On Writing Letters

by juno on March 14, 2014

This piece was published one year ago in The Public Humanist:

onletterwritingFor years I wrote letters. “Have you ever heard of The Collected Phone Calls of Gertrude Stein?” Rita Mae Brown says in Starting from Scratch. “Writers should learn to write letters and save the telephone for business.”

I took her words to heart. Not just because I was a writer, but because I loved the looseness, the intimacy of the form. No word-count limits. No thesis statement, no final paragraph with the thesis reworded, biting itself in the tail like an ouroboros. No lede to grab the reader, draw him in, keep him reading. Sure, if you begin with a few choice words—“He finally asked, and I said yes,” “Remember how I told you I wanted a baby,” “I’ve decided to leave”—you might thrill your correspondent, but even if you don’t he’ll read on, because the fact of the letter, no matter how prosaic its contents, means you were thinking of him, you took the time to write.

Instead of rules you have this: a blank page in front of you, or a napkin, a flyer advertising flamenco music in some foreign city with empty space on the back, a postcard, and all you have to do is pour your heart out on it. You’re allowed to ramble, to be boring for a paragraph or two—it’s a letter, after all: your recipient will be glad to get it anyway, to walk to her mailbox in the country on a spring day, her feet bare for the first time in months, gravel sticking to the soles of her feet and the gravel of a long winter still sticking to her soul, and pull out the thin blue envelope, the fat pink envelope, the envelope made from a perfume ad, from a photo of cupcakes torn from a cooking magazine.

Inside she finds the sights and sounds and stories of your day, your week, your year: “I’m sitting in a café in Rome, and a boy—honestly, he’s just a boy!—has been flirting with me for an hour. ‘Please,’ he keeps saying, and he tosses his head back, not a dark hair on his head displaced.” “On the bus this morning I saw a little girl who looked just like you at five or six. Made me miss you so much I had to write.” “I spend a couple of hours at Grandma Lee’s house most days. It’s funny how even so deep into dementia—she barely ever knows who I am—she has moments of lucidity. She was telling me about meeting her first husband the other day, when they were young teenagers, right before the war. She was only fifteen and felt so certain she’d met the person she was going to grow old with.”

Rita Mae Brown didn’t anticipate the especial conundrum: email, which almost feels as if it could approximate letter writing. And it’s instant, and closer to carbon free, and you don’t have to put a stamp on it. But think of what you’ve lost. You’re no longer making your friend puzzle through the tangled briar of your handwriting, and she can’t see where your tears have fallen and blurred your words. She’s not holding the same pages that you were holding days before, in some near or far city or town. As for speed, why should that be an advantage in human communication? Isn’t it more spacious, restful, to know that I wrote you this letter over several days—you can see that I headed sections “Monday,” “Thursday,” “Saturday—finally home”? I was in no hurry. By the postmark you know that it took several more to reach you. Now you read my words, ponder them, sit with them. Sometime, in an hour, a fortnight, a month, you might want to respond, but you take your time. “The tranquil heart may yet outrun/the rocket and the car,” said E. B. White, paragon of letter writers.

Me, I’ve come back to the fold. I gave email a chance, and it never delivered. Beloved friends have died, and I want to be intimately connected to the ones who remain while we still have the chance. I don’t want to send them emails. I want to send them a heap of scrawled pages, the shape of my days in words, and tell them what they mean to me. I want to tuck in poems and newspaper clippings, a pressed flower from my garden, a photo of my kids. I want to write them a letter.


It’s the mid-‘90s and I’m in the old kitchen of the Red House—summer sunlight slants in and music spills from a little boom box. “Sailin’ up,” Pete Seeger’s voice sings into this room we’re all hanging out in together, and my cousin Bill echoes, “Sailin’ up.” “Up.” “Down.” “Down.” “Up.” “Up and down the river. The river may be dirty now but it’s getting cleaner day by day.” Bill’s more of a fisherman than a sailor, but he’s acquainted with rivers. IBM exec, Catholic deacon, man of prayer, family and food, husband, father, grandfather…not yet, at this time, a painter—evidence, as all those we love are, that people can’t be contained within mere words. What does this have to do with Pete? Nothing except to say that public figures, and especially artists, the ones who inspire story in us, become intertwined with our own stories, become part of the story of the real people we love in real life. The tracks change, Pete and Arlo serenade us. “Just when I thought…all was lost…you changed my mind,” Pete is singing now, and then after the first go-through, he makes his usual invitation: “Hey will you sing it with me? I’ll give you the words.” He sings AND he gives us the words. “You gave me hope…” “Not just the old soft soap,” Bill chimes in as he cooks. “I’ll keep plugging on, Your face will shine through all our tears…” We’re all singing now, I’m singing with Pete and Arlo, with Bill, and with the man I’m in love with, the man I’ll marry, though I don’t know it yet, and I’m thinking that if I’m ever called on to sing a song at Bill’s funeral, this is the one.

It’s the early ‘80s. At Wightwood School, in Branford, CT, we gather every morning in a half-circle on the wide stairs down to the older kids’ wing of the school. I sit among kids of every color, far from the cold white northern village where I’ve mostly been raised. One of my teachers leads us in song, and today it’s a hymn to the country we all come from. “This land is your land,” we sing, “This land is my land.” Woody may have written it, but Pete taught everyone to sing it over and over, so it’s his song, too, in my heart. “As I went walking I saw a sign there, And on the sign it said, “No Trespassing.” I can picture it all, the ribbon of highway, the high wide blue sky arcing above me, can see the split rail fence and the prairie stretching out in every direction, though I know the prairie only from books. When we sing, “But on the other side it didn’t say nothing, That side was made for you and me,” I feel I’ve been let into a divine secret, have been given a gift by a trickster god: the truth that rests beneath the rules and regulations, beneath the laws that govern us. A 3rd grade lesson that resonates through my life, whether reading Alchemy of Race and Rights in grad school, explaining eminent domain to my kids, or listening to the speech about what the land means to us, no less beautiful for its inaccurate attribution to Chief Seattle.

Now it’s early in the new century, and we’re in the kitchen again, my husband and I and our two daughters. This is after Deacon Bill married us one cold March morning at sunrise, out behind my mother’s house, after the trickster god gave us another gift, or rather two gifts at once: twins. Pete is still singing to us: “All around the kitchen, cockadoodle-doodle-doo.” We all dance, the two of us and our clothing-averse toddlers. “Put your hands on your hips.” We do. “And let your right foot slip.” There they go. “Now stop right still.” Everyone freezes, the girls’ eyes wide, beaming with excitement. This is almost the best bit, because the best bit always comes right after it. “Turn all around.” We turn ALL around. Then, at bedtime, we sing, “I know a little girl in red pajamas,” or blue, or green, or purple, because we do—we know two little girls in pajamas, and Pete has taught us songs to sing to them.

January 18, 2009. Pete is up there on stage standing between Bruce Springsteen and Pete’s grandson, a choir of every hue behind him, and behind them, Abraham Lincoln looks out over their heads, gazes upon the well-bundled crowd stretching far out across the mall in Washington on a cold winter day. The occasion is the inauguration of the first black president of the US. Bruce Springsteen is wicked cute—his voice is powerful. Abraham Lincoln has presence. The new president is young and handsome, his wife strong and beautiful. But Pete is the one offering the anthem to the crowd, feeding them the words so that even though the choir is singing straight through after practice and preparation, the crowd can join in, too, can own the song if they want to. Pete is the one—apple-cheeked, righteous, courageous and true, forever young—whose soul is so large that it shines out of him, out of his eyes and face, out of his whole being.  Pete is the one who’s not even wearing a coat.

94 years. It’s hard not to become an icon when your career lasts more than 70 years. Pete modeled the act of staying human for all of us. He found a place he loved and stayed there caring for it, he found people he loved and stayed, caring for them, he lived as a human, not a god, while letting the inspiration of the trickster god shine through nonetheless.

Thank you, Pete, for touching me in my private life, for giving me and all of us stories, songs and images that nourish, sustain and teach us, for bringing joy into our kitchens, and for touching us over and over in our public, communal lives as well. “My life flows on in endless song, above earth’s lamentation.” When I think of you, Pete Seeger, how can I keep from singing?


God says yes to me

by juno on January 10, 2014

God says yes to me

I asked God if it was okay to be melodramatic
and she said yes
I asked her if it was okay to be short
and she said it sure is
I asked her if I could wear nail polish
or not wear nail polish
and she said honey
she calls me that sometimes
she said you can do just exactly
what you want to
Thanks God I said
And is it even okay if I don’t paragraph
my letters
Sweetcakes God said
who knows where she picked that up
what I’m telling you is
Yes Yes Yes

by Kaylin Haught


January First

by juno on January 1, 2014

January First – Octavio Paz

The year’s doors open
like those of language,
toward the unknown.
Last night you told me: tomorrow
we shall have to think up signs,
sketch a landscape, fabricate a plan
on the double page
of day and paper.
Tomorrow, we shall have to invent,
once more,
the reality of this world.
I opened my eyes late.
For a second of a second
I felt what the Aztec felt,
on the crest of the promontory,
lying in wait
for the time’s uncertain return
through cracks in the horizon.
But no, the year had returned.
It filled all the room
and my look almost touched it.
Time, with no help from us,
had placed
in exactly the same order as yesterday
houses in the empty street,
snow on the houses,
silence on the snow.
You were beside me,
still asleep.
The day had invented you
but you hadn’t yet accepted
being invented by the day.
––Nor possibly by being invented, either.
You were in another day.
You were beside me
and I saw you, like the snow,
asleep among appearances.
Time, with no help from us,
invents houses, streets, trees
and sleeping women.
When you open your eyes
we’ll walk, once more,
among the hours and their inventions.
We’ll walk among appearances
and bear witness to time and its conjugations.
Perhaps we’ll open the day’s doors.
And then we shall enter the unknown.


Translated from the Spanish by Elizabeth Bishop with the author


Thanks, Neil, you made my day

by juno on November 27, 2013


Found and borrowed from here, while trying to find this quote, paraphrased here, from James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man:

“I will tell you what I will do and what I will not do. I will not serve that in which I no longer believe, whether it calls itself my home, my fatherland, or my church: and I will try to express myself in some mode of life or art as freely as I can and as wholly as I can, using for my defense the only arms I allow myself to use — silence, exile, and cunning.”




by juno on November 14, 2013


Before you know what kindness really is
you must lose things,
feel the future dissolve in a moment
like salt in a weakened broth.
What you held in your hand,
what you counted and carefully saved,
all this must go so you know
how desolate the landscape can be
between the regions of kindness.
How you ride and ride
thinking the bus will never stop,
the passengers eating maize and chicken
will stare out the window forever.

Before you learn the tender gravity of kindness,
you must travel where the Indian in a white poncho
lies dead by the side of the road.
You must see how this could be you,
how he too was someone
who journeyed through the night with plans
and the simple breath that kept him alive.

Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside,
you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing.
You must wake up with sorrow.
You must speak to it till your voice
catches the thread of all sorrows
and you see the size of the cloth.

Then it is only kindness that makes sense anymore,
only kindness that ties your shoes
and sends you out into the day to mail letters and purchase bread,
only kindness that raises its head
from the crowd of the world to say
it is I you have been looking for,
and then goes with you every where
like a shadow or a friend.

~ Naomi Shihab Nye ~



by juno on November 10, 2013



nothing says “the holidays” like nepotism

by juno on November 9, 2013

tellmethedaybackwards…and what more appropriate time to celebrate my family than as Thanksgiving approaches. Halloween is behind us, and I am in no way encouraging any of you to put up Christmas decorations. All in good time. (It has been fun to scheme and dream about the perfect Hanukkah/Thanksgiving fusion menu. I propose latkes with Mama Stamberg’s insane pink horseradish-spiked creamy cranberry relish.)

But some of you are out there writing gift lists, I just know it, so to inspire your thinking and promote my near and dear I’ve compiled some suggestions for you.

paulmeetsbernadetteAll Christmas lists start with books, because one of the happiest times is that moment on Christmas when everyone is tired and full and you all snuggle onto couches with a pile of books that have just entered your life, to look at, to browse, to dream over, to read excerpts from aloud to each other.

My sister Rosy’s beautiful book Paul Meets Bernadette hits the shelves on December 10. You can preorder it now, and it will reach you in plenty of time to give to every kid on your list—or ask your local bookstore to make sure they get it in right away. Gorgeous paintings and a story with a much larger point: every one of us needs a Bernadette in our lives. Here’s the trailer, made by our multitalented friend Jesse Beecher:

No child’s bookshelf is complete without my father’s book, with his friend David, Tell Me the Day Backwards. It’s not just a charming story with charming pictures, it gives you a new game to play with your kids, a bedtime tradition that will expand their sense of the world and their capacity to think broadly.

Look what I just found:

loveispatientThe holidays are a traditional time to get in touch with our far-flung loved ones. Consider writing them notes on my mother’s holiday cards. Her posters and greeting cards make inspired and inspiring gifts, and who doesn’t want to find one of these bumper stickers in the bottom of his stocking?

Looking for something grander? Imagine your musical loved one waking up to find my brother Roli’s (and ROLI‘s) Limited First Edition Seaboard GRAND under the tree! More videos here.


For those hard-to-buy for darlings who only appreciate a sui generis gift, commission a piece in wood or metal from my brother Jack. So many of the beautiful objects in my house emerged from his hands.

And the lucky among you in the Burlington, VT area can give a gift that hits two of my favorite high notes: a session with my sister Jasmine promotes relaxation and is absolutely clutter-free—in fact it could help you declutter in more ways than one.

There you have it, gifts to nurture mind and body, spirit and creativity, and a chance for me to spend part of the afternoon appreciating the family I was born into. Of course these works of their hands aren’t why I love them—I love them for their humor and presence, their lively minds, their ceaseless seeking and questioning, their loving hearts. Thank you, family.





by juno on November 7, 2013




The Forgotten Dialect of the Heart

by juno on November 5, 2013

The Forgotten Dialect of the Heart

How astonishing it is that language can almost mean,
and frightening that it does not quite. Love, we say,
God, we say, Rome and Michiko, we write, and the words
get it all wrong. We say bread and it means according
to which nation. French has no word for home,
and we have no word for strict pleasure. A people
in northern India is dying out because their ancient
tongue has no words for endearment. I dream of lost
vocabularies that might express some of what
we no longer can. Maybe the Etruscan texts would
finally explain why the couples on their tombs
are smiling. And maybe not. When the thousands
of mysterious Sumerian tablets were translated,
they seemed to be business records. But what if they
are poems or psalms? My joy is the same as twelve
Ethiopian goats standing silent in the morning light.
O Lord, thou art slabs of salt and ingots of copper,
as grand as ripe barley lithe under the wind’s labor.
Her breasts are six white oxen loaded with bolts
of long-fibered Egyptian cotton. My love is a hundred
pitchers of honey. Shiploads of thuya are what
my body wants to say to your body. Giraffes are this
desire in the dark. Perhaps the spiral Minoan script
is not a language but a map. What we feel most has
no name but amber, archers, cinnamon, horses and birds.

From The Great Fires: Poems, 1982-1992(Alfred A. Knopf, 1994), by Jack Gilbert

Hear Jack Gilbert reads this poem aloud.