Embellished Envelopes

July 29, 2014

Painted envelopes by Mikisaburo Izui, interned at Minidoka

Painted envelopes by Mikisaburo Izui, interned at Minidoka

My decorated envelopes

My decorated envelopes

I was inspired to embellish a couple of plain envelopes with little watercolor sketches after seeing a display of envelopes by Mikisaburo Izui at the Bellevue Arts Museum.  The envelopes were included in an exhibit of arts and crafts created by Japanese Americans in the internment camps of 1942 – 1946.  The exhibit is called“The Art of Gaman.”  The concept of Gaman is “to endure the seemingly unbearable with patience and dignity.”

I am drawn to the Japanese way of imbuing a sense of grace and beauty in everyday, ordinary things.  It takes time and attentiveness and a calm mind, I think, to live in this way.  The exhibit at the Bellevue Arts Museum shows that this sensibility did not break under the unfair and harsh conditions of the internment camps.  The art created during this time was remarkable and inspiring.

On those now rare occasions when I mail a handwritten letter, I plan to take just a little extra time to embellish the envelope with a watercolor sketch.  My small attempt to add a grace note to someone’s day.



“The mail is our daily dose of promise.”
     — Barbara Holland, Endangered Pleasures

A neighbor's collection of vintage mailboxes

Detail, vintage mailbox

Old, rusted mailbox

Mailboxes used to be like treasure chests, holding the promise of letters from loved ones.  These days the pleasures of mail are dwindling — too many bills, junk mail, solicitations.

I was reminded of the pleasures of mail while reading a new book by one of my favorite bloggers — Turkish Delight & Treasure Hunts by Jane Brocket.  The entire book is a delightful romp back to old childhood classics. As the title implies, Brocket shares ideas for recipes, such as Pippi Longstocking’s Swedish pancakes, and imaginative activities, such as playing Poohsticks.  One of the chapters is called “Run Your Own Post Office,” inspired by the old bird house/mailbox in the garden of the March girls in Little Women.

“The P.O. was a capital little institution, and flourished wonderfully, for nearly as many queer things passed through it as through the real office.  Tragedies and cravats, poetry and pickles, garden-seeds and long letters, music and ginger-bread, rubbers, invitations, scoldings and puppies.”
     —  Louisa May Alcott, Little Women

New book by Jane Brocket


I wonder what surprises my mailbox will hold today.

Postcards purchased at Glacier National Park

Given the number of postcards for sale in gift shops, even people who do not normally write letters must still write and send postcards on their vacations.  Perhaps postcards are the Twitter of snail mail. Both accommodate only the shortest messages.

I still enjoy sending and receiving postcards.  I often buy one or two for myself as souvenirs of my trips.  I like the vintage-like art on these postcards from Glacier National Park, which was celebrating its 100th anniversary this year.

Reading The Letters of E. B. White

“In a letter, speech becomes everyday literature.”
     — Thomas Moore, Soul Mates

My oldest sister and I still correspond regularly by mail.  I look forward to her newsy letters in my mailbox.  I prefer letters to telephone calls. 

If you feel nostalgic for letters, I recommend Letters of E. B. White Revised Edition, edited by Dorothy Lobrano Guth and Martha White, 2006.  E. B. White was a master letter writer.  He is down to earth, but wry and funny.  He says of himself, “I discovered a long time ago that writing of the small things of the day, the trivial matters of the heart, the inconsequential but near things of this living, was the only kind of creative work which I could accomplish with any sincerity or grace.  As a reporter, I was a flop, because I always came back laden not with facts about the case, but with a mind full of the little difficulties and amusements I had encountered in my travels.”

White wrote for the New Yorker, but he was a country boy at heart.  I knew of him as the author or three delightful children’s books, Stuart Little, The Trumpet of the Swan, and Charlotte’s Web. 

Reading White’s letters goes a long way toward satisfying my desire for snail mail.  His are as good, or better, than letters from my real family!

Christmas Cards and Letters

December 2, 2009

This year my annual Christmas letter is printed on the computer.

Stamping the Christmas letters

I enjoy receiving Christmas cards and letters in the mail.  Although I’ve pared my list down, I still send an annual letter to five cousins, one aunt, one uncle, and a handful of old friends.  Some years I write my greetings by hand, but this year I’ve opted for the ease of a computer-generated letter.

Some people make fun of the annual Christmas letter, as it can be seen as a show of one-upmanship, bragging about children’s accomplishments and exotic trips.  But I always look forward to hearing about how friends and family are doing — everyone’s lives are busy, and if it weren’t for this once-a-year letter, I’m sure the relationship would fall even more to the wayside.

Rural mail delivery -- who doesn't look forward to a letter in their mailbox?

So keep those cards and letters coming!

I’ll end this post by sharing one of my favorite seasonal essays by Garrison Keillor.  This essay was published in the Seattle Post Intelligencer newspaper on Christmas Eve 2006 (http://www.seattlepi.com/opinion/296931_keillor22.html).  But I’ve copied it here for you as well:

A perfectly adequate Christmas letter


I love reading Christmas newsletters in which the writer bursts the bonds of modesty and comes forth with one gilt-edged paragraph after another: “Tara was top scorer on the Lady Cougars soccer team and won the lead role in the college production of ‘Antigone,’ which, by the way, they are performing in the original Greek. Her essay on chaos theory as an investment strategy will be in the next issue of Fortune magazine, the same week she’ll appear as a model in Vogue. How she does what she does and still makes Phi Beta Kappa is a wonderment to us all. And, yes, she is still volunteering at the homeless shelter.”

I get a couple dozen Christmas letters a year, and I sit and read them in my old bathrobe as I chow down on Hostess Twinkies. Everyone in the letters is busy as beavers, piling up honors hand over fist, volunteering up a storm, traveling to Beijing, Abu Dhabi and Antarctica; nobody is in treatment or depressed or flunking out of school, though occasionally there is a child who gets shorter shrift.

“Chad is adjusting well to his new school and making friends. He especially enjoys the handicrafts.” How sad for Chad. There he is in reform school learning to get along with other little felons and making belts and birdhouses, but he can’t possibly measure up to the goddess Tara. Or Lindsay or Meghan or Madison, each of whom is also stupendous.

This is rough on us whose children are not paragons. Most children aren’t. A great many teenage children go through periods when they loathe you and go around slamming doors and playing psychotic music and saying things like “I wish I had never been born,” which is a red-hot needle stuck under your fingernail. One must be very selective, writing about them for the annual newsletter. “Sean is becoming very much his own person and is unafraid to express himself. He is a lively presence in our family and his love of music is a thing to behold.”

I come from Minnesota, where it’s considered shameful to be shameless, where modesty is always in fashion, where self-promotion is looked at askance. Give us a gold trophy and we will have it bronzed so you won’t think that we think we’re special. There are no Donald Trumps in Minnesota: We strangled them all in their cribs. A football player who likes to do his special dance after scoring a touchdown is something of a freak.

The basis of modesty is winter. When it’s 10 below zero and the wind is whipping across the tundra, there is no such thing as stylish and smart, and everybody’s nose runs. And the irony is, if you’re smart and stylish, nobody will tell you about your nose. You look in the rearview mirror and you see a gob of green snot hanging from your left nostril and you wonder, “How long have I been walking around like that? Is that why all those people were smiling at me?”

Yes, it is.

So we don’t toot our own horns. We can be rather ostentatious in our modesty and can deprecate faster than you can compliment us. We are averse to flattery. We just try to focus on keeping our noses clean.

So here is my Christmas letter:

Dear friends. We are getting older but are in fairly good shape and moving forward insofar as we can tell. We still drink strong coffee and read the paper and drive the same old cars. We plan to go to Norway next summer. We think that this war is an unmitigated disaster that will wind up costing a trillion dollars and we worry for our country. Our child enjoys her new school and is making friends. She was a horsie in the church Christmas pageant and hunkered down beside the manger and seemed to be singing when she was supposed to. We go on working and hope to be adequate to the challenges of the coming year but are by no means confident. It’s winter. God is around here somewhere but does not appear to be guiding our government at the moment. Nonetheless we persist. We see kindness all around us and bravery and we are cheered by the good humor of young people. The crabapple tree over the driveway is bare, but we have a memory of pink blossoms and expect them to return. God bless you all.