with:

  • You partner and/or family
  • A friend or friends
  • Co-workers
  • Yourself

What was a significant moment or experience that occurred for you this year?

  • Why is it significant?
  • Was it a learning moment, a challenge, an accomplishment, a setback, or a realization?
  • How did it affect you and/or your family, and what did you learn from the experience?

2021 was a year of many changes, but the biggest one, the one that changed me the most, was the death of my father on February 1, 2021, after a long and hard-fought battle with prostate cancer.

One of the weapons he used to fight this battle was to think positively–never fully accept that he was dying. Being a believer in the power of positive thinking, at first I found his strength and determination reassuring and admirable. Even in his last months, I, too, believed if he could continue to deny the seriousness of his illness, focus only on healing, he might miraculously make another comeback, as he’d done many times over the twenty years of his cancer.

But as he weakened, and as treatment after treatment of chemotherapy and radiation failed to do anything but weaken him further, I began to have doubts, and wanted to have “end of life” conversations with him. I wanted to tell him how I appreciated that he chose me over his blue Jaguar, that I always admired his goodness, about how he was my rudder and how I would miss him.

But “end of life” conversations would leave an opening for the negativity that he resisted, I believe, until the moments before his last breath.

A part of me regrets not being able to say those things to my father at the end of his life, but a part of me also believes he must have known some of it. I told him often that I loved him. But I never talked in much detail about how I appreciated the father he’d been or that he was, and will continue to be, a “little voice” that guides much of my life.

My father’s death changed me in two ways. First, it taught me not to wait for “end of life” conversations to tell loved ones what I want them to know. So much of my life, I’ve hesitated to express my feelings about some things to some people. Death has taught me the finality of “it’s too late.”

Second, it reinforced the brevity and speed at which my remaining life is passing. My father was 24 years older than I. When I think about how quickly the last 24 years have flown by, and when I think about how the next 24 years will fly even faster, I realize and understand that there’s no time to waste. No time to waste hesitating to say what I want to say. No time to waste putting off spending time with those I love.

It’s one reason we chose to move from Dallas, Texas to Avon Lake, Ohio–to be closer to my children and grandchildren.

Corinne’s next writing prompt question was:

If we were to create a time capsule representing life in 2021, what object(s) might you choose? And why? Can you choose something that represents something positive? (This is for generations 100+ years in the future.)

In our two, going on three pandemic years, social media has both held us together and torn us apart. I’ve been grateful for Facebook to keep up with family and friends, especially when it hasn’t been possible to physically be with them. But, Facebook and Twitter have also been terribly divisive, and although I could fill a whole other post with my opinions of how social media has torn us apart, I’ll just leave it at this: social media is both positive and negative. It all depends on how you use it.

So, I tried to focus on how social media has impacted us positively and chose the following symbol:

With the isolation of the pandemic, and more recently for me, with moving away from many of my friends, Zoom has been a wonderful way for me to stay in touch. I’ve enjoyed happy hours, birthday parties, many conversations, and now, writing camaraderie via Zoom. I even get to “see” my co-workers back in Dallas for our weekly meetings, although that’s via Teams.

Technology can be a blessing, but it can also be a curse–so much so I’ve come close to cutting it out of my life completely.

BEHIND THE SCENES, PART II: Wouldn’t you know–a title for this post just came to me. (I knew it would!)

2021 was one of the most challenging years of my life. But thanks to Corinne Westphal’s writing prompts, I managed to find the silver lining–the treasures of 2021.

May you, too, find the silver lining, the *wabi sabi, the treasures–even during challenging times.

Happy New Year to all!

*Wabi sabi is a way of looking at the world with a kind of quiet insight; to find beauty, even in imperfection.

Wabi Sabi for Writers – Richard R. Powell

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Christmas Letter 2021

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Twenty Years

It seems like only yesterday. Cliché, yes, but true. Even before the 20th anniversary of this most tragic day, “twenty years” has weighed heavily on my mind.

When my father died in February, after his hard-fought battle with prostate cancer, I realized how quickly the 20+ years since his initial diagnosis had flown. I thought about who I was twenty years before, about how my life had changed.

My kids had grown up and now have children of their own.

I’d traveled around the world and been married and divorced. I’d become a published author. I’d lived in three different towns.

Still, the time between my dad’s prostate cancer pre-diagnosis of his death passed in a blink.

I began to think about how quickly the next 20 years would pass, which lead Steve and me to make some difficult decisions about how we wanted to “write” what could possibly be the last good twenty years of our lives. (Though I’ve told Steve many times I plan to live beyond 100!)

And that’s how we ended up moving from Dallas, Texas to Avon Lake, Ohio. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard, “Wow, what a big move. What brought that about?”

“We wanted to be closer to our kids and grandkids,” I’d reply.

Silently, I’d think to myself, “Twenty years.”

In the week leading up to the anniversary of 9/11, again, I’ve thought about how quickly those years flew by . . . about where I was and who I was at the time. Shortly after 9/11, I wrote an essay titled “The Second Airplane.” It describes a tiny part of how the world changed after that second airplane hit the World Trade Center.

What it didn’t describe was how it changed me personally.

As I learned stories about the sacrifices of heroes and stories about final messages to loved ones, I was left a lesson about what matters in the end.

Love. Despite our differences.

There were countless heroes, many unsung and known. From the firefighters who rushed into the buildings, to the police who directed people to safety, to the paramedics who treated the injured, to the passengers who took down Flight 93, to the countless every day people who helped others at risk to their own lives. All sacrificed themselves to save others, not knowing anything about the politics, religion, or any other characteristic we so often use to divide ourselves from others. The only thing that mattered was helping a fellow human being.

Then, there were the heartbreaking final messages. You know what struck me most? In the final moments of their lives, what really mattered was not the need to know they’d been loved. Instead, their final words were to express love–to assure those who were left behind would know how much they’d been loved.

Nothing else mattered. Not the differences. Not the arguments from the night before. Not missed deadlines. The final words were expressions of love.

That’s how 9/11 and twenty years has changed me.

It would be idealistic of me to think I’ll never have differences. Believe me, I have many differences with those I love! But what changed in me is the sound of a little voice, just beyond any thoughts of disagreement or misunderstanding. It pushes its way to the forefront of my mind and whispers:

“In the end, it doesn’t matter.”

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