Category Archives: Letters

Exploring Letters


Savoring, Reading, Saving Letters

After I completed my year of reading a book a day, many people asked me, “Is the ‘book’ dead?” I answered with confidence: “Absolutely not.” New books — good books — come out every week, from the large publishers and from small independent publishing houses. Millions of readers around the world buy the new releases as hard copies or download them onto reading devices. Libraries around the world continue to lend out books, book blogs abound on the internet, and book groups are exploding in numbers, with over 250,000 active book groups estimated in the United States alone.

I love to read books, and I also love to read letters. Not only letters written to me, but letters from long ago and far away. Similar to diaries and journals, letters are precious as quotidien recordings of every day happenings. In addition, the span of letters over the years of human existence are a window into how humans have explored, depicted, and dissected events and experiences over the centuries, and how they have sought to share ideas and observations in their letters as a way of connecting with one another.

Letters cover everything from love to war, finances to religion, child rearing to grave site planning. Letters offer wisdom and foolery, sincerity and pretense, affection and dislike. Letters offer connection between writer and reader. Letters are a unique window into the human experience. But letters, while not “dead”, are most definitely an endangered species.

In my upcoming book, still untitled (any ideas, anyone?), coming out in November from Simon and Schuster, I will explore the fascinating aspects of letters — everything from the cloak of privacy to the singularity (no letter is like any other), and including their use as medium for advice, love, and immortality. I have read through letters from the Ancient Eygptians to modern day correspondents, and I find letters to be important in every age, not only for the words shared and effort taken, but as proof of existence, manifestation of affection (or esteem or love), and for the circle of experience created, between one person and another.

Do I hope for a resurgence of letter writing, and a staving off of the extinction of written correspondence? Maybe, just maybe — if I can make a solid enough case that letter writing is one of our most beautiful and powerful means of connection, remembrance, and resilience.

I would love to hear from anyone who has a great story about letters, You can share your story with me here or on Facebook. Thank you and I look forward to hearing from you!

Pay Attention to Mother

Way back in 1766, English poet and Cambridge professor Thomas Gray wrote to his good friend, the Reverend Norton Nichols.

In his letter, he advised Nichols that mothers are a rare commodity, and should be cherished: “I have discovered a thing very little known, which is, that in one’s whole life, one never can have more than a single mother. You may think this is obvious…You are a green gosling! I was at the same age…as wise as you, and yet I never discovered this (with full evidence and conviction I mean,) till it was too late….every day I live, it sinks deeper into my heart.”

Foreign Correspondence

Geraldine Brooks wrote nonfiction before she moved over to fiction, writing her Pulitzer prize winning novel March, along with Year of Wonder, People of the Book, and Caleb’s Crossing.  I love the writing of Brooks and when a Facebook friend recommended I read Foreign Correspondence, Brooks’ book about the penpals she had through childhood, I  jumped.  A book about letters?  By one of my favorite writers?  What could be better? 

Foreign Correspondence fulfilled all my expectations.  It is a wonderful book, not only for its introspective exploration of letters but for Brooks’ marvelous personality which flows from every page.  Brooks both in person (I had the great fortune of meeting Brooks at a book luncheon hosted by the End of the Sidewalk bookstore in the summer of 2011) and on the page is lively and warm,  thoughtful and exacting, kind and gentle.  Reading Foreign Correspondence it was as if she were right there beside me, having a conversation while we shared a pot of tea or a bottle of wine.

At times very funny, and at other times quite sad, Brooks tells the story of how she discovered her long lost penpal letters while at home in Australia, tending to her father during his last illness. She mixes in the story of her childhood in a lower middle class neighborhood with the story of her parents, explaining how both she and her father used letters to make connections across country, political, and social lines.  While her father used his letter writing to voice enthusiasm or criticism (and to keep up a very important connection which Brooks only discovered later in life), the young Brooks used her letters to fly away in search of any place more interesting than what she saw as her tiny and boring corner of Australia.

We follow Brooks, first a young girl writing to penpals and then a grown woman, tracking down her correspondents to see how life has turned out for them.  All along the way, from child to grown-up, Brooks makes discoveries about herself, Australia, her parents, and her faraway friends that will prove formative to the woman she has become, not only as one of the best writers around but as an open-minded, open-hearted participant in the world.  Brooks has been around the world and back again, through letters and through experience, and she shares all she has learned with us, the lucky reader.

The Next Big Thing

Welcome to the The Next Big Thing!  Some people call it a “blog chain, and some folks call it a “blog hop.” Authors around the world take turns answering ten questions about their work, then pass the questions on….

March 4, 2013: This week it is the turn of Gabrielle Burton, author of Impatient with Desire and Searching for Tamsen Donner (two books I loved). Burton answers ten questions about her next Big Thing, Don’t Sit Down Yet. After reading her answers, I cannot wait to read the new book. And I won’t sit down!


What is the working title of your book? Don’t Sit Down Yet: What We Talk About When We’re Not Talking About the Children

Where did the idea come from for the book? When I read writer and critic Maureen Corrigan’s book, Leave Me Alone, I’m Reading: Finding and Losing Myself in Books, I was fascinated―actually gobsmacked–by her genre of “female extreme-adventure tales,” i.e. stories of women having adventures while maintaining a covert guise of socially acceptable behavior for females. I realized that her “veiled narrative” thesis explained and clarified things I had done in my life, and it fit a book I was writing: a series of pieces about a year I’d spent at age 21 in Barbados WI as a “lay missionary,” and a six month trip backpacking around the world with my husband and five daughters. Both experiences were “female extreme adventures,” one taken under the mantle of missionary, the other under the mantle of wife/mother. I was also writing short pieces about traversing aging and old age, and I thought, Well, that’ll be the third section of the book. Though not confined to women, getting old is an adventure, and because of the Women’s Movement, I can do it my own way–whatever that might turn out to be. And then, since I’ve been married 50 years, my husband snuck into it. My friend, the playwright, Kathleen Betsko, read an early draft and said, Do the aging part in a book of its own. Oh, I don’t have enough material, I said. But I eventually gave it a shot, and my first draft was 300 plus pages.

What genre does your book fall under? Memoir.

Which actors would you choose to play you in a movie rendition?
 I want Meryl Streep to play the lead in every book I’ve written, especially the pioneer heroine, Tamsen Donner.

What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book? 
Can I have a couple of sentences, okay three?
1. One day you open the door and get a big surprise: Old, standing there grinning at you with her yellow teeth.
2. To quote a line from Time of Day by Ron Carlson: “We’d better face it: though we love our coffee, it isn’t morning around here anymore.”
3. Old Guy and me: How does a marriage last 50 years? (Hint: Don’t discount luck.)

Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?
 I hope that my terrific agent, Lisa Bankoff of ICM, will be able to sell it. But if the fates decree, I’ll certainly explore the exciting, if daunting, idea of e publishing.

How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript?
 About a year. But I’m not at the end of the tunnel, though there are occasional glimmers. I have a lot of pages, but the book hasn’t jelled yet.

What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?
 I wish I could think of one, then I could go read it and say, Hey, that’s the way you deal with all this material, stories, riffs, opinions, etc. It’s not memoir in the sense of: I was born at an early age… The form I’m still in the process of discovering is unorthodox. What I know at this point is that it’s not linear, but moves around in time and place. Some of the stories (as true as I can remember) are in fiction form, some short, some long. There are several poems by poets I admire, and a haiku I wrote. I tell myself several times a week that if I just keep writing, one day this book shall reveal itself.

Who or What inspired you to write this book?
 We’re all interested in things we’re dealing with or struggling with. A lot of books about aging are dreadful and discouraging―How You Die!–or falsely chipper, It Sure Beats The Alternative! I feel a little about those books, and the Take your vitamins! books, the way I felt when I was a young trapped housewife: There has to be more than this. Don’t Sit Down Yet is about two things, aging and a long marriage, 50 years. By this point, so many of Roger’s and my days and experiences are inextricably mingled–you might say wedded–warp, woof, who can say? And though we’re taking this particular extreme-adventure of old age separately, we’re also taking it together.

Old age is often trivialized. About once a week, somebody says, “You and Roger are so cute!” Do I say, “Babies are cute, kittens are cute, teddy bears are cute, Thank you, that’s why we lived, loved, grieved, learned a combined total of 157 years always hoping, dreaming, striving toward the goal of someday being cute.” No, I don’t. They don’t mean harm, don’t know they’re patronizing. I stand as straight as I can, muster all my dignity, and give them a little grimacy smile, which probably just makes me look delightfully perky.

Similarly, long marriage is often falsely glorified in a shallowly sentimental way―Same refrain: “You guys are so cute”―or regarded (as many old people are) as a fossil or a saint’s relic.

I know some reasons, and have more guesses, why our marriage has lasted 50 years, but I know positively it’s not because we were so cute. (Because there have been a lot of times in the last 50 years no one, not even ourselves, thought we were cute.)

I’m not saying old age is so great you’ll wish you had it when you were younger, I’m saying we’re lucky to be living in a time when old age may be a dead end, but it’s not a closed book. If we can expand our imaginations to really see old people and our possibilities, and if we can learn to love ourselves, sag and all, we can have a different reality of aging, which’ll keep evolving as we improve our eyesight.

What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest? Where the title came from: for Roger’s 80th birthday, we went to Africa on a yoga/safari/work at an orphanage adventure. On the safari, all the animals were beautiful in their natural environment, but the elephants were heart-stirringly magnificent, the grandest land animals on Earth.

“Adults can weigh seven and a half tons and live past 70 years old,” our safari guide said.

“After 35 years the adult elephant is so large,” he added casually, “it can no longer sit down because it could never get its massive bulk up again.”

He followed that amazing statement with this dazzling one.
“When it’s going to die, it sits down.”

You never really know with guides, but if such a splendid fact weren’t true, it should have been.

Roger wasn’t feeling well and about every fifteen minutes I felt impelled to say, “Don’t sit down, Roger!”

****************

Three authors tagged to answer the ten questions of The Next Big Thing over the next few weeks:

Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni is an award-winning author and poet, who writes about women and the immigrant experience, people caught between two worlds. Her books have been translated into 29 languages, and two novels, The Mistress of Spices and Sister of My Heart, have been made into films. Her most recent novel is Oleander Girl. She teaches Creative Writing at the University of Houston.

Diane Glancy is a prize-winning author, poet, and playwright of Cherokee and English/German descent. Much of her work is based on Native American life and how traditional values and ways of life interact with those of modern America. “I write with a a split voice,” she says about her stance in between two cultures. Her works include Pushing the Bear: A Novel of the Trail of Tears, and Stone Heart: A Novel of Sacajawea. She teaches drama and poetry at Azusa Pacific University.

M.G. Lord is a cultural critic and investigative journalist. She is the author of the widely praised books Astro Turf: The Private Life of Rocket Science, a family memoir about Cold War aerospace culture, and Forever Barbie: The Unauthorized Biography of a Real Doll. Her latest book is The Accidental Feminist: How Elizabeth Taylor Raised Our Consciousness and We Were Too Distracted by Her Beauty to Notice. For 12 years, she was a syndicated political cartoonist and columnist based at Newsday. She teaches in the Master of Professional Writing Program at University of Southern California.

February 13, 2013: This week it is the turn of Rachel Howzell Hall to answer ten questions posed to writers around the world.

What is the working title of your book?
Land of Shadows

Where did the idea come from for the book?
Dual identity has always fascinated me. As a woman and as an African-American, I am required in many ways to be different people. And as a reader, the stories I enjoy most revolve around ‘self’ and others’ perceptions. Combine this with my favorite city in the world, Los Angeles. L.A. is the place where non-natives come to remake themselves. It’s also a place where natives (like me) rejoice in our city’s big-city-is-really-a-small-townness which non-natives will never understand. Los Angeles is a town of shadows, a town inhabited by shadows.

What genre does your book fall under?
Mystery.

Which actors would you choose to play you in a movie rendition?
For the role of Detective Elouise Norton, an actress who can take up a room, sexy, no-nonsense. Women like Aisha Tyler or Taraji Henson, Sanaa Lathan or Regina King. For Lou’s partner Colin Taggert, a cocky, rugged-looking guy like Daniel Craig or… or… sorry, got lost there with Daniel Craig.

What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?
Detective Lou Norton investigates the murder of young woman found hanging in a closet of a South Los Angeles condominium — a condo owned by Napoleon Crase, a self-made millionaire . . . and the man who may have murdered Lou’s sister thirty years ago.

Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?
I’m represented by awesome agent Jill Marsal of Marsal Lyon.

How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript?
The ugly first draft took six months — feels like it took longer!

What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?
That’s a hard one, really — there aren’t many contemporary mysteries starring black lady-cops in Los Angeles. Paula L.Woods and her Charlotte Justice serials come the closest.

Who or What inspired you to write this book?
I decided to write this particular novel when then-Los Angeles Police Chief Bernard Parks’ granddaughter was killed years ago in a gang-related shooting. Many people wondered, why was a good girl, whose grandfather was the chief of police, hanging around gang-bangers? Really: what is a ‘good girl’? And who ‘deserves’ to die and who doesn’t? Anyway, the life of young women is provocative and filled with secrets. And sometimes, those secrets can get you killed. Ka-POW: Land of Shadows.

What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest?
Like all of my stories, this is an L.A. story — one you don’t see much on television or in the movies. A story about regular people doing brave or stupid or random things but featuring a black female homicide detective. You don’t get to read many stories like that!

January 28, 2013: This week it is Nina’s turn, taking up the torch passed by Maura Lynch.

What is the working title of your book?
Mail Bonding: Letters Between a Mother and Son. The final title? NO IDEA!

Where did the idea come from for the book?
Twenty years ago, I discovered a trunk of letters in the backyard of an old house I had just bought with my husband. The trunk was filled with hundreds of letters written by a boy to his mother from when he was about four years old, through his four years at Princeton from 1908 – 1912, and up until the death of his mother in 1937. I’ve always loved reading letters, and the discovery set me on a quest of understanding the unique qualities of letters that make them such forces for connection and remembrance.

What genre does your book fall under?
Nonfiction.

Which actors would you choose to play you in a movie rendition?
Robin Wright. Princess Bride to Enlightened, she can do it all.

What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?
With one child off at college, and three more to go, joining their brother in places near or far but not home with me, I need to understand why a letter matters so much.

Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?
My book is coming out from Simon & Schuster in Fall 2013. I am represented by the wonderful Esther Newberg of ICM, to whom I owe so much. Esther is a huge believer in the power of letter writing and supported my project from the get-go.

How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript?
One year.

What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?
Many other books have explored the phenomenon of letters but mine is the first which tries to distill the exact qualities that make letters so special.

Who or What inspired you to write this book?
My family — the letters they have written to me, and the ones I wait for.

What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest?
There are so many fascinating stories to be found in old letters, along with great life advice. This, from a letter written by Pliny the Younger, in which he counsels a friend on how to live a long life: by following a regular schedule of long walks four times a day (and at least once a day in the nude, “if there happens to be no wind”), interspersed with reading and writing, riding out in a chariot, composing poetry, being read to while lounging on a couch, and enjoying “elegant yet frugal repast … served up in pure and antique plate.” Most wonderful of all, Pliny advises that every day, we should spend “a considerable time [playing] at tennis.”

A perfect prescription for a good life and I would add in: Write lots of letters!

And here are the five authors I’ve tagged to answer the ten questions over the next few weeks:

Gabrielle Burton is the prizewinning author of the novel Heartbreak Hotel and Impatient with Desire: the Lost Journal of Tamsen Donner; and of the nonfiction books, I’m Running Away From Home But I’m Not Allowed To Cross the Street, and Searching for Tamsen Donner. She has a MFA in Screenwriting from American Film Institute, and her movie, Manna from Heaven, (MGM), was produced by her daughters’ production company, Five Sisters Productions. For more information visit her website, www.gabrielleburton.com.

Mark Chisnell‘s books include the Kindle chart-topping thrillers – The Defector, The Wrecking Crew, and The Fulcrum Files – as well as award-winning works of non-fiction. He’s a former professional sportsman and also works as a broadcaster and journalist, writing for some of the world’s leading magazines and newspapers, including Esquire and the Guardian. Mark’s greatest achievement was probably hitch-hiking to Mt Everest base-camp in Tibet. In training shoes. Or, according to his own admission, maybe that was the stupidest.

Rachel Howzell Hall is the author of the upcoming mystery Land of Shadows (coming from Forge in 2014). Her previous novels include No One Knows You’re Here, The View from Here and A Quiet Storm. She lives in Los Angeles with her husband and daughter.

Christine Pakkala was born and raised in Idaho. She earned a BA (English) from the University of Idaho and a MFA (Poetry) from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. She was the recipient of a Fulbright Scholarship (Finland). Her first book, Last But Not Least Lola, is forthcoming September, 2013 from Boyds’ Mill Press. Christine lives in Westport, Connecticut, with her husband Cameron Stracher, their two children Simon and Lulu, and two spoiled Golden Retrievers.

Tricia Tierney grew up in New York but spent many years as an expatriate, including over 3 years in Kyoto, Japan where she painted and sculpted and rode her bicycle everywhere. She also lived in Croatia and Bosnia, working for the United Nations’ Peacekeeping Department during the Balkan wars, where she met a number of budding war criminals as well as the dashing but troubled English international relief-worker she would marry. After a thrilling war-zone romance, Tricia wed her now-late husband in Sarajevo and a year later, after one-too-many bumpy helicopter rides while pregnant, prematurely gave birth to her daughter in Southern Italy. As she prepares to send her (long thriving) daughter off to college in the fall, Tricia is beginning to think about her own next adventures, while continuing to work on her memoir of life during war and peace, loss and sorrow. She writes mostly at the crack of dawn before going off to her full-time job at a Barnes & Noble bookstore. 

Love Letters of Edgar Allan Poe

Edgar Allan Poe wrote impassioned love letters to Annie Richmond, the married woman with whom he carried out an intense but platonic relationship, crying out “Why am I not with you now darling that I might sit by your side, press your dear hand in mine, & look deep down into the clear Heaven of your eyes — so that the words which I now can only write, might sink into your heart, and make you comprehend what it is that I would say — all that I wish to say — all that my soul pines to express at this instant, is included in the one word, love …”

He went on, “So long as I think that you know I love you, as no man ever loved woman — so long as I think you comprehend in some measure, the fervor with which I adore you, so long, no worldly trouble can ever render me absolutely wretched. But oh, my darling, my Annie, my own sweet sister Annie, my pure beautiful angel — wife of my soul — to be mine hereafter & forever in the Heavens — how shall I explain to you the bitter, bitter anguish which has tortured me since I left you?”

He signed his letters to her, “forever your own, Eddy…” Eddy? Eddy?

Forlorn Eddy, he wrote his most famous poem The Raven to commemorate love, illustrating the depths of despair a young scholar falls into – a form of madness – after his beloved Leonore dies. The scholar begs a visiting raven (madness incarnate) to offer reassurance that he will again, “clasp a rare and radiant maiden, whom the angels named Lenore…”

But the raven only answers, over and over: “Nevermore.”

The scholar had not yet learned the wisdom of the poet; that in writing a letter, love is present and constant. Forevermore. Unfetter the raven, and let it fly. Write the letter, and let yourself soar.

That is why I write letters. I write letters to begin a journey. I fly by stationery and arrive just where I need to be. Where I want to be. Where I am. Writing to the ones I love, and with them forevermore.

Lettermore.

Letters from the Kentucky Frontier

Sarah McClendon was a pioneer in the late 1700s, leaving her native North Carolina to settle in the wilds of northwest Kentucky. Her surviving letters, passed down through generations of McClendons, create a vivid picture of life on the frontier. In 1797 she wrote to her family back home in North Carolina, telling them to “kuit worreng bout us not havin plenty to eat. We hade boiled wild geese, wild plum puddin, wild cherry perserves, corn bred, cracked hominy, wild greens, roaster deer, dandelions, beaten white bred, goseberry purserves made with honey, hog meat, milk, butter, kottage cheze, gravy, mushrons…”

My mouth waters at the variety but I am sure the food was not just falling into McClendon’s lap. The labors required to get all the food together are implied in her letters, but never belabored, as she assures her family, “I never want for help. Benjamin is good to me, he still calls me Love, and I have a surprise now do not worry bout me. I am in the family way with my first baby, Benjamin say it makes him love me more, but I do not see how he could love me more… I never was in better health in all my life – my mid-wife Nancy is watching over me as all and they are happy for us. No women in our clan ever die when they have a baby and I have walked and lived with God, so has Benjamin and we want this baby.”

Babies would come and families would flourish in this piece of heaven McClendon found in Kentucky: “I know you hated for us to leave but we never wish we had not. Sometime it was hard but we made it, all of us together and we wood not have it any other way… God helps us, sometime he send the deer and buffalo by so we can have meet when the snow is awful deep, he send the snow bird to chirp to us with the hail covered trees swaying crackling poping with music, the bright sun coming up through the tree tops no place but heaven could be prettyr than this, the eagle and birds flying or setting in the tree tops with there music wabbles…”

I laugh when I read Sarah’s words, “I just keep whistling Yankee Doodle Dandy…” Yankee Doodle, keep it up, Yankee Doodle Dandy: and Sarah McClendon did, preserving her life for all of us, through her letters. “Love me forever,” she signed off in one letter. And I will.

Click Here for more information on the letters of Sarah McLendon.

Reading and Writing Letters

Savoring, Reading, Saving Letters

After I completed my year of reading a book a day, many people asked me, “Is the ‘book’ dead?” I answered with confidence: “Absolutely not.” New books — good books — come out every week, from the large publishers and from small independent publishing houses. Millions of readers around the world buy the new releases as hard copies or download them onto reading devices. Libraries around the world continue to lend out books, book blogs abound on the internet, and book groups are exploding in numbers, with over 250,000 active book groups estimated in the United States alone.

I love to read books, and I also love to read letters. Not only letters written to me, but letters from long ago and far away. Similar to diaries and journals, letters are precious as quotidien recordings of every day happenings. In addition, the span of letters over the years of human existence are a window into how humans have explored, depicted, and dissected events and experiences over the centuries, and how they have sought to share ideas and observations in their letters as a way of connecting with one another.

Letters cover everything from love to war, finances to religion, child rearing to grave site planning. Letters offer wisdom and foolery, sincerity and pretense, affection and dislike. Letters offer connection between writer and reader. Letters are a unique window into the human experience. And letters, while not “dead”, are most definitely an endangered species.

Over the past year, I have read hundreds of love letters, family letters, war letters, letters about faith and religion, letters about loss and sorrow, and letters of expiation and explanation, as well as of shared wisdom and imparted advice. I have also enjoyed novels composed of letters, plumbing the history of the epistolary novel over the past five hundred years. I have read through the trunkful of letters I’ve saved through my own life, and read through the collections found in college archives, library holdings, published letters, and letters shared by friends.

The conclusion at which I’ve arrived after my year of reading letters — and a lifetime of reading and writing letters — is that the writing and sending of a letter is an incredibly brave and beautiful act. The time taken to compose the letter and the irrevocability of its transference – once it is sent off, it cannot be revised or retracted or denied – make it as a solid a commitment as a human being can make, one to another. And in such solid commitments connections are forged, hearts are joined, spirits are united, and strength is found.

My book about letters, coming out in Fall 2013 from Simon & Schuster, explores the beauty and value of letter writing. Do I hope for a resurgence of letter writing, and a staving off of the extinction of the art and beauty of written correspondence? Perhaps by making a solid case for my deeply-held belief that letter writing can be a force for connection, remembrance, and resilience, a few more people will write a letter, and then a few more will answer back, and write letters of their own to other friends and family, and so on and so on, and so on.

I have begun a Facebook page entitled “Fading Ink” as a place for people to share their own stories of loving letters, and already many wonderful posts have been shared on the page. You can share your story on here or on Facebook.

The Letters of Galileo’s Daughter

I discovered the letters written to Galileo by his daughter in the wonderful book, Letters to Father: Suor Maria Celeste to Galileo, translated and annotated by Dava Sobel.

Galileo’s daughter Virginia was born on August 13, 1600 to her unwed parents. Thirteen years later, both Virginia and her younger sister Livia were sent to the Convent of San Matteo in Arcetri, in the hills south of Florence, to become part of the Poor Clares religious community. Virginia took the name Suor (“Sister”) Maria Celeste, while her younger sister became Suor Arcangela.

Life as a Poor Clare wasn’t easy. Founded by Saint Clare, companion to Saint Francis in the 1200s, the religious order required a vow of poverty and near-constant prayer that became particularly hard to bear during times of bad weather, sickness, and scarcity (which was more or less all the time). To allay the hardships imposed by destitution, Suor Maria Celeste appealed again and again to her famous father for help with food and medicines, and other items needed to provide relief from the arduous life as a poor sister. And again and again, he responded. I know that he did, because of the lovely and effusive letters of thanks that Suor Maria Celeste sent back to him.

“We received the delicious cantaloupes and watermelons, and we thank you for them”; “The wine you sent to Suor Arcangela is perfect as far as she is concerned and she thanks you for it: and I join her in thanking you for the thread and your many other loving gestures”; “The fruits you sent were most gratefully welcomed, Sire, and as it is now a period of fasting for us Franciscans, Suor Arcangela judged them the equal of caviar and we thank you for them”.

When Suor Maria Celeste is offered the opportunity for a cell of her own, she writes to her father for help. Her present living situation is wearing her down: she shares a cell with a woman who provides only “disturbing company…although I get through the nights easily enough with the help of the Lord, who suffers me to undergo these tribulations undoubtedly for my own good” and during the day, she has no place to go “where I can retreat for one hour on my own.” With just a bit of money, Suor Maria Celeste could secure her own room: “I do not think you will forsake me, Sire, in doing me this great charitable service, which I beg of you for the love of God, numbering myself now among the most neediest paupers locked in prison, and not only needy, but ashamed…”

Father Galileo responds quickly but circumstances have since changed in the monastery. The woman who was going to give up her cell to Suor Maria Celeste has reneged on the deal – “she simply could not resign herself to relinquishing the cell she loved so much” – but strange events have opened up another room. One of the nuns has become unhinged and “overpowered by those moods or frenzies of hers, tried twice in recent days to kill herself.” She is now “tied in her bed, albeit with the same deliriums” and must be moved to quarters where she can be more closely monitored. Accordingly, her “large and beautiful” room will soon be vacant and has been offered to Suor Maria Celeste. However, the fee for securing such a private cell has gone up. More money is needed, and is presumably sent, as Suor Maria Celeste appears happily ensconced in future letters.

“If I wanted to thank you with words, Sire, for these recent presents you sent us, I could not imagine how to begin to fully express our indebtedness, and what is more, I believe that such a display of gratitude would not even please you, for as kind and good as you are, you would prefer true thankfulness of spirit from us over any demonstration of speeches or ceremonies…” she writes to her father, and soon the opportunity arises for her to show her thanks through her own special skills.

It is the fall of 1630 and the threat of the bubonic plague once again scourges the countryside around Florence, and inside the city itself. In Venice to the north, thousands upon thousands are succumbing to the plague (46,000 in all by 1631) but around Florence, the numbers of dead are controlled. Local authorities impose strict limits on travel and isolate contaminated houses. Countermeasures include concocted cures, some loopy (placing a live hen next to an infected person to draw out the disease), and some more scientifically based (increased sanitation and cleanliness).

As apothecary of her monastery, Suor Maria Celeste is charged with making elixirs for staving off the worst of the plague. She sends one such mixture to her father, a fusion of dried figs, nuts, rue, salt, and honey, with the advice to “take it every morning, before eating, in a dose about the sixe of a walnut, followed immediately by drinking a little Greek or other good wine….”

Just days later, Suor Maria Celeste sends him another mixture, “a small quantity of the healing potion made by Abbess Orsola of Pistoia. I was able to get some as a very special favor, since, as the nuns of that convent are prevented from giving it out, whoever obtains it clings to it like a holy relic.”

By the spring, the threat of the plague had abated, and it was back to routine for the daughter and father, with her needing the help and he providing it: “I will thank you not only for the two scudi and other loving tokens you sent me, Sire, but also for the readiness and generosity by which you show yourself ever more willing to help me, as needy as I am of being helped.”

A letter from March of 1631 has Suor Maria Celeste grateful “for everything in general, and in particular for the most recent gifts…two little wrapped packets, one of almonds, the other of notebooks, and 6 cantucci.”

I smile in reading this letter, so similar it is to a letter I would have written to my parents, as during college they often sent me nuts and notebooks, and cookies of all kinds. I happen to love cantucci, small almond biscotti, which I only discovered in the last five years or so, sold in my local Italian deli. I have been the one giving cantucci to my parents, and not vice versa. But what a connection between this daughter of the 17th century and a twenty-first century me!

Suor Maria Celeste would go on to write many more letters to her father, offering thanks and tidbits of gossip about monastery life, and promising prayers made on his behalf during Galileo’s time before the court of the Inquisition in 1633 (accused by the church of heresy for his belief that the planets revolved around the sun). When Galileo was finally released from house arrest in Florence and allowed to return home to his farm near Arcetri (but still under house arrest), Suor Maria Celeste writes of her “everlasting thanks … to the Lord God, for it is He who keeps you in His grace.”

Only one more letter is contained in the collection of her writings to her father, in which she writes of her great joy that he will soon be home, and close by to her in the Poor Clares convent: “We are awaiting your arrival with great longing.” Less than four months later, on April 2, 1634, Suor Maria Celeste died at the age of 33.

Galileo preserved his daughter’s letters, probably returning to them whenever he needed her close again, much as I have kept my sister’s letters. And to find again the thankfulness that marks a loving human relationship. Because we should all be thankful for love and friendship, and gifts of cantucci and poetry.

The Poems and Letters of John Keats

As pointed out in the wonderful piece by Verlyn Klinkenborg, Can Opium or Illness Explain a Keats poem?, it is by reading the letters of John Keats that we can get a fuller understanding of who he was, as a man and as a most amazing poet:

“If you knew only Keats’s poems, you might assume that he was an ethereal being. But his letters give us the man, pugnacious, whimsical, proud and flawed. The Keats who succumbs to indolence is also the Keats who scrambles 640 miles on foot through the Lake District and Scotland — cold, wet and often ill — in the summer of 1818. The poet contemplating a Grecian urn is barely two years removed from his work as a dresser, a sort of intern and surgical assistant, at Guy’s Hospital in London, a place where, as Mr. Roe notes, surgery (without anesthetic) was really vivisection.”

A good collection of Keats poems can be found in Letters of John Keats,
published by Oxford Letters and Memoirs.