Saturday, June 21, 2008

Epistles

Remember before emails, texting and online chatting? There used to be these things called letters that required pen and paper (or a typewriter, if you actually knew where the letters were arbitrarily placed on the keyboard, which I didn't, and could use it), and an envelope, stamp, mailbox and waiting several days for the recipient to read it, and many more to get a response--if you ever did. Remember such things? I was a huge proponent of letters. I still love the notion of them, love the feel of pen in my hand and hand moving across the page. I have a fundamental belief that my hand (or hands, now that I actually do know how to type quickly and without thought) writes. Seriously, there have been more times than I can count that my hand has written something that I didn't know I was thinking, and I'm amazed by it when I see it on the page. See, I still keep my journal with pen on paper--there's just no other way to do it.

But epistles. I was a great believer in them as well. My sister, the Dump, and I used to write each other once a week all through college and beyond. Her letters were always exactly the same length--one sheet of notebook paper, front and back. No matter what was going on in her life, it had to be covered in two pages or it wasn't worth saying. And her handwriting never changed. In fact, I'd say her handwriting hasn't changed significantly since the day she learned those cursive letters--every single ABC she ever writes is identical to the ones on those giant cards that are tacked over the chalkboards in second grade classrooms. That's the Dump for you. Me? Well, I covered pages and pages with stories about my life--sometimes the dramas, sometimes the joys. And my handwriting--well, it can't be pinned down, either. Always legible, just always changing with my mood.

And the Beve. Well, he can write amazing letters. His letters made me fall in love with him. That year I left Finland he went to the trouble of writing me a note for every day for the rest of my trip around Europe--just to encourage my friend and me as we traveled, like a blog we could hold in our hands. What 26 year old man does something like that? Seriously, I ask you. And the next year, in Holland, we wrote notes and letters to each other almost every day. His examined heart in those letters--love letters, yes, but mostly to God. I tell you, absolutely amazing. (I have them all saved and might even let my kids see them, if they're so inclined.)

My dad wrote me a couple of really good letters in my life as well. Once in college, I began to get cash--a 20$ here, 50$ there-- in letters from my Mom. It didn't make sense to me, because she'd just written me that I was spending too much (and trust me, she was right!). So in a weekly call, I asked about the money. And Dad wrote me a letter. It went like this:
Dear C--
Spend the $
Love,
Dad
I pinned that up on my bulletin board--and you can imagine that it became my motto for the next few years. (Dad had been mailing the letters from Mom, sticking the money in!)
And in Holland, when Beve and I got engaged, we got the best letter from my dad that I've ever gotten in my life. Dad never wrote me as many letters as Mom, but he was across the state from home getting cancer treatments when we wrote him of our wedding, and he wrote us back. He told us that he felt we were made for each other in a way he'd seldom seen, though he'd seen a whole lot of people marry. I was overwhelmed by his letter (especially with the unexpected news of his cancer...I was missing him fiercely!), his strong support and love for us. The saddest thing is that, somehow, we've lost that letter, in all our moves. But I have it in my heart.

However, for all these great letters, there have been hard ones. My mother has been the scribe of pain in our family. A couple of months ago, when most of us siblings were together comparing notes, we realized that we'd all received at least one scathing letter from her, condemning actions, choices, our kids, our spouses, our very lives. Sometimes in the middle of it, I couldn't begin to understand my mother, but looking back I know she wanted us to change, to become something other than we were. But these letters did the very opposite of what she intended with them. They made us dig in our heels, be firm in our positions, despise her even more, certain she was out to lunch and we were right. Her attacks came so often out of the blue, so often on the basis of something she misunderstood, or misread, that judging us continually diminished her in our eyes. The power of those letters to destroy these relationships...

It does me no honor to say such things about my mother. I know this. I wish it different. And when I think of the power of the written word I always picture two letters in my hand--one from my father, the other from my mother. My mother did write cards (when she could still write them) on birthdays, mother's day, etc. telling us what she appreciated about me. However, I didn't believe my mom's words for a long time--the negative ones had been too loud, and too many. And I am certain that there were also things about me, Beve, my children that Dad struggled with. We are human, after all; we struggle with each other. But Dad chose his words, and his life was equal to his words. So I believed him.

It isn't wrong to write difficult letters. Sometimes it's the only way. But as a last resort, not a knee-jerk impulse. And maybe that's what we need to learn about speaking and emailing and texting and everything else. When asked the other day what an ideal Christian would look like, I said, "Someone who lives a seamless life." That is, a life that is the same everywhere--privately, publicly, always asking, "May your Kingdom come--in me." What kind of letters do you write? What kind of letters does your life write?

Are they seamless? I pray so.

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