The gift of a good letter

Via: Pinmarklet

I have been writing letters since I was little. As I was heavily steeped in historical fiction since childhood, I had a high, romantic ideal of handwritten letters; most of my peers, thankfully, did too, and so we started writing each other, even though some of us lived only 10 minutes apart. (This was still in a pre-e-mail era, mind you. Or, at least, pre-computer literacy for children.)

If you’ve ever written me a letter, chances are that I still have it. From my last estimate, I have 18 shoeboxes filled with letters that I have received throughout my young life. Some make me laugh in embarrassment over the things we once felt were of vital importance. Some make me tear up, like my treasured letters from my Great Aunt Lib. All of them bring me a lot of joy.

I am grateful that I still have a legion of friends who write me letters on a regular basis. My grandmother is my most faithful correspondent, and I have gotten to the point where I can decipher her compact, slanted cursive like a pro. Windy often writes us sweet notes about life in Southern Pines. I have two correspondents in the U.K., Diane and Natalie, both of whom send me gorgeous letters, often written with fountain pens and sealed with red wax. Angela writes me beautiful, thick, sincere letters, filled with well-crafted stories and confessions.

A letter to Catherine; stationery from Courtney.

I love writing and receiving letters and I will stand behind them until the USPS goes out of business (which may be sooner rather than later). It’s not like it’s a new thing to talk about how letters are more elevated and sincere than e-mails; everyone knows that. And I like e-mail; I use it every day and it’s a wonderfully efficient mode of communication.

But I think that’s what I like about writing letters in 2011. They are not efficient. They cost you time and money; e-mail is free and costs you comparatively little time. You can write and send an e-mail in less than a second. But a letter is a serious endeavor. I like them because they require so much more effort. What kind of stationery does this letter require? Am I going to write on letterhead or in a note? Will my handwriting be long and florid, or rushed and intent? What stories will I tell? What moments will I confess? All of these things have to be taken into account. Gmail never forces me to much thought beyond the expectation of a direct and quick answer.

And so you sit down and write a letter and maybe agonize a little over it. You put it in the mail and then you wait. And wait. And maybe you get a reply; maybe you don’t. Either way, the practice of self-imposed delayed gratification builds character. I venture that it is the laboring and the waiting that matter.

Red clay

Green Corn Red Clay
Source: Flickr, user laurabell

I remember making “pottery” in the back yard at Ash Cove from the plentiful red clay. Mom, tired, would send us outside and we’d start digging holes. We would snatch Tupperware bowls and containers from the kitchen and fill them with water from the hose. We’d mix in clay and begin to shape little bowls and plates. We’d leave them on the brick patio to dry and in the morning, we would have creations. Sometimes we “glazed” them with Mom’s clear nail polish, so they’d last longer.

Once, our childhood nemesis, Micah Blaker, asked to join our pottery session. He lived in the house behind ours and we shared a fence with him. We’d always hated him. He was mean and fat and aggressive. He once threw a rock at baby Grace, who was a mere three-year-old porcelain doll baby at the time. We stared at him through the fence, astonished at his shy request. I told him he could come over and he climbed over the fence. He sat quietly at the plastic picnic table and made bowls with us. That night, we ran inside and told our parents everything, how nice he was now, how he didn’t yell at us or try to push us in the mud. It was our first lesson that people are not always as bad as they seem, that even people formerly written off as evil had good inside them, too.

Catching newts

Newt
Source: Flickr, user madrat

I remember catching buckets of newts on the edge of the Van Eerden’s largest pond. We separated them into male and female buckets, guessing—rightly, I recently found out—that the males had the flared tails and the females had straight, tapered ones, like the tails of a Dalmatian. We planned to establish a comprehensive spotted newt breeding program, and wouldn’t our parents be delighted when we suddenly had thousands of baby newts hidden in the back of the garage?

While we were daydreaming, Samson, that great, lumbering black lab, would stick his head in the newt bucket, like he was bobbing for apples. He’d come up with a face full of writhing newts, squirming in his white teeth. We’d squeal with terror and try to pry them out of his jaws, but he’d take a quick gulp and they were gone. From then on, we made the littlest sisters stand guard over the buckets and block Samson from any more snack attacks.

I remember the large puddle that was packed with wiggling black commas: tadpoles squirming for life. We would scoop up handfuls of them, dump them in other red buckets, and wait for them to turn into frogs. They never did. When the sun went down, we would trek to their house up that long, winding driveway, tired and content, feeling like conquerors. We hardly ever saw our parents.

My life in chapters

Chapter One: A blissfully happy childhood, in which my greatest concerns are how many library books I am allowed to bring home and how many baby rabbits we can smuggle over from the neighbor’s back yard.

Chapter Two: The dark days of middle school, in which I fill up many dramatic journals and feel murky and confused inside.

Chapter Three: High school, in which my weirdly conservative debater identity takes hold; in which I feel that I am very popular, even though I am homeschooled and my entire social circle is about 40 people.

Chapter Four: Freshman year of college, in which I feel elated and totally excited about everything; in which I date a boy for the first time; in which I am still very judgmental.

Chapter Five: My sophomore year in college, in which everything falls apart and I am rebuilt again.

Chapter Six: My summer in Tokyo, in which my entire worldview is broadened; in which my Japanese language abilities make exponential strides; in which I have never worked harder in my entire life.

Chapter Six: Junior year in college, in which I am in love with Guion and find that he changes everything; in which I am happy, genuinely happy again.

Chapter Seven: Summer working for the Denver Post, in which I become an adult; in which I find a new, bold, extroverted self emerge, a self who makes new friends and invites them hiking every week; in which I am more fit and joyful than I have ever been before.

Chapter Eight: Senior year of college, in which Guion decides to marry me; in which I live in an almost constant state of stress; in which I learn that living in a house with six other women is difficult but has its benefits; in which I finish my thesis and feel very accomplished; in which I plan my wedding and graduate.

Chapter Nine: Our first year of marriage, in which we are excited to be together every single day; in which we move to Charlottesville; in which I get my first full-time job and he starts graduate school; in which we fall in love with a town and its people.

Chapter Ten: Our second year of marriage, which has just begun; in which we think we might just stay here forever, for who could feel this content?

Family love: Dad

I am writing a series of short posts about why I love my family. This is the third installment. All quality (wedding-related) photographs are courtesy of the incomparably great Meredith Perdue; all other photographs are mine.

Dad, Juju, Jak

We like to say that my father never truly grew up. Throughout our childhoods, he was the most popular dad in the neighborhood. He was the Pied Piper. Flocks of children followed him everywhere: to the pool, to play dodgeball against the walls of houses, to set up a makeshift hockey rink in the cul-de-sac, to stage water wars against other bands of roving children. He did not act like everyone else’s serious, starchy fathers; he seemed like one of us. At family gatherings, he preferred to sit at the kids’ table; adult conversation made him uncomfortable. He never treated us like babies or talked down to us; he treated us like his equals and we worshiped him for it.

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He is one of the most hilarious and unusual people I know. Sarcasm is his mother tongue. I often regale people with stories of the bizarre and funny things he’s done, only to realize later that he may come across as totally insane.

All I ever wanted when I was a child was to make him laugh. To get Dad to laugh! That would be the highest honor. When he did laugh at something I said, I felt on top of the world.

Dad's true love

He is the most humble man I know. Dad is a quintessential renaissance man in many ways. He was a celebrated athlete in college, winning all sorts of titles (including the Big Ten Award) for Purdue’s track team. Today, he coaches hockey and plays any sport that he can. Our family gatherings are now famous for his organized “Family Olympics” events. He gathers all willing members into a gauntlet of games (including but not limited to: basketball, badminton, volleyball, disc golf, ultimate Frisbee, hockey, Crate, and so on).

Along with still managing to fit the role of the consummate athlete, Dad is the smartest person I’ve ever met. He has three master’s degrees (in computer engineering, robotics, and something else equally nerdy). He worked on the team in Florida that invented the first personal printer. He did freelance engineering work for NASA. He spent a year creating an algorithm for auctions that no one had discovered before. But he’d never tell you any of these things, not in a million years. He’s accomplished things that we are still finding out about, even now.

In my teenage years, I was very easily frustrated with him. I had little patience in our relationship. I regret that a lot. Looking back, I think this is because how similar we are. I can’t completely express all of our small, shared characteristics, but I am convinced that they are many. We both have a tendency to default to sarcasm in tight situations. We are likely to become obsessed with something, to a degree more extreme than most people. We cultivate a fierce pride in our family. We like to exaggerate problems but then solve them quickly. Since I’ve gotten married, I think we’re closer than we’ve ever been before. I appreciate him to a deeper degree; I realize all that he has done for us and continues to do. He brings unlimited joy wherever he goes and I don’t think there’s anyone I’d rather spend a day with. As a father, he is peerless. He gave us the happiest childhood one could imagine. And I don’t tell him that enough.

The Abby alphabet

Remember when you were 12 and you and your friends would exchange e-mail personality quizzes? Or you’d post them on your baby MySpace or Xanga pages? Well, this is kind of like that. Except for semi-grown-up bloggers. (Found at the lovely blog The Lighthouse Keeper.)

The farm! That is one stylized, serious-looking farm. Source: Pinmarklet

Ambition: To live on a small working farm with my husband and raise a few children and a pack of dogs. I would also like to continue my education as a writer and editor, whether that includes graduate school or moving up the publishing industry ladder.

Bad habit: Judging people or things extremely quickly. Flying into microscopic rages when tiny things don’t go my way.

City: Well, Charlottesville, because we love it here, but I think my spirit city is Denver. I adore Denver. I think my body gets a rush of endorphins whenever I remember my summer there.

Drink: Tea, of course!

Education: B.A., summa cum laude, English and Journalism, UNC-Chapel Hill. Currently engaging in wishful thinking about a master’s degree in English.

Food: Mainly fruit. Not enough vegetables, but I eat them daily (lately, we’re into asparagus, kale, potatoes, and bell peppers). I could also live on a steady diet of pasta and cheese.

Justin Timberlake. Source: Bing

Guilty pleasures: Trawling breed rescue agencies for dogs I can’t yet adopt. And Justin Timberlake.

Hometown: Charlotte, North Carolina, although I tend to claim Davidson, because it’s more interesting and it’s where my parents currently live.

Ice cream: The Four C’s from Chaps Ice Cream on the downtown mall (chocolate, cherries, chocolate chips). Or anything that involves chocolate.

Jonesing for: A dog! Or an unlimited supply of perfect watermelon.

Pure kryptonite. Source: Pinmarklet

Kryptonite: Puppies.

Lookalike: Hm. I don’t know. My theory is that people can’t really differentiate the faces of women with curly hair, and so that’s why people tell me I look like Emmy Rossum or Keri Russell. It’s just because we all have curly hair. We don’t actually share a resemblance. I wish my lookalike was Gwyneth. Or SWINTON.

Still from "The Royal Tenenbaums." Source: Google images

Movie: The Royal Tenenbaums will always have my heart, 100 percent.

Nicknames: Abba, Shabbage, Shabbarge, Flabby, Shabs, Abigail, Abberini, Abs, Bob.

Obsession: Making lists. Dogs. Reading, reading, reading.

Perfume: I don’t wear it that often, but my sisters got me a bottle of perfume from the Tokyo Milk line called French Kiss. I like it. It makes me feel glamorous.

Quirk: Pulling my ears back like a dog when someone makes me angry.

Regrets: Not being more open-minded and generous in high school.

Starbucks: No, thanks.

Talent: Reading! I can read real good.

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Upper quad, UNC campus. My heart sobs a little when I look at this photo. I want to go back! Source: Me

University: UNC-Chapel Hill.

Vacation: Anywhere in the mountains. We live in the Blue Ridge mountains now, but I still can’t get enough of them. My perfect place is a great field at the foot of a row of folded mountains.

Wine: Malbec or a dry white wine. I still can’t remember the names of the white wines I actually like…

X: X to living in fear.

Years: 23.

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Chapel of the Cross, where we met and were married. Source: Me

Zen: I have a few notions of zen. 1) Outdoors with my husband and my (future) dog; 2) Reading or writing in a room of my own; 3) The Compline service at the Chapel of the Cross.

OK, now it’s your turn. Go! See, isn’t it fun to be in middle school again?

Tell me something I don’t already know

Source: Content in a Cottage

Like most people, I love reading things that tell me what I want to hear. I love blabbing to people about “this great article I just read” that bolsters what I already believe about politics, food, religion, or dog training. It’s obnoxious. But, simply, it’s gratifying to see someone else espouse your deeply held convictions out on the great plains of cyberspace. This is why I loved reading the hilarious memoir-like piece about a nightmarish trip to Disney World by John Jeremiah Sullivan in the New York Times Magazine last week, “You Blow My Mind. Hey, Mickey!” One of my principal beliefs is that Disney World is a materialistic swamp of America’s lowest common denominators and one of my top life goals is to never go there. Sullivan’s article simply reinforced this conviction.

As enjoyable as it was to read that essay and others like it, I’m coming to the conclusion that it’s not good for my brain–or my spirit–to read only things that I already believe. Sue Halpern’s article in the New York Review of Books, “Mind Control and the Internet,” helped bring me around to this moment of enlightenment. Halpern’s article is a terrifying one. In it, she explains how, right now, Google and Amazon are creating a detailed profile of you and figuring out just what it is that you want to hear, read, and buy. Through complex algorithms, which I do not understand, Google also tailors your search results and your e-mail ads to your interests, a fact which most people now recognize. As soon as you start telling your friends that you’re engaged via e-mail, you start seeing all of these weird “discount wedding jewelry” ads pop up.

We’ve come to placidly accept the fact that Google is watching us. While this Big Brother factor is creepy enough on its own, Halpern’s article posits that the more insidious consequence of being profiled by Google is the fact that we are sheltering ourselves from the marketplace of ideas. The Internet is becoming less democratic. Google figures out what you want to hear and it keeps telling you those things. As Halpern suggests,

a search for proof about climate change will turn up different results for an environmental activist than it would for an oil company executive and, one assumes, a different result for a person whom the algorithm understands to be a Democrat than for one it supposes to be a Republican. (One need not declare a party affiliation per se—the algorithm will prise this out.) In this way, the Internet, which isn’t the press, but often functions like the press by disseminating news and information, begins to cut us off from dissenting opinion and conflicting points of view, all the while seeming to be neutral and objective and unencumbered by the kind of bias inherent in, and embraced by, say, the The Weekly Standard or The Nation.

This is scary to me. It is also scary for the American public sphere as a whole, which seems to get more polarized every day. FOX News is proof enough that we can no longer bear to listen to opinions that differ from our own. I think that’s a very dangerous state for any supposedly democratic nation to be in.

I think back to my mom and the free-spirited way in which she gave us kids access to information. She turned me loose in the library as soon as I could read. Unlike most of her conservative, homeschooling peers, she never censored my reading habits. She even taught us about evolution, God forbid! I read everything I could get my hands on. I will always remember my mom’s quiet and humble defense to the other moms who were appalled at what she was letting her innocent daughters read. “If we think we know the truth,” she would say, “why are we so afraid of untruth?”

Her defense is more applicable to those Christians who were afraid that their children would lose faith in God if they saw proof that seven-day creationism wasn’t true. And yet I think I see it in myself today. What am I so afraid of? It is far more fun to read things that tell me what I already believe. But it is better for me, as a thinking, developing human, to encounter some disagreement, some divergent opinions. To understand why, for instance, some people actually and sincerely love Disney World.  I’ll never know unless I start reading.

This is a roundabout and self-important way to tell you that I’m trying to read more nonfiction. Courtney asked me about what nonfiction I was reading lately and I realized that I’d only been reading dog books. It’s time to challenge the brain, AFP. So I just started The Evolution of God, by Robert Wright, in which Wright argues that God has been evolving with the human race and is only getting nicer over time. It’s interesting, for sure. I also write to ask you for nonfiction recommendations to add to my already burgeoning list. Anything important I should read that I also might fundamentally disagree with? And no, Twilight does not count.

Monday Snax

What a busy and full weekend! I got to see my parents twice, take the train to D.C., spend a weekend laughing and making dumplings with Angela, brunch with Eric and Cristina, and see Kelsey all in a matter of two days. Whew! More photos on Flickr.

Dinner with GrandTeats and Juju
Dinner with Mom and Dad in Pantops.
Angela
Grabbed a laidback lunch at Eastern Market with the ever-beautiful Angela.
Eric and Cristina!
And got to lunch with Eric and Cristina at Meridian Pint before going to see their lovely house and my sister.

Brief reflections on D.C.: The city as a whole seemed a lot more neighborly than I thought it would be. Everyone was out on their front stoops hollering at each other. It was great. I loved how everybody so carefully and meticulously cultivates their tiny squares of grass in their front “lawns.” Free museums = totally awesome. Most stressful part of D.C.? DRIVING. I got really anxious every time we had to get in a car. I don’t know how anyone drives in that city. Those roads were not made for cars.  Or people. But the Metro was fun and you can walk just about everywhere, so that makes up for those barbaric streets.

Snax with dumplings made from scratch, which are clearly the best:

So! You Want to Get Married! Ladies, please enjoy this 1947 book for young Catholic women, advising them on how to snare a man and be a perfect wife. My favorite bit of advice? “But if you whine and complain, if you get your ‘feelings hurt,’ you can make him a nervous wreck: when that happens, you will have your hands full. You might have to go out to work to pay for his hospital expenses.” Take this to heart, wives! If you complain, your husbands might get committed to an asylum and then, heaven forbid, you might have to go WORK. (The Hairpin)

On the Desire to Be Well-Read: A Review of The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction. I empathize with the author’s ceaseless inner competition to read more, always be reading more and more and more… (The Millions)

In Which We Take Notes on the Important Parts. I resonated deeply with this author’s childhood self, because it was my childhood self. I was also an obsessive list-maker and I still am. I enjoyed her guesses as to why this might be, why girls like us loved Harriet the Spy. (This Recording)

George Steinmetz Lands in the Lower East Side. Charlottesville’s photo festival gets a shout-out in the New Yorker! These giant, aerial-view photos were so mesmerizing and beautiful–especially when hanging in treetops on the Downtown Mall. (Photo Booth, The New Yorker)

“Between the Folds”: An Origami Documentary. A film about folding paper? Sign me up! No, seriously. I want to watch this. (The Fox Is Black)

The Quiet Film. A thoughtful review of “Meek’s Cutoff,” which Jonathan and I have been reading about from the film critics. (The Curator)

Adult Child, What the Hell Are You Doing at Work? This is exactly what my parents should be asking me. (Postcards from Yo Momma)

Everybody Loves a Baby Dolphin. But nobody loves them as much as I do. (ZooBorns)

Wait for Meeeee. My new favorite Tumblr. (Animals Being Dicks)

Where Every Day Is Caturday. Tashirojima is an island in Japan also known as “Cat Island.” It is entirely overrun with feral cats. As one can expect, it is also unbearably cute. (Cute Overload)

Week 11: Wear a dress every day

In honor of my sister Grace, I am imposing a set of weekly challenges on myself. For 12 weeks, I will attempt a different “challenge” each week–to do one thing every day for seven days, ranging from serious to silly. At the end of each week, I’ll let you know how it goes.

I have always loved dresses. My mom says that when I was tiny and she’d try to dress me in pants or shorts, I’d pitch a fit, tear them off, and insist on wearing a dress, like any proper lady. I love dresses. I have amassed a decent collection of them over the years. During my senior year of college, I recruited about a dozen friends to join me in a “No-Pants April” challenge, during which we only wore dresses or skirts for the month of April. This weekly challenge is a natural step down from that, but wearing a dress every day has felt like the proper celebration of spring. And a proper motivator to start shaving my legs again…

DAY 1.

Dress from: Target

This is a great dress for work. It’s breezy and a bit unusual, too.

DAY 2.

Dress from: Target

Not super-exciting, but very soft. Goes with almost every cardigan I own, too.

DAY 3.

Dress from: Banana Republic

This is one of my favorite dresses, even though it is worn out. The hem has fallen out and the stitching around the sleeves is also coming undone. I started holding it together with tape, Liz Lemon-style. Mainly because I am too lazy/unskilled to sew it properly. I should just throw it away, but I love it too much.

DAY 4.

Dress from: Gap

This is my quintessential summer dress. It’d also be a great pregnancy dress. Stretchy like no one’s business. And it has pockets!

DAY 5.

Dress from: Target

This mini-dress will always remind me of our honeymoon.

DAY 6.

Dress from: Target

OK, FINE. This should just be called “Week of Target Dresses.” I can’t help it! They’re cheap and usually cute! I bought this one for my birthday. It’s summer-sexy-casual.

DAY 7.

Dress from: Anthropologie

Happy Easter! This is one of my all-time favorite dresses. My mom bought it for my birthday three or four years ago and I still love it. This photo really does not do it justice.

Next week, ladies and gents, will be the last week of my 12 weeks of challenges! Hard to believe! I’m going to be taking a walk around town every day. And it will be great. Especially if a certain Golden Retriever will accompany me…

Week 10: Playing the guitar

In honor of my sister Grace, I am imposing a set of weekly challenges on myself. For 12 weeks, I will attempt a different “challenge” each week–to do one thing every day for seven days, ranging from serious to silly. At the end of each week, I’ll let you know how it goes.

I learned how to play the guitar shortly after my father did. I was about 14 and the guitar was one of his new obsessions. He bought a number of guitars to learn on but really splurged on a beautiful (and surprisingly great-sounding) Ibanez acoustic. This, more or less, became my guitar and my emblem of my Teenage Years. We learned that guitar lessons were probably not worth it and it was just as easy to teach yourself chords as it was to watch a really fat man play them. As my knowledge progressed, the guitar became my constant companion. I started playing in the worship band at my church youth group. I would squirrel myself away in my bedroom until the wee hours of the night, playing guitar, figuring out new chords, trying to write super-dramatic songs. I mean, what’s more “teenage” than that?

I brought my guitar with me when I came to college and continued to play it throughout my freshman year. It was also a great source of solace during my sophomore year, which is like the Middle School year for college students (confusing, depressing, awkward).

But then, one night late in my sophomore year, I met this boy named Guion. He visited me in my room and picked up my guitar and started to play it. I was stunned. “I… never had any idea it could sound like that,” I stammered. This kid was a genius. And I suddenly felt very inadequate about my pseudo-musical abilities. We started dating and I started getting involved in other things, like internships and writing. My once beloved guitar gathered a lot of dust in my dorm room closet.

As a disclaimer, this should not sound like Guion is somehow at fault or responsible for my abandonment of my guitar. Rather, it should be seen as a criticism of my own lack of self-esteem. There’s always going to be someone out there who is better than one at any given skill. This does not mean, however, that one should abandon said skill. I wish someone (i.e., myself) had told me that in college. But I had moved onto other things. When I started my senior year, I left my guitar at home and effectively bequeathed it to my little brother (who has, let it be known, now surpassed me in my musical abilities).

Guion has always encouraged me to play the guitar; he hates that I gave it up. But as the years passed and my calluses disappeared, I was too discouraged to pick it up again. After all, I’d forgotten practically everything I had known. So, this week’s challenge was a return to the past, to my former self, and to the guitar. I am still grossly self-conscious about it and I can’t strum to save my life, but it’s coming back gradually. As I type this, the tips of my left-hand fingers sting a little bit. And that’s a good sign.

Unlike some of my other challenges, I hope to keep this week’s challenge incorporated into my day-to-day life. I won’t presume to ever play in front of anyone, but I was never trying to be a musician anyway. Rather, I liked having this therapeutic channel that was wholly separate from reading or writing. It would be nice to have that again.

Next week, I will be wearing a dress every day. Here’s to hoping for warm, spring-like weather!