From the Basement

June 3, 2010

The Lost Art of Letter Writing

I finished up my graduation thank you cards tonight. There’s a certain pleasure in finishing a handwritten note to someone, in addressing an enveloped and sealing it – even the taste of licking the envelope is distinctive. It’s something I don’t taste very often, mostly because I don’t send cards or letters through the mail very often … usually, I hardly send any at all.

Were it not for years of being trained to write thank you cards (and for a boyfriend who is an old romantic in that he writes me letters when we’re apart), I would not be doing my part to keep the US Postal Service in business. And it’s a shame, really. Letter writing, thank you cards – these are lost arts that are not often practiced, especially by members of my generation. We grew up with computers in our schools; I had my first email account (hotmail!) in fifth grade. Everything’s electronic: we call, we Skype, we text, we email – when do we take the time to sit down with a pen in our hands, a piece of paper (or even – gasp! – stationary!) in front of us, and actually write?

There is power in the thoughts written down by hand. There’s a certain mindless quality to typing, and there can certainly be a mindless quality to writing, but more often than not, a pen forces me to really think – to question, to reflect, to be honest. And there’s such joy in receiving a written letter! I most recently received a handwritten card from a friend on the eve of my graduation, and it was such a beautiful letter. When someone takes the time to buy a card, sit down, and write their thoughts out …

Perhaps I think it means so much because nowadays it’s practiced so little. My everyday approach to email (even blogging) is probably what 19th century ladies thought of leaving calling cards, of writing letters.

But times change, and the old goes through a stage where it becomes unfashionable, but then something happens. It comes back and revisits the present, curiously shinier than it was before, intriguing in its antiquity, waiting to be embraced by the current generation. Just look at bell-bottoms.

I’m waiting for that to happen with letter writing. Perhaps it’s wishful thinking, given the ever increasing pace of our culture. After all, who wants to wait two or three days to receive news when an email can be there in ten seconds?

And yet –

There’s something about handwritten notes that forces us to slow down, in a good way. Maybe that’s the angle that will recall our generation back to this lost art.

Or maybe I’m just being an idealistic English nerd who desperately wants to write an contemporary story told in epistles. Who knows.

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April 15, 2010

How To Love My Mom 101

Most people say that their relationships with their parents improve once they become adults. I’m willing to bet that many of those folks have not lived with their parents for a long duration of time since they first moved out of the house.

Living as an adult with your parent for the first time has a whole new set of challenges, especially when you don’t know how long the arrangement is going to last (a.k.a. not a “home during summer” sort of thing). You have to learn how to communicate again – how to break down old patterns and reconstruct new ones. At least, that’s what my mom and I are currently working on.

Three weeks ago, I came home from college, finished with class. I was exhausted but grateful that I had a safe place to rest. There are plenty of people who cannot “go home again”; they may be unwelcome or they may no longer have a home. I am blessed to have two parents, each in their own state, who assured me that I could come back for as long as I needed. I envisioned long, leisurely days job hunting but also reading, writing, catching up with friends…

…You could say that the honeymoon is over. I’ve been realizing that my mom and I had very, very different expectations of what my coming home looked like. There had been hints over these last few weeks, such as her frustration that I’d not yet unpacked my room. But this week, there were several bang-up, freak-out confrontations. This is not typical for us.

Mom and I sat down to have a calm conversation this evening to work things out and, curiously enough, our conversation centered on love languages and definitions of success. Love languages (so labeled by the author Gary Chapman) determine how we give and receive love. The five love languages are quality time, words of affirmation, acts of service, physical touch, and gifts. I knew that my mom’s main love language was physical touch (so I try to hug her as much as possible), but what I started to realize today was that she is also really big on acts of service. So when I don’t do the dishes, she feels disrespected. When I help her, she feels loved. After a stressful day at work, my mom wants to come home to a clean, peaceful house. When it’s messy, well… there’s a reason she occasionally puts her Wicked Witch of the West magnet on the fridge.

Today’s Realization #1: Doing the dishes is not about pleasing my mom. It’s about loving her.

I do not need to have a clean house in order to feel peaceful or loved. But I do need my mom to watch her words and to communicate love, acceptance, and a nonjudgmental attitude. One of my primary love languages is words of affirmation, which basically means that if someone says “We need to talk” or approaches me in a negative, critical way, I either:

a) go through the roof

or

b) completely check out.

PCP was made for people like me, people for whom, as Pastor Danny Silk says, “The tongue has the power of life and death; they experience words but they more importantly experience [words as] energy.” And lately, my mom’s pointed questions about job hunting, anger at graduate programs for not accepting me, and frustration over the messy house have been sending me through the roof. I need her to communicate something like this:

You are welcome in my house. I love you. Even though finances are difficult, I will work with you on this. I respect your need to seek work as you see fit. I will not ask you about the job hunt. I will not worry. I will trust you. I will trust God.

Today’s Realization #2: Words of affirmation is actually one of my love languages.

(I had not thought this before. Weird.)

Throughout the course of our conversation, we were able to affirm to the other that they were loved. We both had been feeling unloved. My lack of attention to the house and her critical questions about work had been rubbing the recipient entirely the wrong way. It’s like trying to brush a cat and go against the grain of the fur.

I was also able to establish with my mom what I perceive as a successful day. I perceived that she wanted me to be cleaning and job hunting, and that if I didn’t do those things, than I was a lazy bum. (She told me that no, she didn’t define those things as success for The Girl Downstairs.) I shared that my definition of personal success is: have I created something today? Am I spiritually full? Have I communicated with people?

We established that Mom would start making a list of things for me to do around the house. She would like it if I just noticed, but I told her that unless the counter is full of dishes, I’m pretty much fine. As anyone who has ever visited me knows, keeping a clean house (or dorm room) is not my strong suit. I am more than content to let the dishes and dirty clothes pile up for weeks. And then, one day, I will say “I’m going to clean,” and then I will go all out and do all the dishes and clean all the surfaces and vacuum the rug and pick up my dirty clothes and wouldn’t you know, it looks like Glinda the Good Witch has visited. (Glinda or Mr. Clean. It’s a toss up.)

Today’s Realization #3: More like a reminder… that my perceptions are not always right and that respectful communication is absolutely essential to successfully living with someone, no matter the nature of the relationship.

How often do we neglect to communicate love, joy, and peace to our family members? I tell my mom that I want to communicate with my friends daily, only to hear her respond that she feels pretty low on the totem poll. She doesn’t feel that I value communication with her. I tell her she’s a given, but –

Are we excused from demonstrating love to the people who are “givens”? Who love us when we are complete screw ups? Who went through ___ hours of labor to bring us into this world? Who (fill in the blank)?

No, we are not. I know that I take my family members for granted. Hugely for granted. I tell my friends I love them, I ask how they are, I inquire about ongoing issues, but my family? I’m inattentive in comparison. And that’s something that needs to change.

So this is me, recording that I want to change it. I want to show my mom I love her every day. Not because it’s the “Christian” thing to do or the “right” thing to do (even though it is).

Simply, because I love her.

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