Real love letters: My mom’s 20+ years of writing to her kids

We recently learned of a Canadian holiday called Family Day, celebrated in many provinces on the third Monday in February. We second the notion that recognizing the importance of family is, well, important, and are pleased to pay homage this week to clans large and small, given and chosen, with Family Week on Idealists in Action.

My mom is an ever-loving maverick.

Septuagenarian bicyclist, landlord of historic homes, singer in the choirs of churches she’s not a member of… The lady has always rocked life with gusto and generosity, and very much to her own beat.

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Me and Mom in Colorado in 2013

This could not be better illustrated than by the over 20 years of letters she’s faithfully written to me and my older brother.

The story goes like this:

My bro went away to college in 1992, and our mom started writing him a letter each week to keep in touch. A single-spaced, front-and-back letter, type-written on a typewriter. (To preempt the question that often comes next: yes the typewriter is electric, but Mom has actually never liked it and would prefer to go back to the even older days of manual!) When I moved cities to start college six years later, she began copying me on the weekly letter—yes, with carbon paper—and mailing a copy to each of us.

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A sampling of letters from throughout the years (all begun with “Hi Miss”—my mom’s salutation for me)

Sometimes the letters are embellished by hand-written notes in the margins, the odd enclosure (newspaper clippings of interest; a piece of fruit leather), or stickers and doodles on the back of the envelope.

The content of the missives, too, is always up for grabs. A weekly edition is never without whatever family news Mom has recently generated or become privy to, but additional discussion topics range from current events to timeless philosophical quandaries to the insight her book club buddy had at last week’s meetup.

I couldn’t commit to combing all 780 letters I have squirreled away in various files and folders in time to write this post, but even a random sampling through the troves turned up gems like this:

RE: The water restrictions placed on Colorado residents during times of drought: “Can only water lawns twice a week now for three hours each. HELP!!! How will this place look without that green carpet? The grass helps hold in moisture for the trees, too, don’t forget. I say: flush your toilets less! Shower less before sacrificing our lawns!” —August 19, 2002

RE: My brother, just before his marriage: “You are a powerful person and have the ability to do wonderful things for your new family. I’m thrilled that you have taken on this responsibility. Though I do have to say that the two of you seem awfully serious to me; Dad and I were far more playful. But your situation is sooooo different, as are the times. I just hope you’ll play together, too. Play is so important.” —May 9, 2004

RE: This and that? “Bonjour! Ah, that word brings back 8th grade memories and a wonderful French teacher. I still remember several French words which come in handy for crossword puzzles. Say, what would you think of a seven-foot guy who makes his living dealing with bail bondsmen, insurance frauders, vehicle stealers and more—living in our backyard cottage? Pretty colorful, you’d say? Even exciting?? He doesn’t like people to know where he lives (of course), and think of the added security we’d feel with him here!” —January 19, 2014

People often have a hard time believing me when I tell them about my mom’s letters. As a younger person, her practice didn’t seem out of the ordinary, but of course as I’ve gotten older, the unusual factors that combined to birth and maintain such a habit have risen to my consciousness: my mom’s great dislike of the telephone and (subsequently) the Internet; her unbending commitment to staying in touch with her far-flung kids—without breathing down our necks; and her drive to write 1,000 words a week—meaningfully and entertainingly—while claiming to be a terrible writer.

Mom’s letters have kept a quiet but enduring lifeline between us, undisturbed by time or space. They’ve allowed me insights into her history and personality that I doubt would have been revealed during phone chats or over email. They’ve certainly given me something to look forward to in my mailbox each and every Thursday—a particularly happy thought during weeks when I’ve been fired, dumped, or sick. Whatever’s been happening, Semper Fi: the letter will always be there.

Of all the reasons to laud these weekly missives, the one I’ve had on my mind the most lately is how grateful they remind me to be of my singular mama. She’s about to be 71 and in kicking-good shape, so I hope to have a couple more decades of letters coming to me. But even if her last letter was the last ever, I’d be set for life with all she’s committed so far.

Mom, if I ever have kids, they’re getting a weekly letter, too. Hopefully snail mail will still be around.

Which of your family’s traditions blows your mind? Share with us in the comments.

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Do you like to spread good ideas? Do you like connecting dots and people? Join Idealist on March 11 as we launch a new global movement for action and change!

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Do we miscast rural communities as places to leave behind?

Rural communities are often portrayed in the media as unfortunate starting places—restrictive, provincial hometowns that promising individuals must escape in order to reach their full potential.

But possibility and wealth of different kinds can be found outside big, prosperous cities. Read how one Guyanese woman saw great potential in a tiny community in eastern Ethiopia.

This post written by Grace Aneiza Ali originally appeared on OF NOTE, an online magazine focused on global artists who use the arts as catalysts for social change. 

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School girl from Harrare, Ethiopia.
(photo courtesy Grace Aneiza Ali)

There are no paved roads directly to Chaffe Jenetta—a small Muslim coffee farming community nestled in the remote terrains of Harrar in eastern Ethiopia. Telephone lines and electric wires are rare in these parts. Women are immersed in their day—fetching water, gathering wood and sticks to stoke fires, and cooking for their families.

Among their company, lush mountains and endless blue sky, I felt at home.

It was 2010 and my first time in Ethiopia, in fact my first trip to Africa. I had learned from growing up in Guyana and from a year traveling throughout India that there was no preparing for the rural countryside. You simply show up and let the land lead. So, I embraced Ethiopia with the same deference.

The journey to Harrar had started in New York City where I live. I was invited to travel with the staff and board members of The Abyssinian Fund, an NGO with a home-base in Harlem, New York, that works with coffee planters in Ethiopia’s rural villages like Chaffe Jenetta, helping them to grow better coffee, earn higher incomes, and improve social services with clinics, schools, and access to clean water.

While members of our group toured the village, I spent most of my time with the school children. One little girl in particular, about nine or ten years old, caught my attention—simply because of the way she clutched her notebooks. I asked for her name, but either she was too shy to tell me or didn’t understand my question. I pointed to her books and asked if I could look at them.

Her notes, written in Oromo, the local language of Chaffe Jenetta, filled up every usable blank space. Her handwriting was in the margins, on the inside and outside of the covers, written horizontally and vertically.

I recalled my own primary school days in Guyana when notebooks and paper were a luxury. Instead, we had hand-held chalkboards and little bits of chalk. It was cheaper, but it meant everything that was written had to be erased. So I would gather sheets of paper wherever I could find them and glue or sew them together to make books.

It was within those pages that I could invent the life I wanted. I wanted to be a writer.

Like that little girl at my side in Chaffe Jenetta, I left no free space unmarked in my hand-made books. I too wrote in the margins, within the covers, and sideways. As I turned the pages of her book, I wondered if this was where the stories of Chaffe Jenetta were being kept. Were they scribbled within the margins? Were they tucked in between the covers?

One of the Ethiopian guides that accompanied our group had remarked, “These are the forgotten people.” He had never been this deep into the mountains of Harrar and was visibly moved by the agrarian way of life in Chaffe Jenetta.

Perhaps what he was witnessing made him feel as a foreigner in his own land.

But as I stood there looking through this little girl’s notebooks, nothing about her seemed forgotten to me. There was a boldness about her. There was a joyfulness about her. What I saw was a young girl thriving amidst her circumstances.

I’ve found this to be universal from Harrar to Harlem—people thriving amidst contradictions, thriving in the messiness of life, thriving in the tragedies, thriving in the challenges, the hurts and the disappointments.

Notebooks may seem trivial when compared to the serious needs in Chaffe Jenetta like clean water, clinics, and paved roads. But they represent the freedom to dream, to create, and to imagine a future for oneself.

For that little girl, her future begins within the pages of her notebook—just like my dreams began for me. It was clear by the way she clung to her books, their pale blue covers tattered and torn, that what was written in them was of value. They were sacred to her.

Far too often the narratives about women and girls in rural communities whether they be in Asia, or Africa, or South America, are centered on an urgent call for them to look past the proverbial courtyard, to aim for a life beyond the confines of the village, to shed the veil. And we tell them that not doing so would render them invisible, marginalized, or trapped.

We’re wrong.

Chaffe Jenetta is not another nameless village in another ubiquitous story of poverty in Africa. It is a challenging but wealthy place—albeit not material wealth. It is not a place to flee from, but one to be nurtured and supported.

The little girl I met could one day turn out to be a powerful voice for Ethiopia. She might become a writer herself, sharing with the world its multiple stories. And to do so, perhaps she will find herself returning to those very notebooks.

GRACEGrace Aneiza Ali is the founder and editorial director of OF NOTE. She’s also an Adjunct Professor of Literature for the City University of New York, a World Economic Forum Global Shaper, and a Fulbright Scholar. She currently hosts the Visually Speaking series at the Schomburg Center, which examines the state of photojournalism through the lens of contemporary photographers and image-makers. Grace was born in Guyana and immigrated to the United States when she was fourteen years old. Guyana continues to inform and influence her worldview.

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The world is a blank page. What will you write?

Today’s inspiration: author, professor, and filmmaker MK Asante.

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photo via facebook.com/asantemk

I recently saw MK Asante speak at Wordstock, a writing festival here in Portland, OR. He was reading from his memoir Buck, which tells the tale of a Philly kid gone wild only to get back on track when he picks up a pen to write.

He’s got a ferocious energy and spitfire charm that’s irresistible, and lots of great things to say about making things happen the way you want them to. Take this excerpt from Buck:

The entrepreneur sees the world as the writer sees the blank page—as a chance. The game changes, but the hustle stays the same.

When you look at your blank page, what do you see?

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Are you your biggest obstacle? How an Idealist got over her fear of blogging for social change

Guest blogger Stefanie Muldrow shares her journey of overcoming fear to begin blogging for social good.

“Just do it.”

I stared at my wedding photographer from across our sticky cafe table. She repeated herself: “Just–,” she paused, “do it.” A quick meeting to discuss contract details had become a heart-to-heart as Emily described using her savings after college graduation to pursue her dream and start a photography business.

I admired her for this boldness and confessed that since college I’d been dreaming of starting a blog that promotes social good and community engagement but I had never managed to begin. Her response of “Just do it” addressed the fears I’d been grappling with in three quick, convicted words. That evening, I signed up for a website and began—finally.

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Adapted from a photo by Flickr user Divine Harvester (Creative Commons).

I have always loved to volunteer but it was not until after a service trip to rural Honduras my senior year that I decided to make a bigger commitment to the greater good. Volunteering at a school and an orphanage there, I came face-to-face with poverty and tragedy. But I was also surrounded by hope from the community in spite of it all. Our final day as I departed down the dusty, dirt road to the airport I knew I wanted to be part of that hope somehow.

That feeling only intensified after I graduated a few months later. I searched for a way to use my skill—writing—to inspire hope. I settled on a blog as the medium for this. By writing I felt I could raise awareness about the causes I felt strongly about—education, poverty, and youth issues—and also give visibility to those who are doing things, big and small, to improve the world.

But as I developed the idea in my head, I began to doubt myself: When would I find time? Am I qualified? What if it’s terrible and I fail miserably? Would I even make a difference? It took three bold words from a near stranger two years after the trip to silence my fears. Now that my blog is up and running, I find it so fulfilling and I wish I’d began much earlier.

What I’ve learned along the way

1. The closest thing to the “perfect time” to start is now.
You will make time if it’s something you feel strongly about. One of my largest obstacles was waiting for the “right time” to begin. “Summer break” became “after I graduate from college” which became “when I find a job.” Soon I realized that if I wanted to start before I retired it was now or never. When I finally began blogging I could not wait to get home from work and start on material for the next post.

2. Passion will fill in gaps in expertise.
I wanted my blog to address a variety of issues but I was not an expert; all I had was volunteer experience and a fire for a number of causes. However, when research for a post would lead me to an interesting and unfamiliar concept or movement, I would fervently investigate it. I believe that my passion to make a difference was (and still is) the force behind my thirst for knowledge.

3. Take yourself seriously (and others will too).
The first few months of setting up my blog I kept it a secret. I worked hard on posts that no one even read. It took time for me to realize that if I wanted to make a difference I was the first one that needed to believe that my efforts to make a difference were worth supporting. I started letting my friends, family and coworkers know about what I was trying to achieve. Now they are my best scouts for new post ideas.

4. You are not alone.
After creating a Twitter account for my blog, I learned that there were many others like me who were using similar websites to make a difference. I have had more success networking on Twitter than I have had at all of my college’s career center networking events combined. As soon as you can, find and connect with people who share a common goal. Their support will help you remember that your efforts are part of something bigger and will give you vitality when the going gets tough.

So you have an idea? Great! Don’t let your fear control you for another second. Just do it.

stefanie bio pic resizedStefanie is a Washington, D.C. -based writer passionate about encouraging others to start making a difference. At her blog, The Silver Lining Chronicles, she writes about community engagement, social good and philanthropy. When she’s not writing, she enjoys volunteering, gardening, and photography. Follow Stefanie on Twitter @_BeyondtheCloud.

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Ask Ero: Answers for confused and baffled Idealists

Ero is Thoughtful Adjusted Cropped3In this series of blog posts, I’ll try to answer all your questions (regardless of how ridiculously unqualified I am to answer them.) Consider me sort of a tech-literate, bearded, Ann Landers, or a work-safe Dan Savage.

In the last installment of this series, I answered questions about Google Voice, finding a career path in an unusual field, and the meaning of life. How were my answers? I hope you’ll tell me. Now, on with the questions!

I am writing you from the library of a renowned university, and I have cried my eyes out. I am a doctoral student, and need to know how I can cut five thousand words from a proposed chapter for publication, while still adding more information. Is there a trick to radical editing? St. Hildegard said one should lick sapphires to clear a dull mind. I’ve done this with the ring that my husband gave me for our tenth anniversary, and it did help me cut another 300 words. But I can’t keep licking sapphires from now until my deadline. Or can I?
-Your Friend Flora

Editing is much harder than writing! I think you have what’s known in the writing world as “too many ideas.” Whether you’re writing a chapter like yourself, a grant proposal, or a Kickstarter plea, what a beautiful problem to have.

The unfortunate truth is that what’s really important in writing is the ideas themselves, not how they’re expressed. Being understood often means using as few words as possible. Your goal here is the simplicity and austerity of a children’s storybook.

It’s never easy. But you can try to take a sadistic pleasure in destroying your own beautiful words. Repeat to yourself: “The more I delete, the better writer I am.” All those pretty metaphors, all those decorative phrases and moving examples and colorful asides are going to have to go. All of them.

Keep an untouched copy of your text so that you don’t have to feel like you’re losing everything. Then, in your new copy, be absolutely brutal. Reduce a paragraph to a sentence. Then another. Then another. Before you know it you’ll be left with ugly, bare, bony sentences that say nothing except tiny little ideas. This is your best writing.

You’ll have created something rare and perfect and you’ll be glad for all the struggle that got you there. I hope your ring will still be okay.

l have some substantial ideas for solving this healthcare crisis, and it does not involve ObamaCare. How should I try to promote it? It involves attempting to save Medicare and Social Security, for future generations, so I thought some might be interested in looking at the proposals.
-Jamesmmm

Hi Jamesmmm! I’m glad you have substantial ideas. Ideas are important and powerful, and they’re how we start to change the world. (You can’t make an idea-list without them). There are a lot of great ways to share your ideas with others: you might, for instance, attend a Sunday Soup Potluck. Or an Ignite event. You might even find someone who’s an idea collector!

Now, the healthcare crisis is complicated, and a lot of very smart people have worked on it over the decades. You also mention Medicare and Social Security, which are big, complex institutions that aren’t much like each other. So your ideas must be pretty powerful.

What we really love at Idealist is people who take good ideas, and make them real, by finding ways to take action. Otherwise ideas aren’t worth very much, and you may as well just write blog posts, like me.

If you want to really make a difference, do things. There are 446 volunteer opportunities listed on Idealist.org right now that involve healthcare. Maybe you’re an expert in government planning, or maybe you’re a financial wizard who understands long-term budgeting. There are plenty of financial planners, economists, and budget experts needed in this world, and our site is full of organizations that need your help!

So please, make your ideas real, and take action to help people in your community. If you’ll do it, so will I; and we can start making this world a little better.

Top 5 albums you’d prefer to be stranded with (with a listening device)?
-Christina

How’d you know I’m a fanatical music listener? Well, I don’t really believe that one person’s recommendations are better than any other’s. Music is one of the best ways to make sense of the world, and so it’s very specific to who each of us are and what we need.

This list totally misses all sorts of other things I love, but if I was really going to be stuck listening to only five albums, these would certainly do the trick:

  • Midnight, by Pandit Pran Nath. An amazingly rich document of Hindustani classical vocal. Listening to this album is like praying.
  • Bach Cello Suites, by Pablo Casals. Much of the beauty of European classical music is here; a belief in a divine order, in mathematics. But it’s balanced against the rustic, almost earthy, sound of the cello, and there’s repetition and sequential iteration that reminds me of raga.
  • Daydream Nation, by Sonic Youth. Noisy and punk-rock artsy and intellectual.
  • Screamin’ and Hollerin’ the Blues, by Charlie Patton. The foundation of Mississippi blues, and thus: rock and roll, jazz, blues, R&B, funk, and, well, most everything else afterward. And impossibly beautiful.
  • Monk’s Dream, by Thelonious Monk. This was one of the first albums I ever bought, and that crackly record, with its strange rhythms and inexplicably haunting chords, still sounds like everything I could ever hope for from good music.

That’s all for this installment. Have questions about anything I’ve said? Or about anything else (and I do mean anything)? Ask me.


Ask Ero anything (anything anything anything) at ero@idealist.org.

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