Postmarked: Dear Jen (22)

Dear Jen

How we ended up here so quickly, I’m not sure—through the holidays, through the new year, and finding our way again on a fresh path of hours and days and weeks. That’s how it always feels to me, anyway, these new days of January, as if they’ve appeared out of nowhere, boundless. When I wake up with the kids in the morning, the house is cold, and the darkness presses in against the panes, and there’s something comforting about hot radiators and omelets frying. Even winter can hold us close, I guess. And while I know that by February I’ll be yearning for warmth and brighter mornings, I’ll take these short January days for now.

Speaking of warmth, we did skip town for Christmas, heading south to spend the holiday with my sister and brother-in-law and their seven kids in North Port, Florida. My mom’s entire family was in the area—my uncles and aunts, my parents, my three sisters and our fifteen collective kids, my six cousins and their various and sundry spouses and children of their own and even a few pets. It was quite a gathering, especially later on Christmas day, when we all went to my uncle and aunt’s house and they roasted a couple of pigs (yes, pigs–I think they turned some of the younger kids into vegetarians) and we sat out on their deck long into the night listening to the aunts and uncles tell old stories from when they were growing up Amish. Someday I’ll have to write those down.

We had planned this family gathering at least a year before, mostly because we hadn’t all been together in one place for quite a few years, but also because we knew my grandmother’s days might be numbered. As you might remember me mentioning, she died over Thanksgiving break, about four weeks before we gathered. As all of us, nearly fifty in total, stood to pray together before the meal, it was amazing to look around and see what she had left behind—though she had never done anything the world would find worthy of fame or wealth, she was responsible for nearly 50 good people, loving each other (imperfectly), trying to find our way, trying to make the world a better place.

My uncle tried to say a short tribute to her, but his voice faltered. We all had tears in our eyes. This is the way of things.

At one point on that Christmas afternoon, I climbed the stairs to the rooftop deck of that beautiful home and looked out over the Gulf of Mexico. The sky was slate gray, the water a subdued blue, and a stiff breeze blew in off the water. The trees rustled madly, as if some invisible army was making its way up the beach through the undergrowth. It makes you feel mighty small when you’re up above the tree line like that, taking in an entire sea boiling under the approach of a storm. It makes you feel like maybe a bad review isn’t so important, like under-performing sales on a particular book actually mean nothing compared to the love you might have for someone, or the passion you feel while doing the thing you’ve been called to do in the great, wide world.

I love that sentence from the quote you mentioned in your last letter, the one from Robert Farrar Capon’s Supper of the Lamb, and especially where he says, “No artist can work simply for results; he must also like the work of getting them.” Now that I look back on that moment where I was standing on the rooftop deck, looking out over the Gulf of Mexico, I realize that what I felt in that moment was a peace with my life, including the work that I do, a peace that is not dependent on accolades or endorsements or riches.

“Unless you become like a little child…”

I think in this aging, dare I say maturing, as a writer, I’m beginning to notice there’s a kind of growing backwards, like Benjamin Button. It is like when Galadriel considers taking the ring from Frodo in the movie and then goes in an instant from being a great and terrible sorceress back to her normal self. “I passed the test,” she says, almost in disbelief. “I will diminish now, and go into the West.” Maybe that is a better word—diminishing. Every day, it seems to me at least, the artist is asked whether or not they are willing to keep creating and diminishing, always less of themselves and more of the work.

It is good to be back. I am eager to hear more about your book when you are free to share it. I am also wondering, as I’ve just considered this diminishing as an artist (literally as I’m sitting here writing the letter), if it’s even possible to diminish and maintain a writing career? Can we say no to the creative Ring of Power and still manage to make a living? Or is the diminishing less to do with results, good or bad, and more to do with what we are seeking?

So many questions.

Happy New Year,


* * * * *

What began as a Twitter conversation between two writers on creative work and family life has become an exchange of letters. Here is where Postmarked began:

Postmarked: Dear Shawn (1)