I have conducted many of the most significant relationships in my life almost entirely by telephone. With so many miles of ocean or freeway stretching between us, it is often easier to continue the conversation from the comfort of our own homes. There is something to talk about even when there is nothing to talk about. Before Skype and Facebook, I treasured long-distance phone calls with my mother, usually during the weekend when we could be less circumspect about the time difference and the cost per minute. There used to be sporadic phone calls from childhood friends, the rhythm of home so achingly familiar we would fall softly into conversation, easily picking up where we left off years ago.
By telephone, I have delivered and received the most important news of my life. from that which cannot be shared quickly enough: “I got the job!” “We’re getting married!” “I’m going to have a baby!” “It’s a girl!” to the kind that startles the silence too early in the morning or too late at night to be anything good. From a village in Wales, my oldest friend calling to tell me her husband had been killed in a car accident: “My darling is gone! My darling is gone! Gone!” From me in a hospital parking lot to my best friend, who, fingers crossed for “benign,” answers before the end of the first ring, only to hear, “I have cancer.” Two years later, I wait on the other end of the line on one continent while she on another, enters my home and calls my husband’s name once, twice, and after the third time, “He’s passed away! He’s passed away! Oh, he’s so cold. I’m so sorry.”
Thus, two people are connected in an ephemeral silence that leaves each with nothing to hold on to.
Nothing but the distance between them.
Writing a letter is different, giving us time to shape our tidings with the very best words we have, but in spite of my best efforts, the letter-writing of my youth has fallen out of favor, snuffed out by e-mails and text messages, that regardless of font and typeface ( or supplemental emoticon) are just not the same.
How I miss walking out to the mailbox and opening it to find a red, white and blue trimmed letter that was its own envelope, light as onion-skin, marked By Air Mail – Par Avion. I have saved all my letters and will likely always keep them – to read and reread, because they are immortal reminders of people and places I treasure.
In part, it is this sentiment that is behind the Letters of Note website, a veritable homage to the craft of letter-writing. Editor, Shaun Usher, has painstakingly collected and transcribed letters, memos, and telegrams that “deserve a wider audience.” I remember telegrams at wedding receptions in Northern Ireland. They arrived from America and other places to be read by the Best Man. Naturally, when I ordered the book that grew from the website, I opted for the collectible first edition because it was accompanied by an old-fashioned telegram.
Considering telegrams and old letters, and the heart laid bare on stationery this Valentine’s Day, I am reading again the letter of fatherly advice from author John Steinbeck to his then 14-year-old son Thomas, at the time away at boarding school and smitten by a young girl, Susan. There is both heart and craft in it, and the reminder we all need – ‘nothing good gets away.’
Steinbeck’s letter below can be found in the bestselling book, Letters of Note.
November 10, 1958
We had your letter this morning. I will answer it from my point of view and of course Elaine will from hers.
First—if you are in love—that’s a good thing—that’s about the best thing that can happen to anyone. Don’t let anyone make it small or light to you.
Second—There are several kinds of love. One is a selfish, mean, grasping, egotistical thing which uses love for self-importance. This is the ugly and crippling kind. The other is an outpouring of everything good in you—of kindness and consideration and respect—not only the social respect of manners but the greater respect which is recognition of another person as unique and valuable. The first kind can make you sick and small and weak but the second can release in you strength, and courage and goodness and even wisdom you didn’t know you had.
You say this is not puppy love. If you feel so deeply—of course it isn’t puppy love.
But I don’t think you were asking me what you feel. You know better than anyone. What you wanted me to help you with is what to do about it—and that I can tell you.
Glory in it for one thing and be very glad and grateful for it.
The object of love is the best and most beautiful. Try to live up to it.
If you love someone—there is no possible harm in saying so—only you must remember that some people are very shy and sometimes the saying must take that shyness into consideration.
Girls have a way of knowing or feeling what you feel, but they usually like to hear it also.
It sometimes happens that what you feel is not returned for one reason or another—but that does not make your feeling less valuable and good.
Lastly, I know your feeling because I have it and I’m glad you have it.
We will be glad to meet Susan. She will be very welcome. But Elaine will make all such arrangements because that is her province and she will be very glad to. She knows about love too and maybe she can give you more help than I can.
And don’t worry about losing. If it is right, it happens—The main thing is not to hurry. Nothing good gets away.
“If it isn’t too forward, would you like to meet?”
Why not? Why not meet the tall stranger who says he’s slender and likes Bob Dylan and will open doors for me? Why not?
Between the time I met my husband and the time he died twenty four years later, the search for romance and Mr. Right had moved online, a perfect place for me to spend time, my dearest friends urged. It would be fun, they said, a way for me to reintroduce myself to the world as the single woman I used to be in the days before smart phones and texting and instant gratification. Online, I could be equal parts brainy and breezy, hiding behind pictures that only show my good side and dodging questions with cryptic clues about what I did for a living and the kind of man who might be the right kind for me. In a flurry of box-checking, I could filter out men who didn’t like my politics, my hair, or my taste in music and who didn’t care if I was as comfortable in jeans as a little black dress but did care about when and how to use ‘you,’ ‘you’re’ and ‘your.’ I could be Meg Ryan’s Kathleen Kelly in “You’ve Got Mail,” instead of her Sally who had met Harry a decade earlier, around the time I immigrated to the United States. Yes, my next chapter could be the stuff of a Nora Ephron rom-com.
Sally was an extension of Nora Ephron – single-minded with a certain way of ordering a sandwich exactly the way it needed to be for her. I understand this particular idiosyncrasy and over the years have even hired waiters and waitresses to atone for the aggravation I have caused them. Now most people will remember her in the throes of a spectacular fake orgasm in Katz’s Deli, but for me, Sally shines brightest in a scene that snaps me back to the woman I used to be, the one who still shows up to remind me how little time I have to become who I am supposed to be. Life, she asserts, is what happens in between the beginnings and the endings – in the middle and in the twinkling of an eye. It is also for the living. She’s right. Of course she’s right.
When she realizes she’s “gonna be 40 . . . someday,” Sally is barely thirty and sporting a sassy hair cut that in 1989 should have worked with my natural curls. It gives me no pride to tell you that I subsequently carried in my wallet, for several years – maybe a decade – a page from a glossy magazine that featured Ms. Ryan’s many haircuts. For countless hairdressers rendered clueless and incompetent by the state of my hair, I unfolded that page as though it were the Shroud of Turin, while I beseeched them to grant me a Meg Ryan haircut. Not until I turned 50 and found Topher, did they ever get it quite right, but that is a story that has been told here before and one that does not belong in an online dating profile – unless Nora Ephron is writing it.
I remember when 40 used to be an eternity away from 20. By all accounts, forty was the deadline for letting oneself go. 50 was sensible and dowdy. 60 heralded blue rinses – for hair not jeans. 70 was out of the question – definitely not a new 50. And now I’m gonna be 60 . . . one day. And what do I know? Well, I have accepted a couple of what we’ll call “alternative facts” about myself. Some are minor – I don’t have sensible hair, and I spend a fortune coloring it and trying to tame it. Fonts matter in ways they shouldn’t – if I don’t like the lettering on a store sign, I won’t shop there, and Comic Sans on homework assignments forces me to question the teacher’s judgement. Even though I recently found out that it’s bad for the car, I only buy gas after the ’empty’ light comes on. I can finally go on record and confess that I don’t like Les Miserables, and I even fell asleep during a performance of the musical version. Opera doesn’t do it for me either, and I only went to the ballet once because all the other mothers were taking their daughters to see “The Nutcracker” for Christmas. I resent the aging process and the way it sneaks up on me at the most inopportune times. There was a time when, without glasses, I could read the small print on the back of a shampoo bottle (in French and English); now, I spend less time reading than I do searching for one of the pairs of cheap reading glasses I bought at the carwash or found on a desk, forgotten by some other woman in the same predicament. My hearing isn’t what it used to be either, which I would rather blame on my attendance at concerts over the past forty years than on something as graceless as aging. My memory is unreliable too. I can tell you what I wore and with which handbag on June 5th 1984, but not where I’m supposed to be tomorrow evening. If Mr. Right cares about punctuality, he should probably know I have a stellar capacity for getting lost. Although, with factory-installed GPS navigation systems de rigeur and knowing there is most certainly an app for that, I am much better at finding my way around the greater Phoenix metropolitan area. To be fair, if I have been somewhere at least eight times, I can get there without much assistance, but until such times, I lean on Google maps, Siri, my daughter reading directions from the phone that is smarter than both of us, and those friends and colleagues who consistently “bring me in” by phone from my destination – where they are already waiting.
Other truths are more painful. I almost learned from my ordeal with breast cancer to be kinder and more patient. My teenage daughter will attest that I have yet to reach a level of proficiency in either area. The circumstances around my husband’s death shattered my sense of certainty and made me cautious. The result? A guardedness reminiscent of a temperamental garage door.
But who would want to read any of this in an online dating profile? It’s much safer – and easier – to sparkle and enchant as you would on your resume – except you have to be cuter without clichés or divulging your home address. You also have to accept that it is going to be awkward especially if the last time you were ‘out there’ was 1989 and when you met a man at a bar, you did not already know his political persuasion or his favorite movie, how much he earned or if he had a tattoo. You wouldn’t know his deal-breakers. He would buy you a drink, ask for your number, call a day – or maybe two – later, take you to the movies the next weekend, and over time – real time – you would build the scaffolding necessary to weather every storm in a teacup.
Awkwardly, I built a profile. I checked the boxes, being scrupulously truthful about my age, politics, and marital status while taking some liberties with other details like hair color and the frequency of my visits to the gym. This was resume writing, right? My best friend reminded me I have an unparalleled expertise in ambiguity which reminded me not to give too much away. Emboldened, I provided ambiguous and annoying responses to the simplest questions: Favorite thing? The right word at the right time. Perfect date? Anywhere where there’s laughter. Hobbies? Binge-watching Netflix originals.You get the idea, and you’ll therefore understand why I abandoned the idea of online dating – or it abandoned me.
About a year later, after a period of offline dating which left me thinking my remaining days would be better spent alone, my best friend told me to take one more field trip online. Obediently, I touched up my profile, uploaded a recent picture in which I’m wearing my favorite green shirt, and waited to see what would happen while also weighing the benefits of spending my golden years in a convent.
“If it isn’t too forward, would you like to meet?”
I took a chance.
I. Took. A. Chance.
Ignoring the raised eyebrows and the sage advice from online dating sites who would deem his boldness a red flag, I broke protocol. Without any protracted emailing phase, I agreed to meet the tall and forward stranger the next afternoon. A quick study, I had filed away the important bits – he was a liberal, a non-smoker, and a music-loving musician who was divorced and had a little girl. I dismissed the interest in football (the American kind, for God’s sake) and golf (eye-roll), hoped he meant it when he checked ‘no preference’ on hair color, and held on to his mention of integrity – and the picture of the Harley Davidson. Box checked. He said he worked out every day – of course he did, who doesn’t – and no religion too. No deal-breakers. He had my attention.
Still, disenchanted by dating – online and off – I half-expected Mr. Forward to be five feet tall and 95 years old. Who knew if his pictures were current or if he had built his entire profile on a foundation of fibs? Maybe he didn’t really like Bob Dylan (a deal-breaker) and maybe he went to the gym thrice daily. Let me just digress to tell you that there are more than a few men in the land of online dating who claim to live in the desert – but also enjoy moonlight walks every night – on the beach. Honest to God. I also had no expectation that he would remember my name, anticipating instead the possibility of being number five or six in ‘the dating rotation.’
It was a Monday. I had sent a breezy text suggesting we meet at 5 at a well-lit bar. I was wearing the outfit I had worn in my profile picture perhaps to prove that I had posted a picture taken within at least the past decade. It was also a good hair day, Topher having redeemed himself with fabulous beachy highlights (just in case a moonlight walk was on the horizon). I was also a mess, embroiled in a legal battle that I’m probably not allowed to discuss here or anywhere else, but I think I probably told him all about it within the first five minutes. The Harley I’d seen in the photo was parked outside, silver steel shimmering. Unless he had borrowed it just for our first date, this was a good sign. Onward. He was sitting at the bar, staring ahead, and I watched him watch me out of the corner of his eye as I walked the plank all the way from the front door to where he sat. Butterflies. Even though I know you’re not supposed to have any expectations, I had prepared myself to be let down and lied to, but my instinct told me that the man at the bar was not going to lie to me and that I would not lie to him.
Over beers and banter, we sized each other up and over-shared, checking off those boxes our middle-aged online personas had created. He loved Bob Dylan. The Harley was his. Virtuality was becoming reality and although I was skeptical – sorry, musicians, but you have a reputation to uphold – I was also smitten. The bar closed, and off we went to another – our second date – but who’s counting. Having read and committed to memory the FAQ section of the online dating site, I knew this was another red flag. First dates that are too long (or turn into second dates on the same night) are deemed more likely to create a premature and false sense of intimacy. Too much too soon, the experts say. They’re probably right, but I’ll be damned if we didn’t do it again the next night and most nights since. We’ll do it tonight too.
A match made in heaven? No. In spite of all the tactics and algorithms deployed to make sense of our checked boxes and declare us a 100% match, and being declared ‘official’ by Facebook and the young bartender who thinks we’re photogenic enough to be “the desert Obamas,” we are making this match right here, right here where angels fear to tread, in the messiness of the middle of two lives that collided at the best and worst of times. There is no wrong time.
As for the rest of the story? The rest of the story is for me. And for him. As Rob Reiner reminded me in his tribute to Nora Ephron:
‘You don’t always have to express every emotion you’re having when you’re having it.’ There’s a right time to talk about certain things, and you don’t need to be out there all the time just spewing. It’s how you become an adult, and I think she helped me see that.
P.S. Because I know you want to know, I asked him what compelled him to be forward in the first place. He says he thought the woman in the picture was looking directly at him. I tell him there’s a song in there. Long may we sing it.
In the Fall of 2012, my friend and I enrolled in a college photography class. This was not something to check off a bucket list, just something I had been meaning to do for thirty years. Until then, I had never been made the time for it, but a breast cancer diagnosis shifted my priorities. Until then, I had been oh so busy being busy and bemoaning the pace of life as a woman trying to play equally well the roles of mother, wife, daughter, sister, best friend, teacher, all the while waiting for Tom Petty to show up on my doorstep and beg me to be one of his Heartbreakers.
I loved the photography instructor. A Nikon gal like me, she also had breast cancer and had neither time nor patience for pink ribbons. Less technician than artist, she had a penchant for Photoshop and those post-processing capabilities that she knew would made us look competent. Her dead-pan dead-on sense of what was important inspired me to do my homework and to never miss a class. Even as she bristled at our predictable photographs shot straight-on, she would remind us, with a sigh, that “photography is just light” – it’s just light, and we just needed to find it. I told myself it was “writing with light.” and I wanted to be good at it. I wanted to take the kinds of photographs Amyn Nasser talks about:
I believe in the photographer’s magic — the ability to stir the soul with light and shape and color. To create grand visual moments out of small and simple things, and to infuse big and complicated subjects with unpretentious elegance. He respects classic disciplines, while at the same time insists on being fast, modern and wild.
Determined that we would create a grand moment or two in our often pedestrian pictures, she assigned as homework the week of Thanksgiving, a “prepositional scavenger hunt” that required us to shoot from various angles – against, across, beyond, beneath, around, behind, below, between, inside, outside, on top of, toward, through, upon . . . So it was that on a Thanksgiving afternoon, I found myself wandering the grounds of the Arizona State Capitol, eventually pausing beneath a canopy of shimmering green and pink.
I don’t know how long I sat there, looking skyward and thinking, but it was long enough for prepositions and perspectives to give way to gratitude and grace – Amazing Grace – and thoughts of Van Morrison in full flow at The Hollywood Bowl, mystifying us the way he does when he seems younger than the grumpy old man he sometimes appears to be with Astral Weeks/I Believe I have Transcended, a song he once described as “one where you can see the light at the end of the tunnel.”
In the spirit of the holiday season, I could maybe say that Thanksgiving had something to do with that moment of transcendence as I gazed at those leaves shimmering above me, but that would not be true. Even after living in America for almost thirty years, the celebration of Thanksgiving does not come naturally to me. Some of my American friends are still surprised when I tell them there is no such holiday in Ireland. No, Christmas is the holiday that warms us, so I know whereof she speaks when Carole Coleman, an Irish woman living in America, apologizes to her American family and friends,
. . . we will be doing the turkey thing all over again five weeks from now.
No. It was a moment of stock-taking. Looking up and losing track of time that November afternoon, I found my footing again, knowing full well I would lose it – and rediscover it – again. And I was fearless. I was grateful. Sitting there by myself, I think I found the kind of gratitude Annie Lamott describes in her Help, Thanks, Wow: The Three Essential Prayers –
Thanks is the prayer of relief that help was on the way, that either the cavalry arrived, or that the plates of the earth shifted and that somehow, you got your sense of humor back, or you avoided the car that was right in front of you that you looked about to hit.
And so it could be the pettiest, dumbest thing, but it could also be that you get the phone call that the diagnosis was much, much, much better than you had been fearing. And you say the full prayer, and its entirety, is: Thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you. But for reasons of brevity, I just refer to it as Thanks. It’s amazement and relief that you caught a break, that your family caught a break, that you didn’t have any reason to believe that things were really going to be OK, and then they were and you just can’t help but say thank you.
Thank you – a powerful phrase that often goes unsaid right when we need to say or hear it the most.
There’s a lovely minute or two in the Irish film, “Waking Ned Devine,” that never fails to remind me of this. The hapless Lottery official has just arrived unannounced at Ned Devine’s funeral, right when Jackie O’Shea is beginning the eulogy. Always quick on his feet – and realizing his scheme to cash in on Ned’s winning lottery ticket is about to come crashing down – Jackie pauses. He looks over at his best friend, Michael O’Sullivan, who is posing as Ned, and as an easy smile spreads across his face, he looks out into the congregation and delivers this:
As we look back on the life of N . . .
Michael O’Sullivan was my great friend. But I don’t ever remember telling him that. The words that are spoken at a funeral are spoken too late for the man who is dead. What a wonderful thing it would be to visit your own funeral. To sit at the front and hear what was said, maybe say a few things yourself. Michael and I grew old together. But at times, when we laughed, we grew young. If he was here now, if he could hear what I say, I’d congratulate him on being a great man, and thank him for being a friend.
Thank you to my friends – new and old, near and far. For loving me and lifting me up and lighting the road here. May the spirit of Thanksgiving hold you aloft.
When I turned fifty (admittedly a while ago), I realized that: a) I would never make enough money to go to a job I hate every day and b) money really isn’t everything although I have often acted as though it is. Much to the chagrin of Suze Orman, I don’t organize money neatly in my wallet, and I honestly couldn’t tell you how much is in the checking account at any given time. If I must choose between purchasing something sensible like a new kitchen appliance or springing for a hard-bound signed copy of Seamus Heaney’s Nobel speech, “Crediting Poetry,” well, there is no choice which leads me to an August afternoon in 2013, two weeks before Heaney died.
Time and space collapsed when I spotted the handsome little volume perched on a shelf in an air-conditioned fine out-of-print books store in Arizona, about as far away as I could be from Anahorish, “where springs washed into the shiny grass.” Alas, I didn’t buy the signed first US edition that afternoon, and I felt so guilty for having abandoned it there, that I knew it would only be a matter of time before I would go back, with an explanation to the avuncular Phoenician bookseller, of the finer points of buying ‘on tick.’
Previously, the best money I ever spent was in 1982. Flush with my university grant money, I bought three things that would change my life – a Eurail pass, a 35mm camera, and a hi-fi stereo system. I moved out of the Halls of Residence at Stranmillis College and into a red-brick terraced house on Ridgeway Street, where I lived with four male engineering students who tolerated my girliness and threw great parties without ever damaging any of my vinyl.
At the lower end of our street was The Lyric Theater and at the top, The Belfast Wine Company, a convenient and well-stocked off-license.
Ridgeway Street, Belfast, N. Ireland
In the middle, houses teemed with students, all imaginative misfits like me, most of us going to our classes only when there was nothing else to do. What sparkles in my memory is the time spent on Ridgeway Street and one glorious evening when we spilled out of our houses and onto the road, pelting each other with water balloons while the frontman of Thin Lizzy, a very cool Phil Lynott, leaned against the door jamb of a house full of art students from Derry. I have no idea what he was doing there, but he was enjoying himself. Maybe he got lost on the way to wherever he was supposed to be staying after a gig at The Kings Hall. In my mind’s eye he is as plain as day, smoking and laughing at us as we soaked each other, on the kind of shimmering summer night that transforms Northern Ireland into a veritable tourist destination.Decades later and all the vinyl records bought with my lunch money and my university grant, are stowed away in the roof-space of my parent’s house in Castledawson. Faded and stashed between the pages of an old diary, the Eurail pass took me to places that have stayed in my heart to this day – Paris, Florence, Rome, Capri, the Greek islands. The Olympus camera? It was stolen from my first apartment in Phoenix.
It took thirty years and a breast cancer diagnosis before I would buy another 35mm camera, when I was ready finally to take stock and see things through different lenses. In the Fall of 2012, a friend and I enrolled in a college photography class that required us to pay attention to shapes and patterns and all the lines and curves we might otherwise miss going about my daily business. The photography teacher’s assignments sent me on scavenger hunts every Sunday to spots like the “Water Mark,” where five 14-foot aluminum horses that guard a road in Scottsdale. Some folks believe it should be designated a wonder of the world, but my teacher just wanted me to notice it, to pay attention to those splendid horses that evoke the Wild West but also prevent flooding during our Monsoon season. At such times, water gushes from the horse’s mouths, and it is an awesome sight.
Now I know those wild horses belong in the Arizona desert where the rains are rare, but I prefer to think of them along the Annadale Embankment, watching over us at the end of a wild Belfast night.
Footnote: The Heaney Lecture is now where it belongs – between Door into the Dark and Stepping Stones . . . on my bookcase. As for Phil? As Joseph O’Connor explains, he was “the first Irish person ever to bound onto a stadium stage in leather trousers and bawl to the gods: “Are you OUT there?” He was our first rock star, gone too soon, and on a rainy night in Phoenix, some three decades later, I can still hear his coyote call . . .
But there is the replenishing joy of the songs themselves, that carnival of outlaws, renegades and chancers, tumbling through the sunbursts of his rhymes. From the lonesome cowboy’s prairie to the louche streets of Soho, from the mythic Celtic battlefields over to Dino’s bar and grill, his restless creativity roamed. You could stock a damn good jukebox with only his work, so vivid the eye for detail and so capacious its reach . . . The songs will abide. That’s the only consolation. But it’s a real one. Even in the darkest night, you can always hear the king’s call.