Mail Call

I am in deep, grading a final paper that proposes a solution to worldwide pollution, when I register a scuffling and scraping at the front door. The mail slot clanks open; paper shuffles through.

But the front door doesn’t close right away. Instead, there’s an electronic peeping…the peep that says a package has been deposited. As the outer door softly closes, I yell, in chorus with Jim, who’s in the dining room, and Mark, at his desk in what we optimistically call ‘the Florida room,’ “THANK YOU!”

The mail carrier’s response is pleasant but muffled. I force myself back to my paper. It’s a good one, a pleasure to read and respond to. I post the grade, email a message to the student, and jump up.

Time to see what’s in the mail.

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Mark and Jim are there ahead of me. There’s a stack of ridiculous— three Medicare supplemental plan solicitations, the bane of the almost 65-year old. There are two invitations to buy life insurance: only 14 dollars a month for $25,000 (IF you qualify). Don’t leave your family stranded by debt when you pass, reads the unctuous text on the bottom of one envelope. Old people junk mail. We slide those envelopes and a stack of retail ads into the recycling basket, and sort through what’s left.

There’s a bill or two; there’s a midwestern travel magazine…a dreamer’s book, right now. There’s a pretty envelope with a handwritten address. My heart does a little dance: a letter from a friend.

Mark’s push pins, for the tattered bulletin board he covered with the back of an old tattersall plaid shirt, have arrived.

Jim cuts open packaging to find the graphic novel he ordered last week.

Good stuff, I think, feeling satisfied. We dispose of packaging; we wash our hands. Mark heads off to his office space, ready to pin up some physical, hard copy, important documents. Jim runs downstairs to fit the slim new book into its place in the series he’s collecting. I take my letter to the reading chair; when I open and read that familiar handwriting, I hear my friend’s voice so very clearly…more clearly, maybe, then when we actually talk.

The house settles in after that pleasant energy spike–after mail call in the COVID-19 quarantine.

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The mail, the real, tangible, paper mail, has always held that sense of wonderful possibility. Most days, it’s ordinary, banal, unexciting. But every once in a while…

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When I was a child, it was an exciting day when a letter from Aunt Annie arrived. She lived fifty miles away, in the City. Not too far by modern reckoning, but at that time, visits were rare events requiring careful planning. Aunt Annie would write about what my cousins were doing, about new clothes she had made or special treats she fixed. She asked me about schoolwork and about my brothers.

Sometimes, her envelope was tantalizingly lumpy. There might be a bookmark enclosed, or a tiny pin on a small, stiff square of cardboard, or a pretty card festooned with a jaggedy plastic flower.

I would flatten the letter on the kitchen table, and respond right away, carefully answering all my aunt’s questions on a sheet of loose-leaf paper. Sometimes I, or my younger brother, would include a drawing.

I would painstakingly address the envelope, a cheap white business class number, all by myself. My mother would yield me one stamp.

It was my first correspondence. I took it very seriously.

Writing to Aunt Annie ignited a lifelong love of letter-writing in me. There were pen-pals through Girl Scouts: what joy to come home from school and find a grubby envelope on the table, “RMA!” or “2 Young 2 Drink 4 Roses!!!” written in pencil where the flap was sealed. In high school, as exchange students came and went and friends began to travel, parchment airmail letters appeared. Inside would be fragile stacks of paper, sheets of ponderous missives inked in the crimped, fountain pen, East Coast script we all espoused. (I began, then, to cross my upper-case Z’s and my 7’s, trying to be Europeanly trendy. That’s a habit—or maybe an affectation–still.)

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In those high school days, we had a wonderful mailman; his nickname was Yogi, because he really did resemble the iconic ball player. He kept track of us through our mail, and he wasn’t shy about asking questions or demanding explanations.

Once a boy I liked loaned me his white tennis jacket after we’d played a set or two; the sky darkened, the air cooled, and I was walking home. Gallant, he insisted; I pulled the light covering on, and I hoped people would see me wearing it.

We were pushing the season; it was before Easter, and the boy and his family were heading to Florida for two weeks in the sun. He needed the jacket back before they left.

One of my brothers dropped it at his house. I pinned a piece of paper to the right breast pocket, a note that simply said, ‘Thank you.’

The boy and his family went off south, and school let out for a two-week break. I was there when Yogi brought the mail in the morning, when he said, “Ahhhh, nothin’ much today. Just bills and junk,” and, disappointed, handed over a thick stack of boring.

One day, though, I heard his heavy boots pound up the stairs, but I didn’t hear the mailbox squawk open. I waited, and then, finally, opened the front door.

Yogi was scratching his head, flipping a postcard back and forth.

“It’s for you,” he said, “but I don’t GET it.”

One side had a picture of a pristine Florida beach. The other side just read, “You’re welcome.”

I had to explain the whole story about the jacket, assure Yogi that no, that boy wasn’t a smart ass, that he really COULD put a whole sentence together, that he really was a nice guy; he was just being funny.

Finally, Yogi was satisfied, sort of, but he did mutter that when HE wrote to a girl back in the day, he had something to say and he said it.

“I don’t GET it,” he said again, clomping back down my front steps, shaking his head.

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When friends went off to college, we wrote.

When we graduated, when life picked us up and whirled us around, we wrote.

And always, I felt that same warmth and glowiness, coming home from work, finding a handwritten letter in the mail.

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The mail can yield a magical missive from a much-missed person; it can offer other wonders, too. Magazines are wish books: look what I could do with my kitchen! Look at this wonderful restaurant in St. Louis, Missouri; this funky museum in Toledo, Ohio; this park in Indianapolis, Indiana: maybe, after, we could go…

Magazines offer recipes when standard fare becomes boring, they give craft ideas, they share stories of fascinating or inspiring people—the famous and the unknown alike.

I read my magazines, sometimes more than once. Sometimes I plunder them, ripping out a recipe or a book review. Sometimes I put them on the Half Price Books stack, and we take intact copies in for trade-in.

Always, the magazine imparts a little jiggle of excitement and possibility, of lives lived differently, of the chance to grow and change.

Sometimes the mail yields an unexpected check…a refund from an insurance overpayment, say. Hey, we say. Eighteen dollars and 75 cents! We could…go get frozen custard at Whits…buy a new nozzle for the hose…put the money in the travel jar…

Every once in a while, the mail serves up an exciting letter. The editors liked your essay and would like to run it in the June issue…

Thank you notes and museum newsletters, rich with glossy photos. Professional journals. Catalogs for fun goodies; catalogs for sustainable stuff.

The mail can be dull, but it always holds the potential for adventure.

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And the people that bring it are important, like Yogi was,–known characters who handle those important arrivals with respect and responsibility. I thought our current mail carrier would be annoyed when my heavy vats of detergent arrived from Amazon—one for dishes, one for laundry. But when I went out to the front steps to wrestle those babies inside, he stopped to talked about them.

I told him I was buying bulk to save on the plastic we use, and he was really interested in that. He is interested, too, in ways to save money, and he asked me what a five-gallon tub of laundry detergent cost. He did the same when my box of eighty rolls of toilet paper arrived (temporarily unavailable during COVID days, more’s the pity. The eighty rolls come wrapped in paper and boxed in cardboard; the eighty rolls don’t require me to use even a tiny shred of plastic.)

The mail carrier tipped me off to buying shampoo in bulk, another way of downsizing plastic use. It’s cheaper, too.

There’s something about knowing the information and stuff that lands in my house are delivered by hands attached to people who are not strangers, but more like friends.

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And there’s something, in this at-home time, about the once-a-day possibility of something wonderful falling onto the floor by the front door. Anything could happen. Any number of miraculous things could arrive.

And sometimes they do. Not always, maybe not even frequently, but enough to make mail call an adventure, a chance to scare up and entertain possibilities during days when most adventures have been hog-tied and contained in very small spaces.

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I wish you something wonderful, something that makes you laugh or smile, in your mailbox today.

What I Might Miss When I Dismiss White Magic

Magic. n. (esp. in stories for children) the use of special powers to make things happen that would usually be impossible: a tale of witchcraft and magic

Magic is also the skill of performing tricks to entertain people, such as making things seem to appear and disappear, or the tricks performed: My daughter loves doing magic.

A special, exciting quality that makes something or someone different and better than others: As an actress, she has lost none of her magic, and she still is thrilling to watch.

https://dictionary.cambridge.org/us/dictionary/english/magic

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I shook the stones from their gauzy yellow, ribbon-tied bags, and spread them across my desk.

Chunks of rosy quartz looked sugared, like candy. The kyanite was smooth and glossy, striated blue and gray. One facet of each of the seer eggs was polished smooth; the rest of the rounded rock looked cloudy and rough and opaque.

I looked each up on-line, and discovered…

…rose quartz carries soft feminine energy, encouraging things like peacefulness and compassion, the giving of nourishment and comfort, the achievement of healing. This rock, I learned, promotes unconditional love—its receipt and its extension.

…blue kyanite enhances meditation; it calms the entire being. The stone fends off negative emotions, warding away frustration and confusion and stress, and it clears things that are blocked. It has a special connection, I read, to the throat. Holding blue kyanite near promotes honest, effective speech.

…the seer eggs have a smooth facet for the holder to gaze into. Then she’ll be connected to, and understand, the past, present, or the future. (Some say that there’s a way to use the eggs to transport the beholder to one specific time.)

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I bought these pretty baubles at The Lavender Hour, bought them to share with friends who couldn’t attend the opening of the wellness center and yoga studio. This enterprise was Terri’s dream; when she died in March, her daughters vowed to make it happen. And the whole family pitched in…and damn. Didn’t they just pull it off?

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The rocks are beautiful. But do they really carry any potent, magical powers?

I don’t know. We may be as ignorant in our ways as those unschooled people in fables who are awed by the appearance of fire, or by a soda can dropping from the sky. Years from now, scientists and scholars may well establish links between certain minerals and different kinds of well-being.

But the creation of the concrete interpretation of a wonderful dream…well, that, to me, IS magical.

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I was warned, as a child in a Roman Catholic school in the 1960’s, against tinkering with anything magical. The nuns, stern, often humorless, and absolutely certain of what they taught, were a little confusing on the topic.

There was, they told us, no such thing as magic. But if there WAS a thing called magic,—well, it would be the devil’s doing.

A brave child raised her hand and asked about what Jesus did—the turning of water into wine, the raising of a dear friend from the dead. Weren’t those things magical?

Our teacher was appalled. Those were MIRACLES, not magic, she intoned, and only God could perform miracles. Jesus, of course, could do this because he was God. The apostles, the saints…sometimes God worked through them, and miracles happened as testament to God’s great power.

But other things—Ouija boards, for instance—were either fake, shallow party games, or connected to dark forces.

We were NOT, Sister told us, to dabble in or even wonder about magic. And she firmly closed the door on that topic.

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I let go of the idea of magic—a comforting story, magic was, for fairy tales and Harry Potter books—but not something connected to real life. I did not, though, relinquish the concept of miracles.

I prayed for miracles when relationships foundered painfully, when catastrophic illnesses struck, when people I held dear struggled with insurmountable problems. The nuns had taught us that one must be pure of heart and free of sin to have prayers answered. But some of the kindest and best people didn’t get their miracles.

The idea that healing came to deserving ones—or that attitude and optimism inspired remission—well, I came to see that was false. Stalwart people who believed that worth determined miracles would have to believe that they had failed—that they weren’t good enough, or upbeat enough, or something enough, to have their prayers answered.

I did not think there was a God meting out horrible diseases as punishment or test.

Instead, I believed that much of the disease that we suffer is human-made, environmental, caused by who knows what—lead paint on plastic bread bags, maybe, or toxins released into fresh-water creeks, or fertilizer particles floating randomly through the fresh Fall air. Human free will created and released those things; our complex genetics determines who would be felled by them.

Modern science, we are told, is searching for the miracle. There is no magic cure for sorrow and pain and death.

But sometimes, I am coming to see, there is a kind of everyday enchantment, the kind of magic that shines lights in the darkness, and that, sometimes, (for short periods, anyway), can make the awful losses bearable.

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There are talismans, like the stones I brought back from The Lavender Hour.

I keep a crystal Terri gave me in the pocket of my purse. I bring it out and roll it around in the palm of my hand sometimes. It’s something she selected, and holding it brings back memories of a wonderful friend.

My son James carries a variety of talismans in his wallet. He, too, has a crystal Terri gave him. His Health professor gave him a shiny bit of decorative glass at the end of the last semester; he likes the way it looks and it feels, and he carries it with the crystal. They nestle with a tiny rosary—a solid piece of metal with round knobs that a small person might slide over a pinkie finger—that Jim’s grandfather Angelo gave him.

I don’t believe Jim invests any of these items with mystical properties, but they have the power to remind him of special people—some living, and some whom he’s lost. And there’s no sacrilege and no disrespect in the religious icon mingling closely with the earthly ones.

If I package up the little stones this week, and send them, with the on-line explanations of those minerals, to special people, those people won’t say, “Hey! Magic!”  

But I hope they’ll feel the power of connection, and the enchantment of special memories.

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There are places that extend their magic.

Wetlands have been created on the farm where Terry’s son John grew up playing. His dad’s family lived on that land for generations; its mysteries introduced the boy to the passion for wildlife that would become the man’s career. Now that acreage is a living text that scientists and students will study to learn about the birds and the water creatures, the snakes and the reptiles, the warm-blooded furry creatures, and the cold-blooded, scaly ones, the flying ones, the creeping ones, the ones that slither and the ones that swim, and that inhabit a special place.

The wetlands are beautiful, teeming with life, busy, but—to the uninitiated observer, at least,—serene. There’s a magic in their creation, in the energy and passion of one young man inspiring a center for study and preservation: and a place where those who loved him can go to celebrate him, and maybe to feel close.

The same kind of magic stirs in the Lavender Hour where Terri’s children bring her vision of a healing place into clear, real focus. We arrived late at the grand opening last Saturday; a free yoga class was underway, with Terri’s daughter Kate leading it. In the long, long space, so many people took part that scant inches separated yoga mats. There is the magic of a dream fulfilled, and a lasting love expressed in concrete ways.

Even the city paths I walk each morning have their soothing magic. They bring me smiling familiar faces: the man who always heads to the corner to catch the bus when I am trekking; the young man on his porch who waves vigorously, grinning, when he sees me walking by, and when he’s waiting, with his burly patient dad, for the bus to arrive to take him to his work experience. The lady with her dignified little dog. The guy with his two mismatched, rambunctious, caramel-colored hounds.

The walks bring me adventures into the unexpected, too—four ducks waddling down an inland street, the pungent smell of a recently visiting skunk, the fleeting visit of a bluebird on a wire. And all of this—the expected and the surprises—is wrapped in nature…in the fog or the heat, the slickery mud, or the dusty, dry pavement,…that every day brings. It’s a magical merging of the mundane and the mysterious.

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There’s the enchantment of books—the true magic when I find the book that opens exactly the door that needs opening right now, or that provides the comfort and respite to enable me to take a short refuge in its pages, and then to jump back, refreshed, into the fray.

There are photos and letters and emails, gifts received whose meanings withstand the onslaught. A ring worn thin and smooth, worn for fifty years or more; a favorite mug. A funny card.

These are just things, of course; but they are magical in what they represent.

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And of course, there are the people—the ones who cheer us on, who catch us when our knees shake loose and we begin to go down, down, down. Sometimes, the call comes at just the right moment, or the card slides through the slot at precisely the time we need exactly what they share. And what could be more magical than that?

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The nuns taught me well. The only horror novel I ever read was The Exorcist; even the memory of that terrifying tale makes me reach to snap on a light in the darkest part of night. Black magic—well, that’s nothing to mess about with, and nothing I want to learn more about.

But there’s a white magic that generates hope, that shares joy, that supports and uplifts. We can find it in the icons and talismans of everyday life; we can feel it when we walk through spaces imbued with special meaning. It zaps us with its power when the people we love generate it; we strive to nurture that power, to shoot it right back at the times the originators need it, too.

This is not a magic that will swell and roar, not one that will fell the Bad Ones, or heal the ill ones, or bring us back the ones we miss so dear. But it is a kind of magic that comforts and rocks us, that helps us hold on when our fingers are slick and tired with the effort.

I’ll take that white magic in whatever homely ways it presents itself; I will take and it and use it and try to absorb its strength. And I’ll hope that when I’m called on to send that helping power, that I’ll be ready—ready with a word, or a walk, or a rock—whatever small white magic I can share that might have the potential to lift that special one’s darkness just a little.