Gung Pao Chicken #2 Spicy

Gung Pao Chicken #2 Spicy is written on my desk calendar, on a piece of scrap paper in my bag, at the bottom of our grocery list. My husband’s favorite order from a small Vietnamese restaurant we like. Okay, a place where we ate so often that the servers know us. 

It is a neighborhood eatery where we could relax after a busy day or before running errands. Carry out orders flew from the kitchen. Tables were filled with college students, young families, parents with grouchy high school kids, retirees. Large fish tanks amuse young diners. Food came fast. On rainy or winter nights the crowded room felt cozy. 

When curbside carry out became available, we called our place. The first night, part of our order was missing when we got home. Two weeks later my stir fry had little flavor and the rice needed warming. We noted the slip-ups, but didn’t dream about trying another place or dropping Vietnamese from our carry out rotation. They know who we are when we walk in. I know the person who says it is good to see me. They prefer cash and I understand how credit card fees eat into small business sales. 

The food is good, but not great. It is truly all about the people and setting. And we want to keep their kitchen busy and their staff working until that atmosphere can be restored and there is time to talk about the world as water glasses are filled. We have a connection. In cities that builds neighborhood.

Storefronts and restaurants have already closed on their block because of seven months without stable sales and the whammy of riot damage. Social distancing outside the watch repair place, there are no lines next to me at the theater where a new release is showing. No patrons sit around tables at the tea shop. Inventory looks low at the corner gift store. What will the holidays look like for these small merchants? How will a tenuous consumer economy support neighborhood places? 

So much is unknown because most of us haven’t experienced circumstances so forbidding. This has been described as the worst economy since the Big Depression. Hopefully there will be enough folks in the neighborhood, with resources, ordering Gung Pao Chicken to keep owners and employees of small businesses intact. In the meantime, let’s keep safe and watch out for each other.

The World of Holiday Greetings Has Changed

For the last several years, a friend and I have gotten together every December to address Christmas cards and catch up over tea. She still writes at least two dozen, while my output has dwindled to less than 10.

I used to love Christmas cards. I tended to indulge in the expensive ones printed on high quality paper, the ones with artistic designs or humorous sentiments. Sometimes I bogged down with signing them and getting them to the Post Office, but I always got them out before New Year’s.

While doing business as Ellen Shriner Communications, I began handcrafting holiday cards to send to ad agency and marketing clients. Instead of dropping off clever client gifts or food treats (a common practice in the communications world), I made a charitable donation in my clients’ honor and hoped the cards would remind clients about my creative work. I also sent the cards to close family and friends.

Every year, I wandered the aisles of the now-defunct Paper Depot and let the stamps, vellums, fine cotton card stock, and gorgeous imported papers inspire me. For a month, I holed up in my office planning, writing, printing, cutting, gluing, and assembling 50-60 cards. Many years, I made several versions because I was attracted to multiple ideas, and it was fun to experiment.

The card with red ribbon involved dried flowers from my garden. For the one on the far right, I drew ornaments in watercolor. For the one in the center, I hand cut starbursts with an Exacto knife so the gold vellum would show through.

By the end of 2010, I was winding down my business and had accepted a hospital marketing job. I could have continued making the cards for family and friends, but handcrafting cards no longer gave me as much pleasure, and the world of holiday greetings had changed.

For many people, sending Christmas cards had become just one more thing on a long To Do list. Friends and family were relieved to let go of the tradition. Often the cards I received seemed to be guilt-induced (Dang! She sent me one. Now I need to reciprocate), and I didn’t want to cause that discomfort.

For me, Christmas cards had been a way to stay connected with out-of-town family or friends I rarely saw. Often the cards summed up how the year had gone, and that ritual reflection felt worthwhile.

Now a yearly missive is less important. Calling is so cheap and immediate that the most important people in my life already know what’s going on. As a writer, I’m at the keyboard most days and can dash off a quick email to friends. Social media has made it easy to stay in touch with an extended group of people.

Maybe one day I’ll rediscover the creative fun of playing with fine papers, glue, and an Exacto knife. But this year, I’ll sign a few store-bought cards and write a handful of personal notes. Of course, nothing replaces visiting in person, especially over a cup of tea!

To all of our blog readers: the WordSisters send lots of affection and appreciation for our connection. Happy Holidays!

Taking Pen in Hand

Years of letters

In 1979, when I moved from Ohio to teach at the University of Minnesota-Morris, I was lonely and homesick, so I wrote long letters to my sister, parents, and close friends every week. I couldn’t afford to make as many phone calls as I wanted. One 30-minute weekend call cost around $6, which would be close to $18 in today’s dollars. Four weekend calls per month would add up $72 today. When my oldest son moved to California last June, I thought about those letters again. How much they helped. All of the love they represented.

I don’t know why I saved them when I was 25-29 and again when I was 33-35, but I wasn’t the only one who kept them. My mother and sister did too, which is why I have the ones I sent as well as the ones I received.

Why did I hang onto the letters long after I received them? They are my history. They were a lifeline when I was far from home. They felt valuable even if I didn’t know why. I was in my 40’s before I recognized that writing personal stories (essays, memoir, and blogs) would be my genre.

Writing letters was a creative outlet as well as a way to stay connected. I used a good pen and carefully chose stationery that expressed my taste—maybe something embossed with a seashell or printed with a Sandra Boynton cartoon. Sometimes I invented fake memos and typed them on official university stationery. Writing those letters made me feel more real at a time when I felt isolated and out of my element. Spinning yarns about my boring life made it more bearable.

Alter ego

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Reading letters was a ritual. Finding a letter in the mail made my day. They were a shot of love, a touchstone that centered me and helped restore my equilibrium. I didn’t tear them open in the hallway by the apartment mailboxes and speed-read them. Instead, I’d fix a mug of tea or crack open a beer, get comfortable on the sofa, and read. Then reread. Save the letter to look at later. Within a day or two I’d begin composing a reply.

Staying close is so much easier now. My son and I talk as often as we want for as long as we want—cell phone calls are cheap. The emails, texts, photos, or mini videos we send each other have so much more immediacy. There’s no need to compress all of our love, questions, answers, advice, and stories into 10 handwritten pages and wait 3-7 days for an answer. It’s quicker to call.

A friend’s letter to me

However, earlier this summer, I was nostalgic for the stories, drawings, and jokes shared in letters. I missed handwriting, which conveys so much personality and I missed the pleasure of selecting good paper.

Late winter cheer

I bought some stationery and stamps, but I discovered writing letters is different now. I no longer dash off a note as I used to. Now I slow down, think through what I want to say. Instead of just selecting and deleting a phrase, I have to scratch it out or start over if I want to reword it. Because they take more effort, letters seem more weighty, as if they should only be used for important messages. But I’m resisting that. I hope to recapture the lighthearted fun of writing a letter and hopefully share the surprise and delight of receiving a letter.

In time, my son will have a stack of letters (albeit a smaller one). They’re visible proof of our love and connection, unlike calls, texts, and emails, which usually exist in the moment and then disappear into the ether.

And really, staying connected is the point.