Pen Pals

“Letter writing is the only device for combining solitude with good company.”
~Lord Byron

I hadn’t thought of her in years. I can’t even remember her name. A distant memory of her was jogged when I read an article yesterday in the newspaper about two schools, a Catholic school for girls, and a Muslim school for girls. The wise adults, teachers, had had the brilliant, good sense to connect some of the girls as ‘pen pals’. Pen pals!  By email these young girls had been linked through the power of words and keyboards and the back and forth of language that moves slowly enough to allow thoughtful, gentle questions and answers, and the art of waiting for response.  And stories, I am sure, for what would pen pals be without sharing the stories of their lives?

When I was in sixth grade, I acquired a pen pal. I don’t remember which wise adult caused this to happen. Because I can’t remember her name, I will call her Elizabeth(which may be right). Though I can’t fully remember her name, I can however conjure up a grainy, image from black and white photos we sent back and forth several times. Elizabeth was special because she agreed to write to me. And she was special because she lived in the land of John, Paul, George and Ringo…England. She became a real-live connection with the land of the objects of my devotion and the recipients of all my allowance, the Beatles. Elizabeth and I wrote about what was happening in school, our families, our friends, what magazines we read, which Beatles songs we were crazy about at the time. It was the give and take of young girls’  letter writing. Writing to her introduced me to those tissue paper, blue, ‘air-mail’ foldable letter and envelope combinations. Walking to the post office in my small town and purchasing these seemingly exotic items meant for places I had never been but longed to go, fueled my desire to see the world, to know people whose lives were different than my own. It planted something in me that continues to this day.

In the newspaper, there is a picture of some of the girls from these two schools meeting for the first time. Their youthful, beautiful faces are full of excitement and expectation to meet the one whose words had passed between them. While their school uniforms could have marked their differences, the photos shone forth their faces full of welcome and recognition…and joy. What may have seemed difference was overshadowed by delight. I was excited for them and what they might be learning from one another. I thought of the seeds of understanding and hope that may have been passing between them. And I thought of how they were probably sharing the normal things girls that age share, just like my pen pal and I did those years ago.

Letter writing may have become a lost art. Some might say so. But the teachers in these two schools knew something and they acted on it. They knew that when people put words on paper, or a screen, and send them to one another, they become linked in significant ways. Their words become the invisible lines of connection where understanding and compassion can be built. Their words can become the world-expanding stage that catapults people to travel to places they never dreamed, to learn of ways of being in the world they never imagined. Their words can be the seeds of peace the world longs for and desperately needs.

Did you ever have a pen pal? When was the last time you wrote a letter? When was the last time you received one? I am thankful to have thought of ‘Elizabeth’ who was once my pen pal…across an ocean I dreamed of crossing…whose life helped opened me to the beauty of the world I longed to see and experience.

Maybe it is time for another pen pal.

What Matters

Sometimes we need a wake up call…a moment when it becomes clear what matters, what is true, what binds us together as humans. In all the ways our last days and months have floated along the surface of roiling waters, words and pronouncements flying toward us so furiously that we are in a constant state of upheaval and confusion, it is so good to have at least a moment of reminding. Here. Look at this. Stay focused on that. Breathe. Deeply.

I had just such a moment on Saturday morning. It was a moment that extended into several minutes and held me in the rest of the way the day unfolded. I made my first trip of the year to the St. Paul Farmers Market. The colder, wetter weather and some weekend commitments had prevented it until Saturday. Parking a distance away, I began to see people, bags empty, walking in metered anticipation toward the rows of trucks and tables lining the street. There was a lightness in their step fueled by the Sun’s warm and glorious rays and the sweet smell of trees blooming along the boulevard.

Arriving at the market itself, I stopped and allowed the sights of both merchants and buyers moving to and fro to wash over me. I looked for the familiar…there were the ‘chicken sisters’, as I think of them, selling their organic eggs and various forms of popular poultry. There was the dear one named ‘Joy’ who sells gently used quilts, rag rugs and clothing, throwing her head back in the laughter that mirrors her name. There was the Hmong farmer whose lined and lovely face and dancing eyes always looks you square on as he hands you the veggies in season for that week. And standing near by, the maple syrup maker in his signature bib-overalls looking like an ad luring Scandinavians who might think of moving to Minnesota, beamed his seemingly ever-present smile. Ahh…yes. All this. Steady. Constant. True.

Walking among the rows of tables filled with early produce…rhubarb, asparagus, radishes…and other veggies that have been grown in greenhouses, I felt my shoulders relax and my breathing deepen. It was a walking meditation of sorts. I caught the eye of certain farmers filled with the hope and promise of what is yet to be in this early season. I watched as vendor and customer greeted one another with hugs of recognition happy to see that both had survived yet another winter. They had easily fallen into another season and it was unfolding for my very eyes. Periodically, I stopped and drank in the color of flowers destined for decks and yards and porches. An awesome array of brilliance and bounty! Children gawked from strollers as their adults traded money for the sugary donut treat of a Saturday morning.

“What a wonderful world!”, I thought. And how easily I forget and believe only in the steady stream of the negative always in abundant supply. Yet, here it was. So much of what is right, of what matters, was shining everywhere around me like fireworks after a 4th of July picnic. The promise of seed teamed with soil and sun, water and hard work sparkled…food full of sacrifice and lusciousness. Gifts of Creation and Creator.  People connecting, hands clasping, arms reaching out, sharing what people need to fuel body and soul. The simplicity of humanity coming together in the beauty of a spring morning, being present to one another and the gift of the day. All the arguments, harsh words, threats and fears, real or imagined, paled in the magnitude of this scene, this experience. Confronted with much of what really matters, the preoccupation with the tight-fisted nature of the past week seemed a waste of precious energy, precious life.

Headed back to my car, my bag full of beautiful food and my heart full of hope, I thought of Mary Oliver’s “Instructions for Living a Life:  Pay attention. Be astonished. Tell about it.” It seemed to make so much more sense than anything I had heard all week.

I am glad I allowed myself the gift of paying attention. I am humbled by the astonishment. And I am privileged to tell about it.