The Archaic Art of Writing Letters

A year ago, we armed ourselves with spare change, loose dollar bills, and whatever other monies we could muster up from around our house, and spent an hour or two in the card aisle at Target. And then again this Spring I did the same at the National Gallery of Art's gift shop. Our aim: buy cards. We bought a birthday card for every member of our extended families and then a stack of "special" cards. We could have just bought a box of generic cards, but wanted the card itself to be as special as the act of sending it felt. It's December and as much as I want to complain about the lateness of a package I ordered a month ago that has yet to arrive, I am married to a man who works for the USPS headquarters and whose job it is, in part, to distill data about why packages don't arrive when they should. So I withhold my frustration this year.

Barely has our postman—whose name is Brendan—stepped up on our stoop before Harper has run to the door, barking, and shoving her still small enough snout through the mail slot in the door. Brendan always chuckles and waits until she pulls it back before shoving the mail through—cards, mailers, packages that fit. And then Harper does what dogs since the genesis of any postal service have done, gathers what she can in her small mouth and trots it back to me as if to say, "See what treasures I have brought you?" when, really, she has done the smallest work of all.

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W. H. Auden, wrote,

And none will hear the postman's knock Without a quickening of the heart. For who can bear to feel himself forgotten?

I have been thinking of how easy it is to remember friends these days. If it weren't for my real life friends scattered all over the globe, I might have done away with any or all of my social media accounts more than once. But I love their babies in real life and am far from them in this life, so double tapping is sometimes the best I can do to say, "I love those chubby thighs and I love your new haircut and I love your kitchen renovation and I love your wedding and I love how your puppy makes you smile and I love your laugh and I love your taste in books and poetry and music and aren't you glad we're friends?"

But it is awfully hard to be real life friends when we're scattered so, and don't you ever feel forgotten? I do.

It is December though and Christmas cards aplenty come and birthday cards, them too. Packages galore, envelopes stuffed full, smiling families sitting still in a one in a million shot (Come now, do you think any of us believe that was your first try or your fiftieth?), letters, and reminders that we're not forgotten in real life. (Double taps and "likes" on Facebook don't count.)

I counted up the weddings I've been a part of in my life and there were more than 20 and less than half but more than a quarter of those have gone the way of divorce or have wobbled on the edge of it a time or two. It is easy, I think, to celebrate. But, a friend tells me this week, it is easier for her to mourn with than celebrate, and I think of the slowly ebbing stack of cards in my desk. One sent out each month right before another anniversary of a young friend's death. I want his mother to know she is remembered because to feel yourself forgotten is a worse thing than most of us can bear. It is easy to celebrate, maybe harder to mourn, but what is important is to remember at all.

It all makes me think of David's Psalm after he'd been taken by the Philistines at Gath,

You have kept count of my tossings; put my tears in your bottle. Are they not in your book? (Ps. 56:8)

Christmas is a warm and lovely time for many, but it is a hard and fallow time for others. There is no guilt in this, demanding that we invite in those we'd rather not, but sometimes the simple act of remembering someone who may feel forgotten may warm us and them more than we planned or expected. I cannot do much for those in Aleppo today, as much as I ache to, but I can give a meal or ten to families in Aleppo. I cannot hug or laugh until our sides ache with my friends like family all over the world, but I can love my neighbor and somehow my far away friend and drop a note or two in the mail. It's small, it's slow, but it's simple and sincere and perhaps it will keep count of some tears of the good sort.


It occurred to me today that if you don't follow me on Instagram or FB, you don't see my incessant posting of the pup above. She is my best friend sometimes and easily the greatest threat to getting any housework done all the times (you try making a bed, folding laundry, mopping the floor with a pup who thinks it's all a game.). She's thirty pounds of cute though. 

What the View of Delft and the Shepherds at Night Teach me about Watching

Screen Shot 2016-12-12 at 9.07.24 AM A few months ago a friend who had moved recently and was living in yet another temporary place, with not so beautiful views, posted an image on social media. As I scrolled through, it caught my eye and reminded me of another image, one I love and have looked at often. It was painted by Johannes Vermeer, who, cliche as it may be, is one of my favorite artists. He was called the artist of light for many reasons, not the least of which was his use of the camera obscura. Vermeer's command of light, shadows, and color was unparalleled in his time.

View of Delft has always been one of my favorites of his, though I don't know why. I can tell you a hundred things I love about The Milkmaid or The Lacemaker or The Girl with a Pearl Earring, but it's harder to explain why I love the View of Delft. I think it's the sky. It always reminds me of a scene from the film adapted from Tracy Chevalier's fiction work based on The Girl with a Pearl Earring. In it, Vermeer asks Griet what color the clouds are. She at first answers white, but quickly changes her answer to grey, yellow, blue, as she looks at the clouds with the eye of an artist instead of a bystander.

When my friend posted her image from a dorm room in Chicago, recently moved from across the other side of the country, in a new place, a new rhythm, new everything, she was trying to see the beauty in a downtown scape where beauty seemed hard to find. I messaged her and showed her the image from Vermeer, noting their similarity, and the similarity of our lives at present. Change is hard and what locals find beautiful can seem ugly to newcomers. The only antidotes for this are either perpetual optimism or time. Few of us are gifted with perpetual optimism, and so most of us must settle for the latter: time.

. . .

Yesterday Nate and I drove 40 minutes to a church many have recommended to us since we moved here. We could see why, we felt at home there almost immediately. After the service Nate engaged the older couple sitting in front of us and we talked for a few minutes. As we were about to put our coats on to leave, the wife said, "Could I pray for you first?" And she did. And tears pooled in the corners of my eyes. It was the first time since we've moved here that someone has prayed for us with us. It held the faint resemblance to something I loved—and missed.

. . .

One of the things I love about Vermeer's painting is that to us, it is still, a moment captured. But to Vermeer, it was in motion, perpetual motion. The water moving, the people walking, the ships docking, the scents smelling, the noise bustling. It was alive and not at all clean or probably very beautiful to the bystander. It was life being lived, thinking the clouds were white and the water was blue. But they aren't at all, are they? There are myriads of color here. Nothing is quite what it seems. It takes time and love to make this painting beautiful, just as it takes time and love to make life beautiful.

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I could stare at this painting for hours, but I rarely stare at my life here for hours. I want to get through it, move on, settle down, live in a home, adopt children, start our lives. Yesterday we had a taste of what life might be and what has felt plain white, turned grey, and yellow, and blue for a moment, a taste of what is actually happening in our todays.

My reading is in Luke 2 this morning, "And in the same region there were shepherds out in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night." I have been to those fields in Israel and they do not look like much. It is a rocky region, set low in a valley, covered in scrub. There was little beautiful about the field, and even less, I would guess, at night. But these shepherds faithfully kept watch, not on the field, not on the night, but on their sheep. They did what they were meant to do, undistracted by the field or the night in which they did it. I want to be like this. The shepherds and Vermeer and my friend's photo reminds me that I can.

God is doing something with today. He is not wasting it. I remind myself of this often, every day, every hour. There is more than meets the eye today, and much more still waiting to meet my eye today if I will look for it.