Category Archives: Great Letters

Returning to Therapy

Book therapy, that is. Eight years ago I began my year of reading a book a day. I was looking for escape, wisdom, comfort, and clarity after losing my oldest sister to cancer.

Reading in my purple chair, with my cat on my lap
Reading in my purple chair

When my year was over, I found myself stronger, calmer, happier. I knew I would always grieve for my sister but I learned through books that I could always carry her with me in my heart. As I wrote in Tolstoy and the Purple Chair about my year of reading, “We all need a space to just let things be, a place to remember who we are and what is important to us, an interval of time that allows the happiness and joy of living back into our consciousness.”

I need that space and the therapy of books — immersion in reading — again. It has been a long, brutal election season and instead of finding relief in the result, I find myself waking in the middle of the night filled with fear. Fear for the future, fear of what America has become, such a divided and angry nation. In researching my book on the Lowell family, I followed them through the years of the Civil War and the aftermath of the divided nation. I found proof in family letters and journals of individuals struggling to bring the country together again with new dignity, new rights, new dreams. I need to find the energy and the hope to work for positive change for all who live here in the United States.

I hope to find that energy and hope in books. I find myself gravitating towards books about women, looking for role models of survival and strength, resilience, and power. Books like Time and Again by Charlotte Rogan, with its heroine who fights for truth at a terrible cost, and The Summer Guest by Alison Anderson, in which women from different times strive to understand the unique power of words, the power to record and reflect and inspire. Nicotine by Nell Zink has a quirky and sometimes even flaky heroine who is ultimately tough enough and resilient enough to get it done — “it” being bringing new life to an abandoned house (and way of life).

I will indulge in the books by Elly Griffiths, in which mysteries are solved by Ruth Galloway, a single woman of large build and big heart and keen intelligence. I gave myself an afternoon of fun in reading Hot Flash Holidays by Nancy Thayer: five women in their fifties and sixties deal with aging parents, faltering bodies, annoying in-laws, and impatient children — and through the ups and downs all five rely on the strength of their shared friendships to keep them going. As Renee notes in The Elegance of the Hedgehog, which I am re-reading, “the complicity of indestructible friendship…is what life is all about.”

The Elegance of the Hedgehog was the very first book I read during my year of reading a book a day. Over the past eight years, I have looked back at the notes I kept in the book, and passages I underlined but this is the first time I am re-reading the entire book. What struck me right away is that Renee, one of narrators of the book, is fifty-four, the same age I am now. She also happens to weigh exactly what I weight now. Strangely enough, these similarities are changing the book for me — I feel now as if Renee is my double, and I am cheering her on as she enters new territory with trepidation but with hope as well. Right back at me: enter the future with trepidation (and rightly so) but also with hope.

fullsizerender-7But as you can see from the photo, I am not only reading books about women or by women in my new book therapy. I have a wide range, fiction and non-fiction. With so many books to anticipate, the future looks brighter. I feel sure that I will come out of this round of immersion stronger, and ready to work for what I believe in: a future that brings people together to work for the welfare, security, and dreams of all who live here in America.

The Art – and Artists – of Letter Writing

A gorgeous new book, Pen to Paper: Artists Handwritten Letters, edited by Smithsonian curator of manuscripts Mary Savig, underscores not only the artistry of a well-penned letter but also the lasting impact of words shared via pen and paper. To read through the beautiful-produced book is to enter the worlds of different artists, joining them in those moments of their life captured in their correspondence.

Artists represented (no pun intended) in the book include Mary Cassatt, Frederic Church, Howard Finster, Winslow Homer, Ray Johnson, Rockwell Kent, Georgia O’Keeffe, Claes Oldenburg, Maxfield Parrish, Eero Saarinen, and Saul Sternberg.

One of my favorite letters in the collection is the ecstatic note penned by artist Grant Wood after learning that two of his paintings, including American Gothic, were to be included in a show at Chicago’s Art Institute:

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Pen to Paper: Artists Handwritten Letters is a book to savor and to share, and reading through it will certainly inspire the writing of letters (perhaps a great gift for college-bound students and/or their left-behind parents?). As I tried to demonstrate in my book, Signed, Sealed, Delivered: Celebrating the Joys of Letter Writing, the art of letter writing is not a lost art, nor is it a field left only to artists. Anyone can write a letter, and everyone should.

Books About Letters

Seven Great Books About Letters

Unknown-1 Royko In Love: Mike’s Letters to Carol by Mike Royko, edited by David Royko – Yes, that Mike Roykop, tough and cynical newspaper columnist – it turns out he had a sweet and vulnerable heart as a young man in the Air Force and he wooed his high school love from afar through his wonderful letters, found by his son after his death and collected in this book.

Unknown-2 Letters to Father: Suor Maria Celeste to Galileo by Maria Galilei – Yes, that Galileo – he was a great dad, sending his daughter (ensconced in a convent) needed food, books, letters, and she was grateful and loving in return.

Unknown-1Always, Julia: The Letters of Julia Child and Avis DeVoto by Joan Reardon – This pair of friends sent more than 200 letters back and forth, writing frankly about sex, men, life, and, of course, food.

Unknown-284, Charing Cross Road by Helen Hanff – A letter arrives a London bookstore, inquiring about secondhand books, setting off a correspondence that brought friendship, and then love, into the lives of two correspondents separated by an ocean but united by books.

Unknown-1 The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins – The first detective novel, written in epistolary form, that tracks the loss of a gigantic yellow diamond of unearthly beauty and mysterious power. Love and death revolve around the magnificent diamond – and letters tell it all.

Unknown-1Daddy Long Legs by Jean Webster – A young woman is sent off to college through the sponsorship of an anonymous benefactor – all he asks in return are regular letters from school. Funny, heart-warming, and unforgettable, this book was a favorite of mine when I was a child and was just as fun to re-read as an adult.

Unknown-1Lady Susan by Jane Austen – Lady Susan Vernon is beautiful, charming, but also self-serving and quite cruel – follow her machinations to marry off her daughter and find a new husband for herself, written entirely in letters back and forth between the various characters in little-known novel by Jane Austen.

The Gentlest Art

In 1907, E.V. Lucas published a lovely collection of letters under the title, The Gentlest Art. Letter writing is the art referred to and the letters chosen by Lucas illustrate his point of gentility – and of beauty. letters

Lucas published a second collection of letters in 1907, cleverly titled The Second Post and explained by the epigram, “It’s all very well to talk of your Beethovens & Mozarts. Very good in their way, no doubt. But for the music that counts, give me the double knock.” An early variation of the postman always rings twice.

I found so many wonderful examples of letters in the two volumes put together by Lucas, including many written by James Russell Lowell, a favorite eighteenth century American poet of mine. I am especially charmed by the letter written by Lowell on his 70th birthday: th-1

“I have been forging over the reef of my seventieth birthday into the smooth water beyond without much damage to my keel…”

Robert Burns and the Clarinda Letters

Robert Burns is a favorite poet of mine. I don’t know which came first, my fascination with Scotland or with Burns, but one feeds the other and I am besotted. imagesThrough his poems, Burns takes me to Scotland – “Yon wild mossy mountains sae lofty and wide…yon wild, mossy moors…” – where we share our need for green hills and rolling waters — “Amang thae wild mountains shall still be my path, Ilk stream foaming down its ain green, narrow strath…” – and our taste for nostalgia: “I dreamed I lay where flowers were springing, Gaily in the sunny beam, List’ning to the wild birds singing, By a falling crystal steam…”

Burns explains goodness to me – “the gust o’ joy, the balm of woe” – and religion – “The heart most benevolent and kind, The most resembles God”- and he teaches me lessons about life: “Then catch the moments as they fly, And use them as ye ought, man! Believe me, Happiness is shy, And comes not ay when sought, man!” burns__cover

A poet writes of personal experiences and so I can know so much about Burns through his poems. And yet I still want – I need – the even more intimate view provided by his letters. How lucky I am that Burns was such a prodigious letter writer. And how lucky to have in my possession the 1959 edition of The Poems of Robert Burns and Selected Letters, edited by Anthony Hepburn. What a treasure! I can read my favorite poems and follow up with a perusal of selected letters.

But to know my beloved better than ever, I have to turn to the fifty letters Burns exchanged with Agnes Craig MacLehose – Nancy to her friends – over three months in 1787-88 (which I have in a marvelous 1917 editon). 51-pIP7HgxL._SL500_SX258_BO1,204,203,200_

The famous “Clarinda” letters offer an especially intimate interlude with Burns. Burns first met Nancy when she was already ten years married but a virtual widow. Her husband James MacLehose had ardently pursued her, despite the obstacles put up by Nancy’s wary father. When MacLehose learned that Nancy was taking a trip to Edinburgh, he reserved all seats but one in the carriage, then shut himself in with her all the way from Glasgow to Edinburgh. By the end of the journey Nancy was engaged to James and within six months they were married. But just as quickly as he had wooed his lass, MacLehose left her, going away for years on end to his lands in Jamaica.

All alone at home, Nancy became restless. Years passed, hubby stayed away, and Nancy took on activities like writing and reading poetry to keep herself occupied. In 1787 she chanced upon the poems of a rising star on the Scottish scene. She asked friends to arrange a meeting between the two of them.

It was a dreary December day when Burns first met Nancy at a tea party in Edinburgh but he remembered it as a light in the darkest season: “O May, thy morn was never so sweet, As the mirk right of December…”

Burns fell in love, writing to a friend, “I am at this moment ready to hang myself for a young Edinburgh widow, who has wit and beauty more murderously fatal than the assassinating stiletto of the Sicilian Banditti.”

On Nancy’s part, she was quick to point out to Burns that she was married. And yet she also encouraged his intimate attachment to her, addressing him in letters as her “Sylander”, and signing off as his “Clarinda.” They chose to use these pet names to hide their relationship – and the nicknames reflected what Nancy wanted from their relationship, an Arcadian idyll of simplicity and sympathy: a connection that was fresh, vibrant, unrestrained, and yet innocent.images-2

Burns had other objectives. Certainly he loved her – “I do love you, if possible, still better for having so fine a taste and turn for poesy …” But just as certainly he desired her and wanted more than just the hand of friendship: “Take a little of the tender witchcraft of love, and add to it the generous, the honourable sentiments of manly friendship, and I know but one more delightful morsel, which few, few in any rank ever taste. Such a composition is like adding cream to strawberries; it not only gives the fruit a more elegant richness, but has a deliciousness of its own.”

I would have caved, without doubt, to such words of love and desire. Nancy, however, is determined to keep Burns’ love at a distance and her skirts down. She wrote firmly in a poem sent to him, “Talk not of Love, it gives me pain, For Love has been my foe; He bound me with an iron chain, And plunged me deep in woe…”

Burns promises restraint on his part: “I would not, for a single moment, give…. a selfish gratification, at the expense of her whose happiness is twisted with the threads of my existence….”

He is rewarded by a lowering of Clarinda’s defenses, proven by a letter she writes to him after a particularly engaging evening: “I will not deny it…. last night was one of the most exquisite I ever experienced… though our enjoyment did not lead beyond the limits of virtue, yet to-day’s reflections have not been altogether unmixed with regret.”

While continuing to promise restraint (“I would not purchase the dearest gratification on earth, if it must be at your expense in worldly censure; far less, inward peace”), Burns pursues Nancy and is at times successful: “What luxury of bliss I was enjoying this time yesternight!”

The visits and the letters go on and on for weeks, back and forth, give and take, love sworn and taken: “Oh Clarinda! Tell me, were you studious to please me last night? I am sure you did it to transport. How rich am I who have such a treasure as you! You know me; you know how to make me happy, and you do it most effectually.” images-1

In the end, dearest Clarinda was not so often “most effectually” physical as Burns desired her to be. He began to look elsewhere for satisfaction. By late February, he found refuge in the arms of a servant girl named Jenny Clow (she would bear him a son nine months later) and in March, Burns left Edinburgh and returned to his old lover Jean Armour, who was also pregnant with Burns’ child. Robert described their reunion in a letter: “I have taken her to my arms. I have given her a . mahogany bed. I have given her a guinea and I have f—ed her till she rejoiced with joy unspeakable and full of glory.” The couple was married a month later.

Upon hearing of the marriage, Nancy wrote to Burns, chiding him for his betrayal. Burns eventually responded, not to his “Clarinda” but to “Madam”: “When you cull over the scenes that have passed between us, you will survey the conduct of an honest man, struggling successfully with temptations the most powerful that ever beset humanity, and preserving untainted honor in situations where the austerest Virtue would have forgiven a fall….”

Alone once again in Edinburgh and fed up with her imposed widowhood, Nancy sailed to Jamaica, seeking reconciliation with her husband. Upon arrival, she discovered that her husband James had taken up with a mixed-race mistress and fathered a child. Nancy returned to Scotland where she ended her days, as described by Sir Walter Scott, “old, charmless, and devout.”

Burns composed one final poem for Agnes in 1791 and sent it to her just before she sailed to Jamaica; it would be become one of his most well-known, titled Ae Fond Kiss:

Had we never loved sae kindly,
Had we never loved sae blindly,
Never met – or never parted,
We had ne’er been broken-hearted.

Burns would never have traded away the hours spent with his Clarinda, or the letters written to her. Hours well spent by him, and letters blissfully read by me.
SILOUETTE

Special thanks to Janet Thompson Deaver for her comments, corrections, and the photograph of Burns’ statues, and the silhouettes of Nancy, Robert, and Jean.

Proud to Be Member of Letter Writers Alliance

I was made an honorary member of the Letter Writers Alliance, a fabulous group that supports letter writing.  And loved my book, which is great: “This is one of the best books on letters and the love of letters that I have read in a while. It’s not just a dry listing or a facsimile. It really makes letters live. It’s a great book… Honestly, you should really just go buy one. It’s that good.

Check out the rest of the LWA review here, and peruse the site. You too can be a proud card-carrying, letter-writing member of the LWA.

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Letters: Recipe Shared with Julia Child

What do I have in common with Julia Child? Not the art of French cooking. I cannot follow a recipe to save my life. But Julia Child loved writing and receiving letters, and so do I. And in our love for letters, we both discovered an age-old recipe, and a recipe I can follow. A recipe for life.

Julia Child wrote her memoir, My Life in France, using the letters she’d written during her years there to illustrate how that time in her life had been. I wrote my book, Signed, Sealed, Delivered: Celebrating the Joys of Letter Writing, to illustrate all the special, unique qualities of letters that make them such a wonderful mode of communication. Neither Julia’s memoir nor my book was intended to offer advice on how to live a good life but when letters are involved, the parallels start percolating. Because the qualities that define a good letter also define a good life (and for that matter, a good recipe).

I set off on a quest to define the special characteristics of letters when my oldest son set off for college and I realized I was not likely to get many letters for him. But I wanted a letter – so much. Why? Why are letters so important to me? The quest began, through history and across the collections of friends, libraries, historical archives, and digging deep into my own green trunk of saved letters. Signed, Sealed, Delivered is the story of that quest, and of what I discovered.

Once I started looking, I found letters everywhere, including in the memoir of Julia Child. Julia and her husband Paul were devoted letter writers to each other, and to their family and friends. Paul wrote long letters to his twin brother every week, and Julia wrote short but regular letters to the father she did not particularly get along with – except via mail.

The couple created a tradition of the annual Valentine Day’s letter, sent to all their friends and family. These self-produced cards are simply fabulous. I especially love the one of Julia and Paul naked in a bathtub, bubbles artfully arranged to protect privacy. The little caption above their heads, stating Wish You Were Here, is especially lovely and funny – did they really wish all their friends could join them in the tub? Probably not – but they allowed all friends in, via their card.

Letters create a bridge, between writer and reader, between one point in time and another. Not only do letters connect us to the people we love whom are a few hundred miles away – they can connect us to people we love who have passed away, and whom we will never see again. Letters can connect us to people we don’t know – I never met Julia Child but I feel as if we are friends, through her letters – and they can take us back even further, to centuries and places and people we never could have become acquainted with. But through their letters, they become very real, alive and dynamic.

In the centuries to come, anyone reading one of Paul’s letters to his twin brother, quoted at length in Julia’s memoir, will get a vivid sense of what is was like to live in Paris in the twentieth century:

“Lipstick on my belly button and music in the air! Thaaat’s Paris! What a lovely city! …. How fascinating the crowds before one’s café table, how quaint and charming and hidden the little courtyards with their wells and statues. Those garlic-filled belches! Those silk-stockinged legs! Those mascara’d eyelashes! Those electric switches and toilet chains that never work! Hela! Dites-Donc! Bouillabasse!!”

In Signed, Sealed, Delivered, I celebrate the bridges built by letters. Bridges built with care and with time. Think about what it takes to write a letter. Think about, for that matter, what it takes to cook a meal. One of Julia’s overriding precepts in preparing recipes – her advice to all cooks – is that care be taken. The care to read the instructions, assemble the right ingredients, and then follow each step to the letter: as Julia says, “a careful approach will result in a magnificent burst of flavor, a thoroughly satisfying meal, perhaps even a life-changing experience…”

This same precept applies to letter writing, and to life. We should be attendant – faites attention! – pay attention – be aware and in the moment – of our lives. Care about what we do, work at what we do, find satisfaction in what we do.

At the end of My Life in France, Julia writes, “good French food is an art… nothing is too much trouble if it turns out the way it should. Good results require that one take time and care. If one doesn’t use the freshest ingredients or read the whole recipe before starting, and if one rushed through the cooking, the result will be an inferior taste and texture…”

Again, the same in letters, and in life. If we are rushed, the results are terrible – scribbled and inane, burned or sour, too sweet or too gummy or too lumpy. But if we take time, even the most slender of notes or the most simple of meals or the most ordinary of moments can be exquisite, memorable, enlightening, comforting.

I am no good at following a recipe for a meal. I just can’t do it, in part because I am usually doing two or three or four things at the same time that I am cooking – and so I am not paying the necessary attention to get any but the simplest of preparations right.

But when it comes to writing a letter, I find it much easier to focus. I sit down and all my attention zeroes in on the person to whom I am writing a letter. When my son left for college, I thought what I wanted was a letter from him. But now I understand that the letters that I write to my son are what matters most of all. Because they are proof of my care and my attention and my love. A letter I write is the first step of the bridge; every letter brings me closer to him.

Care, Time, Bridge. Three qualities of letters. Not the only three qualities – there are more to discover in my book, Signed, Sealed, Delivered (and more guidance on living and on writing letters). But if you start with these three qualities, taking care, spending time, and building bridges, you are well-placed to begin a wonderful journey.

In letters, in cooking, in love – in anything that we care about, take time for, and share, we find the ingredients to a good life.

It’s Out!

My book Signed, Sealed, Delivered: Celebrating the Joys of Letter Writing is released today.  My first reading will take place on April 24th at the Westport Barnes & Noble, to be followed May 4th at the Westport Public Library. Hope you can join me!

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Years ago, I discovered a trove of letters in my backyard. I had just become the owner of a broken-down old house and when I went to clear out the weed-choked yard, I found a steamer trunk, hidden away in a rotting garden shed. When I opened the trunk, treasure spilled out: hundreds and hundreds of handwritten letters.

Most of the letters had been written by a boy to his mother, from the time he was just learning cursive (from 1899: “Do you think my writing has improved any?”) through the time of her death in the 1930s. When the boy, James, was at Princeton from 1908 through 1912, he wrote to his mother almost every day, and sometimes twice a day: “I am getting a good college education, developing like a film, apologizing to the grass every time I step on it, scrambling like an egg, yelling like a bear, telling the upperclassmen to go to @#$ ….”

When I first read the letters, I developed a bit of a crush on James. He was so funny and sweet, and affectionate. Every letter was signed, your loving son.

I wanted to write a book about his letters and the boy I’d fallen for, but I didn’t know what to write. And I was a young mother then, with three children under the age of six, a job, and an old house to renovate. I had no time to write. The letters were stored away, to be read in stolen moments.

When my oldest son was leaving for college, I went back to the letters James had written. I found that my feelings for the young man had changed. Now I felt a maternal pride – what a good boy, to write to his mother so often- and also a tiny surge of anxiety: would my son write letters to me? We live in a digital age, and I know I could expect texts and the occasional email. But letters?

I knew then the book that I wanted to write. I set off on a quest to understand why I valued the letters of James so very much, and why I looked forward to receiving mail from my own son. I researched back through thousands of years of letter writing, going through my own saved correspondence, dozens of archives in universities and historical societies, and the personal letters lent to me by friends and found in published collections of letters. I set about defining the exact qualities of letters that make them so special.

When my energy flagged, I went back to the letters of James. What had inspired me once would inspire me again. And then I got a letter from my own son away at school, signed with love. I worked even harder.

I wanted – I needed – to tell the stories of letters and of letter writers, going back through the centuries. Inspired myself, I wanted to inspire others: write a letter! The magic is in the written word, in the shared experiences, in the private and singular moments created with pen and paper between one correspondent and the other. From the Ancients (the Egyptians wrote thousands of letters, amazing given that most of them couldn’t read or write – they went to the local scribe) through to our modern times (James Joyce wrote the bawdiest letters ever), we humans have been writing letters. There is no reason to stop now.

Every letter we write starts a connection, creates a history, lays the first stones of a bridge, extends a hand. And who knows what inspiration may spring from the letters we write?

James’ letters are on their way to Princeton, to become part of that University’s archive and maybe to stimulate another writer and spark an idea for another book. Because we never know where inspiration will come from. For me, it was in my own backyard, a trunk just waiting to be discovered.

Letters I Missed

How did this happen? How could I have missed this fantastic collection of letters about cricket? In my quest to understand just why letters are so important a mode of communication, surely letters to the editors of the Daily Telegraph on the subject of cricket would have provided some insight. photo-171 Last night I discovered on a friend’s coffee table during a dinner party Not in My Day, Sir: Cricket Letters to The Daily Telegraph, edited by Martin Smith. What a discovery it was!

Having now perused the collection, I can say with certainty that the letters included prove one of the main points I make in my book, Signed, Sealed, Delivered: that letters show just how much we care. A letter writer takes the time to gather his/her thoughts; places them in a meaningful and cohesive order; puts them down on paper (the effort required to find just the right sort of paper offers more proof of the importance of the thoughts to be shared), then places the letter into an envelope (effort to find the envelope, ditto) and affixes a stamp (ditto); prints out the correct address on the envelope (ditto, again) and then ventures out to the mailbox and commits the letter to the great, wide world without any chance of recalling it or deleting it. All those actions and efforts demonstrate just how much the letter writer cares about what he or she is writing.

And let me tell you: these cricket letter writers do care. There is the writer who protests “over-fifties” complaining about what batsmen and bowlers wear on the field: “When will they realise that cricket is about winning? Personally, I wouldn’t care if Mike Atherton took to the field with a W.G. Grace-size beard, wearing a dressing-gown and goggles, with a fag hanging out of the corner of his mouth and swearing like a trooper if it meant a winning English team.” I may not know who W.G. Grace is but the sentiment – and the care – comes across loud and clear. Then there are the long missives about scoring (I will never understand how points are accumulated in cricket) and the notes about the food on offer (no better over there than the hot dog and nacho stands we find here) and the carefully penned diatribes about issues utterly beyond my ken (can someone tell me what the lbw law is?) but there is no lack of comprehension when it comes to the just how much that letter writer cares about the game of cricket.

I can say without reservation, having read through the letters in Not In My Day, Sir: cricket lovers care a lot about cricket. In fact, I am sure the Daily Telegraph has boatloads of letters on cricket just waiting for editing into another (and another and another) collection. Until then, get your hands on these, then sit back and enjoy the efforts (heart and soul, anger and love, fear and sadness) that went into the writing. The letters that we take the time to write are proof of just how much we care.