“I’m gonna sit right down and write myself a letter …”Lyrics by Joe Young; recorded by many 
January, 2021 is finally here. It is the time of the new year. A time for looking backward, and a time for looking forward. January is the gateway month, named for the Roman god Janus, the guardian god of the city gates, the god of doorways and of arches. Like the namesake month, a symbol of new beginnings.
On one hand: Reflection and cogitation. On the other hand: forecasting and planning. What have we learned from the experiences of the past year – the past decades – that can help us in the new year? In our future? Can we grow? To help us make better use of our allotted time on this spinning blue marble?
Have you ever written yourself a letter? Perhaps not. Perhaps you did, and don’t know it. It is one of those recommendations that come up on lists of possible New Year’s Resolutions. Write a letter to your future self. Tell yourself your plans, hopes, dreams. Your thoughts, your experiences, even your past.
Janus: thought #1. What if you could write a letter to your ten-year-old self? What would you write, and how would you write it, so as help, but not frighten that child? My message would be simple: Don’t worry so much; follow your passions; love freely; make healthy choices.
Janus, thought #2. Well, what if one actually does, or did, write letters to themself? There are sundry ways this can manifest. Many of us journal or blog, or something of that sort, such as keeping diaries. My friend Kevin writes a newsletter to about 100 friends 6 days a week; he has been for many years. Those of us who do those sorts of things can look back on archived records of what we were thinking years or even decades ago. Such writings can carry one’s consciousness both forward and backward.
Beyond Janus, thought #3: regarding the writing of letters, notes and cards. This is something wonderful and spiritually uplifting that is largely lost to current and future generations cursed with the ease and ephemerality of electronic communication. ‘Tis a special thing to receive a letter, or a card containing a note, written by hand. They can contain the essence of your heart, mind and soul. From the greeting, through the letter, possibly with innuendo, and emotion and news of daily life, to the sign-off. Such things are still best captured with actual handwritten ink-on-paper in-the-moment reflection.
At holiday season the delivery of hand-written greetings surges a bit. But, every year it is less and less so. Three to four decades ago the average household received 30-50 greeting cards during the holiday season – each with a note of friendship, fondness, reflection and even affection. No more. The average is now 10-15. Postal delivery of daily actual hand-written person-to-person messages is crashing. This while the flow of digital communication (via email, text, FB instant message, WhatsApp, etc) proliferates. We who well recall personal communication by pen and paper – the little thrills of receiving a letter from a friend, grandparent or lover – find ourselves a bit amiss and adrift.
I see no end to the trend. Soon, by the time of my death perhaps, all greetings will be electronic.
We are Janus, standing at the changing of the guard. What will we gain in this new era? And, at what cost? Many interesting and lesson-filled chapters of human history have been reconstructed by the recovery, perusal and research of preserved letters. How would we know of the unlikely decades-long friendship between Jefferson and Adams? The deep affection between Adams and his dear Abigail? The love affair between Bess and Harry? What will people think four or ten generations hence? That the pen and paper were deemed illegal?
Brief backstory many of you know [much of it is available – yes, sadly, mostly only digitally on my blogs] – I was in a violent car crash, May 1, 2014. I suffered a serious brain injury.
Even though I safely emerged from many very dark months, the remaining years till now were no great fun either. Through years of recovery (still not quite finished – sigh) I fell into a bit of a deep funk for a while. In fact, at one point, I sort of panicked. I recall the time and place of the bottom exactly. I cannot apologize enough to those I love and were close to me during those years – especially my wife – for my behavior. My excuse? I feared that details of my life were lost to the fog. The events, the people, and settings that I could recall and synthesize – were they real?
All kinds of memories started flooding my brain – as if my brain were trying to re-construct a part of itself. Was it a historically faithful reconstruction? Was it fantasy? What kind of person was I? Shitty? Sensitive? Loving? Asshole?
My mom died suddenly in 2006. She left my dad alone and more than a bit lost. They were quite a team. He was the organizer: bank accounts, car payments, insurance policies, mortgages, when to paint the house, change the oil. Those things were simply not in her world; she lacked that gift. But she contributed much more to the party. Despite a life-long struggle with mental illness, she was the connector, the socializer, the sentimentalist, the writer, the family historian, the family emotional bank account manager – and the one who hid large bills with pictures of Alex Hamilton and Andy Jackson all over the house in case the Depression ever returned.
Mom had a huge heart that bled at every opportunity. As testimony, two items.
(1) Evidently I was a pretty honest kid, at least with money. Back in the day when most transactions were done with cash – credit was not a big deal, long before PayPal and Zelle – I’d often be tasked with riding my bike to the grocery store. [Oldest of six kids]. I’d fetch simple stuff like milk, eggs, can of soup or an onion. Not so much that I couldn’t get it home on my bike. When I got home, she not only got the groceries, but I actually gave her the receipt and the change. All of it. What a crazy kid was I. Unbeknownst to me … she stuffed all that cash into an envelope for years. Years! One day, when I was in high school, she just handed it all to me. I must have needed or wanted money for something. A fat envelope full of bills and coins that represented years of honesty and integrity. That was powerful.
(2) Mom, the sentimentalist, also kept large collections of correspondence – spanning decades – much of it organized, but some of it scattered around “her” parts of the house. Some were mixed in with pictures of presidents on fancy pieces of greenish paper, 2.61 inches wide by 6.14 inches long.
Well, about four years after mom passed dad’s health declined to the point he had to move out, and we had to sell the house. That’s when we found boxes and boxes of mom’s “stuff” – and over several weeks we eventually found all the money, maybe. Many items – not the cash – went unclaimed and were donated to various charities – or pitched in to the garbage. [Can I brag? My wife organized all of this.] The Big Win, by the way: I got the Manhattan glasses.
Most of mom’s memorabilia were preserved, divided up, and passed off to her six children when we cleaned out the house. Some of us “kids” have sorted through our “inheritance” by now: pictures, letters, cards, etc. I am ashamed to say: I have not. Not a whit. I have not even cracked the lid. It’s daunting, and – to be honest – I’m a bit afraid.
Thankfully, my youngest sibling has gone through his share of “stuff from mum.” Several years ago, he came across a small stack of letters that I wrote to my mom and dad when I was in grad school. That would be 1978-80. The folder was titled “Letters from grad school”. Clever, huh? Well, he kindly passed them back to me a couple of years ago without comment. Time passed. I have just recently gone over them. What can I say? “Wow” is not enough.
I am now reading letters that I wrote to my parents over 40 years ago.
Questions: What do they say? What kind of person was I? What was going on in my life?
Answers: Well, I was not an asshole. I communicated a lot, even if it was simple stuff like football scores, weather, classes, and my love life. I held little back. Of course, I even asked for money and advice once, when I was dealing with medical issues. I signed off “Love You” and “Miss you.”
“Happy” and “Grateful” don’t even begin to explain how I feel. Thank you, thank you sibling #6. Thank you, mum, for saving these scraps and scribblings. And thank you to myself for writing these letters. These are quite literally “Letters to my future self.” If someone had told me, in 1979, to write a letter to myself to be read in 2020 or ’21, about who I was and how I felt as a young adult, well — I cannot imagine a better approach.
It’s as if I had sat right down and wrote my (future self) a letter. “Dear Future Joe, you are a pretty good guy. Here’s proof!”
I have no idea how to end this appropriately. But I’ll take a shot at it.
New Years Resolutions. 1. Go through “My Boxes from Mom.” 14-1/2 years is long enough. If and when I find something meaningful, I will share it with my siblings, as appropriate. 2. Write more letters. Write them … on paper or card, with pen, and address the envelope by hand. And cards, too. Draw silly pictures of hearts and setting suns. Criminy, we don’t even have to lick the stamps anymore.
Get real. Messages saved as screenshots, or archived on googledocs or your email server are ethereal. As in: tenuous. Messages are made more palpably precious when they’re put on paper by ink and loving hand. Such treasures can be squirreled away to be cherished by dear family and descendants.
There is nothing – nothing!! – like the touch of hand. That is one thing that this period of Covid has taught us. The touch of a letter that’s handwritten, or the fondling of a letter, card, or note from a love, a mate, a friend, or an ancestor is the next best real thing to actual touch.
Happy New Year
Joe Girard © 2021
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 This has got to be one of the most famous songs in the US in the 20th century, judging by how many very popular singers have recorded it. Among the many are Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin (probably my favorite version), Bing Crosby, Bill Haley & the Comets and Willie Nelson. As recently as 2012 Sir Paul McCartney’s album “Kisses on the Bottom” started off with this song on track 1. [The album’s title is actually a line from the song.] The gist of the song is probably that a guy wishes he’d get more letters from his lady friend.
Correction: In my November 30, 2020 Essay “Fire Drill” I incorrectly stated that the great Vince Lombardi, in his first move as head coach and general manager of the Green Bay Packers, wasted the very first draft choice in the NFL. That is incorrect. For some reason the 1959 draft was held in early December, in 1958. Lombardi did not sign with the Packers until January, 1959. That, along with a terrible team, was another burden he inherited.