Slow Down

I just watched a TED talk by Carl Honore about slowing down.

I recently read Brigid Schulte’s Overwhelmed: work, love and play when no one has the time.

I’ve participated in the National Day of Unplugging.

I reaffirmed the virtues and power of being an introvert while reading Quiet by Susan Cain.

I’ve read about research that shows we are actually more productive when we have reasonable work days and weeks.

And I very much enjoyed Vi Hart‘s most recent Crazy Snail video about wondering whether we should just keep climbing things. (If you are into snails singing songs, see this one which is a bit less depressing!)

Which of course reminded me of one of my favorite books, Hope for the Flowers by Trina Paulus about how pushing against societal expectations to “just keep climbing” and instead slowing down and looking internally can help you become the being you want to be.

As you can see, I have worked hard at figuring out how and why I should slow down–and how to feel like I’m allowed to do so.

But I’m writing this as other pressing work deadlines push me to distraction.  In fact, I think it’s this feeling that led me to write this.  Slowing down, taking time, daydreaming and making space for creativity and wonder are necessary.  But at times pushing against expectations from family, work, and culture can make this difficult.  Slowing down, for me, remains a work in progress, a practice I must return to over and over as I fail time and again to allow myself these necessary pleasures.

But there have been successes!  This summer I have found that my most treasured moments are those when I let myself completely *be* in the present–sitting on my deck and listening to the breeze, savoring a meal by candlelight with my partner, writing letters to share tiny details, watching a nesting bird, seeking ever-smaller seashells and then nestling them neatly together, digging potatos with my dad, or chatting with a curious dragonfly.

These are the thoughts that swirl through my mind as I realize that my local stationery shop has closed (well, it moved to Durham, which essentially leaves Chapel Hill without a shop!) and leaves me wondering what else we will lose as a culture if we don’t collectively take time to slow down and reconnect with one another and our selves in ways that do not require a screen to serve as the intermediary.

So I am reaching through a screen to you.

I am writing these thoughts–though they are nothing new in a world that has been encouraging meditation for thousands of years–as a bit of encouragement for anyone seeking a “reason” to step back, draw inward or sit still.

You’re grown. You’re allowed.  And you’ll be better off for it.

To help your mind wander, here are a few photos I captured this summer while I was letting my mind wander. Looking closely helps me filter the rest of the world out.  How do you slow down?

grass shells Moth weed bouquet and canned tomatoes spiky bug

Instructions for Writing a Letter

I just saw this quote and loved it:

Instructions for living a life.

Pay attention

Be astonished.

Tell about it.

–Mary Oliver

I think the same instructions apply for creating engaging, newsy letters.  Some of the best letters I receive–and the best letters I write–share wonderful details about a particular experience and the writer’s reactions.  It’s easy enough to jot down a list of recent happenings, but it’s far more enjoyable to write about something that astonished or excited you.  And it’s much more fun to read as well!

Letters from Summer Camp

This article made me smile. It reports that many sleep-away summer camps for kids have a no-tech policy which allows kids to unplug. The kids stay busy with crafts and socializing and developing outdoors skills.  They are apparently also reflecting on their adventures and relaying them to their parents in the time-honored camp tradition of writing a letter home.

I’m glad places like this still exist in the world. They give me hope for another generation of people who have an appreciation for the unplugged things in life–like star gazing, marshmallow roasting, and letter writing.



Connect with Others

I’m addicted to TED videos.  I love watching brilliant people talk about something interesting for 15 minutes.  I feel smarter or happier or energized after they’re over. Usually.  But this video just left me concerned.  It makes the point that the internet (and here, specifically, Facebook and Google) is tailoring the information we’re receiving just for us based on our preferences.  So we hear more of what we want to hear and fewer dissenting voices.  This strikes me as dangerous.

Know what’s not edited by an algorithm? A letter.  Reaching out to someone new through a letter puts you in contact with a person who likely holds world views very different from your own.  I find it a wonderful exercise to meet people via mail that I’m just sure I won’t have anything in common with and then find we have a few shared interests on which we can build pen friendships.  I have pen pals who are in high school and who are elderly, male and female, disabled, from big cities and small towns, who are straight, gay, other, who have diverse ethnic backgrounds and who hold different religious beliefs.  I enjoy this, because it’s good for me to stretch my world view once in a while. Meeting a new pen pal is a great way to do it!

We need to reach out to others directly, because, as Jon Stewart just showed us, we can’t rely on our media not to cater to our interests… (Update: I’ve now linked to the Huffington Post article on Stewart’s making fun of Time Magazine’s fluff cover stories in the U.S., because the video of him doing it has disappeared from The Daily Show’s website…)…Update: I found a copy elsewhere, maybe this will stay up!:

We need to reach out to others to find out what our new interests should be! Hearing only what we want to hear reinforces a dogmatic way of thinking. Reaching only for the “fluff” information will hasten brain softening. We become so reassured of our own way of thinking that we know without a doubt that we are right and everyone else is wrong. That’s what Congress sounds like these days. That’s what the media is showing of religious disagreements. That’s the red state vs. blue state concept.

Researcher Brene Brown argues that we are increasingly shielding ourselves from feeling vulnerable.  But as we shy away from sharing ourselves in ways that leave us vulnerable to others, we also lose the opportunities to open up and truly connect with others. (This video is really worth the 20 minutes.)

So as the election season heats up, and it seems like civil discourse is out the window, I encourage you to reach out to others through letters. You may find that people you don’t share political or religious views with are actually nice folks who deserve to be treated with respect, compassion, and understanding even as you disagree. And while you’re at it, let yourself be vulnerable in your letters–share aspects of yourself that you may not generally divulge. Recent letters with my pen pals have shown me that opening up can result in a lovely reciprocation that feels deep and warm and comforting. It puts you at risk for rejection as well. But it’s worth it.

Is this all too touchy feely for you? I admit, it strikes me that way a bit, and I’m writing it. But I think that proves the point that we’ve become so resistant to being vulnerable that we react negatively to it before we give it a chance.

As March arrives and spring is on its way, I encourage you to let yourself bloom out of your winter shell and connect with others fully, openly, and vulnerably in life and in letters.


The Lure of Nostalgia and Physicality

An article by Alex Williams in the New York Times discussed the surge in sales and interest in wrist watches after a decade of significant decline.  Folks in their 20s and 30s who abandoned watches when they adopted cellphones (or who never adopted watches at all) are returning to them as part of a fashion trend.  What’s hot right now: big watches, vintage Rolexes, and clear watches that let you see the gears moving.

The section of the article that made me think of the connection to snail mail was:

For a generation raised on Game Boys, however, the appeal seems to go a little deeper than just a desire for another fashion accessory. In a world surrounded by ever-glowing LCD screens, there’s an analog chic to wearing a mechanical instrument.

“A cool machine that is all moving parts has got to be intrinsically interesting to someone born into this generation, because there’s just nothing like that in their life,” said Mitch Greenblatt…

Just as sitting down with the tactile accoutrements of letter writing–a nice pen and luxurious paper–provides me with a much needed respite from the computer I sit in front of all day, the watch can provide a nostalgic “connected” feeling for its wearer.

As we live in an increasingly digital world, I think more people will continue, or begin,  to yearn for and connect with the tangible, high-quality artifacts from days past or the rewarding, comforting activities of our grandparents’ generation. Knitting, letter press, canning food, gardening, and using refurbished typewriters have all experienced a return to vogue status in recent years.

What’s funny to me is that people don’t “go back to” five and a quarter inch floppy disks or fire up that old 1984 IBM personal computer in the same ways as people have been reviving the more tactile arts of woodworking or blacksmithing.  Is it because computers are not built to last? They quickly become obsolete and seem to have no intrinsic value.  When electronics break, most of us don’t have the ability to tinker around with them to fix them and it’s cheaper to buy anew than to repair most of the time. But the tools used in woodworking may themselves be a hundred years old and remain perfectly serviceable.

In a recent interview in Poets & Writers, author William Giraldi says that he does not believe that the internet will murder the book because “the automobile has yet to murder the bicycle.  The book, like the bicycle, is a perfect invention, and perfection dies hard.”

Indeed.  Books created 400 years ago still “work” and are available to modern users to share information and illumination as they always have.  A computer 10 years old is often an unusable relic that everyday folks can not easily revive, and the reward for reviving it would be unappealing (who needs to revive a computer with less storage than the average Word document takes?).

Maybe watches are perfect inventions as well, but I posit that letters are a perfect invention.  All who are literate can share a piece of themselves to connect with another in a form that can last for generations.  We have letters dating back hundreds (thousands!) of years.  We can return to them for information and illumination.

What will an old ipod do for us in 15 years?

In a July 7, 2011 New York Times article on the increasing popularity of apothecary-made personal care items, the author interviewed the makers and users of these old-school items:

Cheryl Richardson, 51, the author of five self-help books, was delighted when she first visited the Farmaesthetics headquarters in an old renovated trolley barn in Newport, R.I., and saw where some of her powder exfoliants and remedy oils are made.

“There were bottles of herbs, mortar and pestles,” Ms. Richardson said, marveling. “There were plants. I was so blown away, who does this? This is a whole new thing.” Or a new old thing.

Matthew B. Crawford’s Shop Class as Soulcraft confirmed for me that feeling of alienation at the loss of “doing things” which I often feel when I spend too much time in my head in front of a computer.  He helped me understand more deeply why I yearn to do things with my hands. The activities of letter press and woodworking and canning of food require technical expertise, but the gaining of that expertise brings with it physical results–a card, a carving, a jar of tomatoes!

I do these activities to renew my connection to the world.  As mail artist Carolee Gilligan Wheeler shares in her zine Practice Being Human (available in pdf download here) her daily routines of endlessly scrolling through websites left her feeling blank and uninspired.  A self-imposed, month-long hiatus from the internet revitalized her; she re-discovered the joys of the physical world around her.

So what is my point? It’s that I think many of us are feeling an urge to connect with things that are, in a way, more human.  Natural forces, like pressure pushing inked type into cotton paper or steam sanitizing glass jars to fill with garden-grown tomatoes, feel, well, natural to us.  As we forge ahead into a world where most of us can’t tinker with and repair everyday objects , I think there will always be a good portion of us who feel a pull toward the physical, the comforts of producing something of value, and a sense of confidence at our self reliance.

I encourage you to reconnect with something you used to do (sew? garden? paint?) or try out a new skill.  There is comfort and renewal in the making…a perfect antidote to the February Funks or the Digital Age Doldrums.

Gratitude During Universal Letter Writing Week

It’s Universal Letter-Writing Week (January 8th-14th) according to the International Society of Friendship and Goodwill.  The ISFG’s first objective is:

To encourage and foster the advancement of international understanding, better human relations, friendship, good will, and peace through a world fellowship of men and women of good will.

What better way is there to improve human relations and build feelings of good will than to show appreciation for the holiday gifts, cocktail parties, sweet treats, and support that people no doubt shared with you during the recent holiday season?  More and more I’m noticing that thank you notes do not generally follow a party, a gift, a favor. We do harm when we don’t recognize the wonderful things people do for us.  It suggests we did not appreciate their acts of generosity and it may reduce such giving in the future. Further, by expressing gratitude, you may actually enjoy your life and the gifts you are given more, just by allowing yourself the opportunity to reflect on the gifts and the people who gave them.

I’m finishing up my holiday thank you letters now (after catching up on my other correspondence that piled up over December!). I’m even including my insurance agent, the loan officer at the bank, a used car salesman, and several people at a local chain electronics store.  All of those individuals provided me with impeccable customer service recently and I want to thank them for making potentially painful transactions a breeze.  To keep the goodwill flowing (by recognizing people when they do a great job or are just plain nice), I plan to send more of these random notes of gratitude throughout the year.  And I am not just doing this because it may be good for my health! (Thank you, 365 Letters for pointing me to that research!)

I am thanking some lucky folks via these lovely letterpressed notes by Austin Press.  I picked them up at Anthropologie at the end of December (just before my stationery fast began).  I love the scalloped edge; it reminds me a bit of postage stamps.

(photo from Austin Press)

Now is the perfect time to take a deep breath after the bustle of the holidays and perhaps pen a few thank you notes to folks who made your holidays extra special. For guidance on writing a good thank you note, there are a lot of online resources.  Check out this link, which I think summarizes well the standard protocol.

While I’m in this thankful mood, thank you for reading this blog, sending letters, and helping build a more connected world!

Yours in letters, Dana

Happy New Year!

I took a little break from blogging and internet use in general over the last couple of weeks and focused more on spending time with friends and family.  I also spent some time resting and organizing and planning for the new year.  I love a fresh start and always look forward to January 1st.

Hoping you have had a lovely holiday season, too, and that you are feeling the same sense of optimism and renewal I’m enjoying. I’ll be back in full force in the coming week, but I wanted to wish you all a Happy New Year before the day got away from me.

Welcome 2012! I have big plans for you!


Lazy Sunday

I got back yesterday from a four-day trip to New Orleans. I’ll soon finish a fun post about my trip and the stationery shop I went to while down there, but not today.

I’ve spent today listening to the roar of the 13-year cicadas, lounging on the couch and deck, and reading an awesome book about mail art called Good Mail Day by mail artists and bloggers Jennie Hinchcliff and Carolee Giligan Wheeler.  It’s a lazy day for me, so reading about other people’s creativity is all I’m capable of at this point.  But I’m “filling the well” for the next time I return to my craft table!

Sometimes it’s easy for me to feel bad about not doing something “productive” every moment of every day.  But I’m coming to realize that enjoying (or cursing…do you hear me cicadas?!) the sounds of nature, reading and viewing inspiring works of art, calling family members on the phone, and laying on the couch and letting my mind wander is actually filling me up with ideas that I can use in future artistic endeavors. 

No artist or creative person operates in a vacuum.  We need inspiration.  While I was in New Orleans, I adopted a slower pace, taking time to sponge up the inspirational sights and sounds and tastes around me. I’m continuing that process here in the more mundane surroundings of my own home.  I’m finding normally unremarkable items teeming with possibility. 

So if you’re feeling lazy, I encourage you to give into it; languish over the smell of your favorite perfume, stare at a texture until it comes alive, let your mind wander, and smile at the sun.  I hope it’s as good for you as it’s been for me.

More soon.


Watering all of your plants…

Photo of Colmar, France.  Taken April 13, 2011.

I love plants. They’re beautiful, strong, forgiving, and contribute to your physical and emotional health.  Even as a vagabond twenty-something, I had plants that moved with me from apartment to apartment.  Some of them are still with me today. 

I have several types of plants inside and outside of my home.  Most of the indoor ones reside in the living room, welcoming me home, watching t.v. with me, and blooming occasionally just to show they care (they are a Christmas cactus, a peace lily, an African violet, and some non-descript green plant that doesn’t need much sunlight or care).

Because they are obvious about their needs (the peace lily, especially, is a bit of a drama queen and wilts at the slightest sign of thirst), these plants get cared for more often. 

I also have a large, full, gangly grape ivy in my home office, hanging behind me in the window. Because I spend my days staring at the computer rather than the plant, I forget about her sometimes (I call her Bette, after the woman who gave me the clipping of her 9 years ago).  She can go weeks without water, holding on to life, waiting for me to pay attention.  Once I give her a drink, apologizing to her brown,dry and half-dead leaves, she perks right back up, willing to give even more. 

Letter writing is the grape ivy of my life.  It’s the task most easily ignored (with the job, relationships, dog, bills, and house cleaning as the more-attention-grabbing “plants” in my life).  Sometimes I can go a long while without writing letters, ignoring them because they aren’t “required.” They are secondary to grocery shopping or cleaning the toilet or even watching t.v.–which can get moved up on the list of priorities after a tough day at work.

But when I return to letter writing after a long period away, I find it to be forgiving and nourishing, just like my much-abused grape ivy.  Letter writing sometimes blooms with return letters, other times it just provides an opportunity to stop and breathe in the fullness of life.  Even though other responsibilities can steal my attention, I need to remind myself to water the sometimes peripheral, but still vital creative “plants” in my life, because without them my life would be less verdant and lush and full. 

Writing letters–and journaling, paper crafting, writing, etc.– often takes a back seat in my life and I’m sure that’s the case with many of you.  These creative outlets may be things you enjoy and plan to do but somehow never get around to because life gets in the way. My friend Laura just asked me how to “make herself” write letters when–even though she enjoys writing letters and clearly has time– she generally fills her time with other worthy activities like exercising, walking in the woods or watching movies.

I told her I’d think about it and get back to her. 

This post is the first part of an answer, which is “it’s OK if you don’t get around to it for a while, even a very long while, because when you do it’s a forgiving process and always rewarding.”

In the next week or so, I’ll also share some of the ways I make time to write letters and maybe one will work for those of you who find yourself, like Laura and me, always meaning to write letters and not always succeeding.

Keep writing,