The Pleasure of a Letter

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Dear _______________,

You already know my name.  It’s Carol Ann, but I wish I knew your name so I could address this letter to you properly.  Yes, it is a letter that you’re reading  even though it’s not the typical letter I write each day – the kind that uses paper, ink, postage stamps and sealing wax.

We have something in common, you and I, we  both have an interest in the Art of Letter Writing.  I absolutely love letters – to write them and to write about them, to receive them, and to share my enthusiasm for them with others.

Do you write many letters?  I figure I’ve written at least 10,000 letters so far.  That number was easy to come up with because for the last 20 years or so I’ve been writing one letter each morning with my coffee before I do any other thing, and very often I write more letters later in the day.

If I have a boring job to do (like cleaning the house)  I’ll make the job more tolerable by giving myself permission to take breaks here and there and in those breaks  I’ll write  a page of a letter.    Do you do things like that?

I’m sure I could happily write letters all day long if I allowed myself to do so, but I do enjoy a few other things. well maybe more than a few, so at this time in my life I limit my letter writing.  The day may come when I feel this limitation is unnecessary.

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A letter from a friend

After all, isn’t it Ralph Waldo Emerson, my very own “dead friend”, who said “To find the journey’s end in every step of the road, to live the greatest number of golden hours is wisdom.” So perhaps it would be a very wise move for me to grant myself permission to write more letters even now.  What do you love to do?  What could be more golden than filling our days with  our most favorite things?

You’re reading these words of mine and I’m happy you are, sharing really does double my joy, but perhaps one of these days you’ll be inspired to write of a few words of your own and send those words off to me.  I’d love that!  You might write a comment at the end of this post or take out paper and a pen to write a real old-fashioned missive, one I could keep in a box and refer to time and time again,  saving the letter for my future grandchildren to enjoy some day. 

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It seems to me that our task on earth is to find our deep soul work and throw ourselves into it head-long.  For me letters play a big part in that soul work for as I delight in the writing and receiving of letters carrying on this beautiful old art form, helping to keep the art alive,  I am also able to share many other joys with lots and lots of people.

We’re all in this life together and the more connected we are to each other the richer our lives become.  In letters we share the daily comings and goings of life, but so much more.  In letters we share ideas and philosophy.   My old letter friend, Harry, was always putting beautiful, thought-provoking ideas into my head.  One idea I liked very much, one that I’m forever sharing with others is this:

WORK AND WORRY ARE STURDY WEEDS,  BUT JOY REQUIRES CULTIVATION.

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What joys are you cultivating?  Being a gardener I can’t help but relate the cultivation of my joys to the cultivation of my herbs and flowers.  My favorite plants don’t just happen, but strangely the weeds in my garden do.  So it is with our joys.  Developing  joys into passions take time and effort.  First, we need to identify our favorite things just as we need to plant flower seeds.  Then we need to work those favorite things  just as we need to work and fertilize the soil around our plants.  This takes time and effort.   I’ll often ask people what passions they’ve cultivated  and very often they just give me a blank stare.

What does this have to do with the Art of Letter Writing?  Well, good letters ask questions and get one thinking.  Writing letters provide us with that quiet time to think, ponder and reflect. In today’s world it’s not so easy to find ourselves alone in quiet.  Thomas Edison would go to a lake holding a fishing pole.  There was no bait on that pole, but people left him alone since they assumed he was fishing and needed quiet.  Well, he did need quiet, but not to fish.  He needed quiet to think.

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In writing our  letters we are giving ourselves quiet alone time to think, but we’re also connecting to others at the same time.  Lord Byron, another favorite “dead friend”, put this idea beautifully  when He said, “Only in letter writing do we have solitude and society simultaneously”.  We’re alone with our thoughts, but we’re also sharing them with our letter friend.  Our friend receives those thoughts, ponders them, adds his or her own, perhaps includes a few more questions for discussion, and the end result is a rich mix for both of us.

 People always ask me what in the world I can find to talk about in a letter.  They forget a letter is a conversation and if our mind happens to be blank one day all we have to do is read our friend’s letter and respond to the ideas we find there.

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Henry David Thoreau, (yes, another “dead friend” –  I have lots of them) said, “If one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life he has imagined, he will meet with successes unexpected in common hours.”

Time alone spent in reflection can help us get in tune with ourselves, and how nice it is if we can also get in tune with others at the same time.  Letter writing provides us with this opportunity.  It’s no wonder I find writing letters such a complete treat and maybe you do too.  It gives me a time to sit and rest, a time to ponder the life I have and the life I want to have, and it offers me the opportunity to share my life with others.

SHARING DOUBLES THE JOY AND DIVIDES THE SORROW

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So when I find a letter in my mail box addressed just to me, I’m delighted!  Someone was thinking of me.  Someone  wanted to share.  I can’t wait to read what they have to say.  I’m delighted to sit myself down and ponder their thoughts.  I’m then anxious to reply, though life does get in the way at times for a quick reply.

What activities fill you with delight?  Are you cultivating your joys?  Are you sharing them?  Are you achieving the wisdom that comes from living hours that are golden?  Are you advancing confidently in the direction of your dreams?  If you’re a letter writer I bet the answer to all these questions is a big YES!  And these questions are great to include in  your letters to others for questions like these will help your friends focus on some of the most  important issues of life.  Maybe one of those next letters you write will be going off to ME!  I hope so.  I’d love to hear from you.  Really!

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Here’s wishing you golden days  filled with wisdom.

Truly,

Carol Ann

More on the subject of The Art of Letter Writing

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This morning I had the pleasure of writing  a new old  friend.  Let me explain.  My letter will be going off to Barbara in Rhode Island.  I was quite excited to be writing her because Barbara and I had lost touch for many years and only recently did we reconnect.  If you’re like me you love making new friends, but your old friends are very precious.  Only with old friends do our old memories come back to life and sharing  old memories, sharing anything,  doubles the joy.

I first met Barbara years ago in Boston where we both were  teachers and newlyweds.  That was an exciting time for both of us so it will be fun to not only catch up on our current lives, but also to revisit those great old times we shared together.

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My first letter to friends is always written on stationery I create by assembling decorative papers in the form of floral bouquets.  Do you have a ritual for choosing  your letter papers?  There are so many possibilities: store-bought papers, greeting cards made into letter books, photo note cards, watercolor drawings … the choices are endless.  So that I don’t get waylaid by the decision-making process of what stationery to use I’ve created a list of my options.  Now, at letter writing time, that list helps me decide who gets what papers.  Creating rituals –  who to write,  when, where, how, and with what,  helps make letter writing almost automatic and definitely more fun!

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And it’s not only the letter paper, but also the envelope that can be decorated many different ways.  This week my letter friends are getting a cup of coffee or tea, whatever they prefer.  Most of my pen friends have great fun designing their letter envelopes.

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Here’s one from my pen friend Janet.  In this  letter envelope she’s playing with rubber stamps

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and here’s another of Janet’s envelopes where she’s in the mood for some Summer fun.

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Janet loves to take pictures.  Do you?   She shares these pictures in her letters.  You know what they say – one picture is worth a thousand words.  Pictures really make letters come to life.

In this summery letter Janet created a collage of many of the images she saw and photographed in recent days. She put the images  together, even drawing a “Happy Summer” sign for the airplane to pull through the sky.  You may also notice she was writing on stationery that looked like a real sky, a nice touch for her airplane.  The hot air balloon says “FUN” and that’s what Janet’s letters are – real fun to see!

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In many of Janet’s letters there are little fold-out pages (little booklets) attached to the letter’s page.  These fold-outs contain even more pictures.  When I get a letter from Janet I feel like I’m carried away to wherever she wants to take me.  Good letters will do that you know.

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In her most recent letter she shared  a series of performances she attended relating to the American Revolution.  Janet lives in Virginia and this program entitled “The Road to Revolution Heritage Trail”  linked historic sites and institutions in Virginia interpreting the life of Patrick Henry, orator of the Revolution and Virginia’s first governor.  Reading about this program was good, but seeing her photographs of the men playing the parts of George Washington, Patrick Henry and the French marquis, Lafayette was even better.

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Janet has so many pictures to share in her letters. They’re everywhere – in the letter, on the front of the envelope and even on the envelope’s back. Her letters are a visual treat besides being full of interesting commentary and thanks to her interesting envelopes the postal workers who handle her letters get a little treat too.  I bet you wish Janet was one of your letter friends.

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Chicago

Well, I love to include photographs in my letters just as Janet does. Last week I was in Chicago enjoying an architecture river cruise through the city and you know how I feel about sharing my joy – so I took a million pictures all along the ride in order to have the fun of sharing that experience via pictures with my pen friends in future letters.

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Two of my many photographs of the Chicago river cruise.

If you have a camera I hope you’re using it not only to capture images for your own pleasure, but also for the  pleasure of your letter friends.

But of course the best things about letters are all the thoughtful ideas they convey.  More than in-person conversations letters seem to draw ideas out of us and they are a marvelous vehicle for sharing, sharing our own ideas and sharing the ideas we come upon while reading.  When writing a letter  we have time to find that book we’re enjoying and copy the lines we love.  Yes, it’s slow-going, but this helps us not only focus on those ideas but also remember them.

 In Janet’s last letter she talked about creativity.  She wrote:

 “In the beginning God created … that was God’s first action and I think God created us to be creative creatures.  One quote I recently came upon was a statement by Frank Lloyd Wright.  He said ‘The longer I live the more beautiful life becomes.  If you… ignore beauty, you will soon find yourself without it.  Your life will be impoverished.  But if you invest in beauty, it will remain with you all the days of your life.’  So if we keep trying  to convey creativity and beauty in our letters I think we’ll be using our time wisely, don’t you?”

I agree.

And what do you think?

What beauty and creativity have you shared with someone today?  It’s not too late.  You can write a letter any hour of the day or night.  Go ahead.  Make someone’s day!

Write a letter!

Afternoon tea, philosophy, and me

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 As my “dead friend” Mister Rogers used to sing:

It’s a beautiful day in the neighborhood

a beautiful day for a neighbor

Would you be mine?  Could you be mine?

Won’t you be my neighbor” …

and join me for afternoon tea?

The dogwood tree is beginning to bloom

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I see it out my windows bringing me joy at every appearance.

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so the porch is the perfect place to entertain guests today.

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and some of the hydrangeas are changing from green to a lovely lavender color

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It truly is a beautiful day in my neighborhood, the perfect day for a tea party — but then any day is a perfect day to share with friends.

 Most times when I entertain I like to experiment with a new recipe.  Today that recipe comes from the book “Tea and Inspiration” by Mary Pielenz Hampton.

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I’ll attempt to make little tarts called “Maids of Honor”.  Legend has it that  these tarts were enjoyed very much by Henry VIII.  Supposedly, he came upon the maids of his wife Catherine eating them, so he named these tea goodies in their honor.

If these tarts were fit for a king, queen and her maids of honor I should think they would be just fine for me and my guests

So let’s gets started.

First I make the pastry by using my mother’s tried and true recipe.

2 cups flour, 1 tsp salt, 3/4 cup crisco, 5 T cold water

Mix in a cuisinart for a minute and you have a lovely pastry dough.

Now  to roll out the pastry onto a lightly floured surface and cut 3 inch circles out using a wine glass.

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Next, we place the rounds into a greased and floured muffin tin pressing the pastry to the sides.

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Now to prepare the filling

In a mixing bowl, lightly beat 2 egg yolks.  Beat in the 1/2 cup of sugar, 1/2 cup of blanched ground almonds, 1 tbsp flour, and 1 tsp finely grated lemon peel or lemon zest.  Slowly add the 2 tbsp of heavy whipping cream.  Carefully spoon about 1 tablespoon of mixture into each pastry cup.

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Bake for 15 to 20 minutes, until the filling is set and a light golden brown color.

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 Carefully remove from tins and place on a wire rack until completely cooled.

And we have a yummy “Maid of Honor” tart.

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An up close look at the tart

With my baking finished it’s now time to organize the tea.  Because I’m not sure which teas my guests enjoy I will be offering them a selection.IMG_3072[1]

I set out four tea pots ready to be of service once my guests declare which teas they’ each prefer.

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And because I’m never sure if my baking experiment will turn out I like to have insurance.  Today the insurance is a fruit and custard tart.

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This tart along with my Maids of honor mini tarts could be enough, but being Polish and the daughter of a great hostess, I was taught to always have more than enough goodies at a party.   I purchased a few more things which I’ll slice and make ready for my guests in the hope that they will surely find something that appeals to them.

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Now that the food is under control it’s time to check that the setting is ready.  Let’s go out to the porch.

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I set out the tea cups, adjust the silver and napkins, check that the tea treats are nicely arranged and start the music.

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So you see there’s not much to planning a tea party.  Afternoon tea is an exercise in gentility and like letter writing it is almost a lost art in today’s world, but I think it is an art worth our time and attention.

Amy, one of my favorite pen friends who lives in Kingston, Pennsylvania, recently sent me a quotation.  The words are from Lao Tzu, an ancient Chinese philosopher and the father of Taoism.  It reads:

“To attain knowledge, add things every day.  To attain wisdom, subtract things every day.”

Lao Tzu’s words make sense to me.  If we clear our lives of clutter and create time for learning and solitary reflection or reflection with others, we just might find our lives to be more rich, in fact GOLDEN.

Any minute my guests will be arriving.  Today I have 3 ladies invited to tea — an old friend, Barbara; a new friend, Gerry ( who happens to have been my high school English teacher.  I never knew Gerry well back then , but after meeting her at a wedding recently I thought it would be lovely to get to know her now); and Gerry is bringing a friend, Sandy. (Sandy was in my high school graduating class but we never knew each other back then).

Someone old, someone new, someone borrowed, and this time only one borrowed guest, not the usual two,  because my seating  arrangement only has room for four.  And here they are.

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I always ask my guests to be prepared to share a passion or favorite thing so Barbara brought a book of the poetry she’s written.  Barbara was a teacher and she’s a very good writer.

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Sandy talked all about the joys of being a grandmother.  She told us of her fun in babysitting  her little granddaughter.

Here you see Sandy and Gerry looking over some of my letters for I shared my delight in the Art of Letter writing.

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Gerry told us all about her mother who almost lived to be 100 years old.  Her mother’s passion was sewing and all forms of needlework so now Gerry’s passion is to find a home for all those things her mother made.  Each month she gives something away and this month it’s a pretty apron.IMG_3091[1]

Guess who gets that pretty apron?  If you guessed me, you’re right!

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Now I have that apron to wear at my next tea!  As you may know when you give good things come back to you and with this tea I gained a pretty apron.

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a lovely bowl of flowers thanks to Sandy

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and the best gift of all – new and old friends.

Back in 1895 there was talk that it was probably inevitable that the excessive nervous tension and high speed of life was bound to have a deteriorating effect on all branches of art including  the art of conversation.

They were right to worry for with time it’s only gotten worse.  Letter writing, afternoon tea, in person conversations are truly taking a hit.

But

 the good news is all these arts are still there for us.  They’re just waiting for our participation.  Take Lao Tzu’s advice and cut out some clutter, make some tea, read  an intelligent book, write a letter and/or invite some friends for an afternoon soire,

The mere chink of cups and saucers tune the mind to happy repose.

So till next time

Relax and live richly

When Things Come Together

The other day I received an important  message.  Today that message is coming to you.  The message came at me from three separate sources:  from Mister Rogers of classic tv’s Mister Roger’s Neighborhood,  from Eloise, a fictitious little girl of the classic Eloise book series by Kay Thompson and from Amy Hollingsworth, a writer.  These three  individuals directed me to another book and the source of the message, to Antoine de Saint-Exupery’s The Little Prince.  I don’t know about you, but when things come at me in two’s or three’s I pay attention.

It all started when I was reading The Simple Faith of Mister Rogers by Amy Hollingsworth

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and a lovely book it is too,  filled with many warm and wonderful spiritual reflections. (I highly recommend this book to you.)  It seems The Little Prince was one of Mister Roger’s favorites.  Amy, one of Fred’s pen friends, said Fred spent most of his life quoting the following words from The Little Prince: 

L’essentiel est invisible pour les yeux

Well, I always loved Mister Rogers and I’ve written to him myself.  I also love the French language, along with many other  French things – French food and the restaurants that serve it, the French countryside, and my lovely  French friends, Stephanie, Patrice and their sweet children – Llyona, Marc-Aurele and Arpad.  So, when the above French words popped out at me from the Mister Rogers’ book, of course I took special notice of them.  In case you don’t speak French here’s what they mean:

“What is essential is invisible to the eye”

Have you ever given thought to this idea?  I have, especially in regard to  letter writing.  You see, I write to very many people whom I’ve never met ‘in person’, never even seen in a picture.  I get to know many of these people by way of  The Letter Exchange, (www.letter-exchange.com) an organization which puts letter writers together.  Though some folks I meet in this way will send pictures of themselves, most will not, but pictures or no pictures,  great friendships evolve as letters are shared.  You may think it strange that people could become great friends even though they have  absolutely no idea what each other  look like, but it is possible.  I have many of such friends. (Hello to Gwen, Patricia, Erika, and all the rest of you)  Why, I could be sitting next to one of these favorite people on a plane and never even know it!   But  I’ve often thought how wonderful this is, for  in letter writing people can get to know each other’s spirit without  letting physical appearance get in the way.  Looks can be so deceiving you know!  And I do believe

“What is essential is invisible to the eye”

But besides the spirit of a person being invisible yet very important, there are many other invisible things we should not  neglect.  What do you think they are?  What is essential for you? It’s good to take time out for serious reflection now and then, the kind of reflection letter writing provides, for only with thoughtful reflection will we ever come to know what is essential.

My “dead friend” Lord Byron, the poet,  put it very well when he used to say: 

             A life without reflection is a sad affair 

But you may be wondering where Eloise comes in to this story.  Well, I was having a movie night for the children in my church choir  and  I needed a good film so I did a search on Net Flix for something fun, but something that was also thoughtful.   I came upon a Disney remake of the classic Eloise at the Plaza.  Ah, the Plaza!  I love that hotel in New York City.

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The Plaza

So that was enough for me and the film proved to be just delightful.  I suggest you check it out no matter how old you are.  Julie Andrews plays a darling nanny (nothing like Mary Poppins).

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An older nanny, but very sweet

    And Eloise is so cute, so devilish, but  so full of life and thoughtful too – I found her very inspiring.  We’d all have a lot more fun if we acted like Eloise now and then.

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Eloise

Disney was so true to the book too – a wonderful thing.  Here’s an example.  Just take a look at the book and then a scene from the film.

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And the film had a little prince in it too -not Antoine’s Little Prince but a prince just the same, a prince who was quite touched by the message in Saint Exupery’s  book, a book which became  important to Eloise’s story.  The prince was touched by the  message in The Little Prince as was I, as was Mister Rogers and  hopefully as  you are too… because it’s so very true.

“L’ essentiel est invisible pour les yeux”

WHAT IS ESSENTIAL IS INVISIBLE TO THE EYE

Let this be your thought for the day

(or at least one of them)

by way of Mister Rogers, Eloise,  Amy Hollingsworth

and

ME!