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[Elder]Blogging To Give Shape To Our Lives

[EDITOR'S NOTE: This story has been cross-posted from blogher.org.]

Back in the olden days when I was growing up, people wrote letters – thoughts laid down on paper with pen and ink – and mailed them to faraway friends and loved ones. Depending on how far away, letters could take days or sometimes weeks to reach their destination and the arrival of a long-awaited postal message was cause for excitement.

Letters were read and re-read and saved in pretty boxes, sometimes a collection of them tied with ribbon. When I was a child and a young woman, long distance telephone calls were too expensive except for celebrations and emergencies. Instead, we wrote letters, passing on personal news and commenting on whatever might be affecting our lives, our minds, our choices at that moment.

When I was about ten years old – five or six years after my father returned from fighting in World War II – I woke late one night to the low murmur of voices in the living room. I crept quietly to the top of the stairs where I discovered in the living room below my parents sitting on the floor in front of the fireplace. Between them was with a cardboard box filled with letters – V-mail - which I recognized from the war when my father was away for three years.

Mom and Dad were reading letters aloud to one another, talking about what was written, sometimes hugging or kissing. And when they were finished with each letter, they tossed it in the fire.

My great Aunt Edith and I exchanged weekly letters for 25 years. She was my favorite, most trusted older relative and I poured my heart out to her about every good and bad thing that happened to me from age 15.

Visiting her one time when I was about 40, she announced that I was “old enough now for these” as she handed me a box containing every letter I’d written her through all those years – essentially my own biography in my own hand and the most precious gift she ever gave me. (It is so easy to electronically keep everything we write these days that much younger readers may not realize the thrill of such a gift in times prior to personal computers.)

I was reminded of these events while reading Anna Quindlen’s column in Newsweek last week. She was holding forth on the new movie, Freedom Writers and on the lost art of writing:

“…as the letter fell out of favor and education became professionalized, with its goal less the expansion of the mind than the acquisition of a job, writing began to be seen largely as the purview of writers…And in the age of the telephone most communication became evanescent, gone into thin air no matter how important or heartfelt.”

To her credit, Ms. Quindlen recognizes a renewal of writing that has been brought about through technology although she appears to be unaware that it more often takes better form than the “…many [emails] r 2 cursory 4 u” she quotes.

Online writing, and blogging in particular, is so much more than “txt msg” shorthand. In fact, in blogging if you can’t or won’t spell correctly, if your blog is filled with typos, if your thinking (and therefore your writing) is sloppy and unclear, your blog will be ignored – at least, that appears to be so among elderbloggers who grew up in the days of pen-and-ink writing.

Quindlen beautifully captures the essence of letter-writing in the olden days:

“The details of housekeeping and child rearing, the rigors of war and work, advice to friends and family; none was slated for publication. They were communications that gave shape to life by describing it for others.” [emphasis added]

Gave shape to life...

Although nowadays we publish for all the world to read, I’ve come to believe this is what personal or identity bloggers, particularly elderbloggers, are doing – giving shape to our lives.

Carl Jung described one of the seven tasks of aging as the need to review, reflect upon and sum up one’s life. Most elders have a need to tell their story before they die and Jung himself wrote in his Memoirs, Dreams, Reflections, published shortly before his death:

“I try to see the line which leads through my life into the world, and out of the world again.”

Although it is an imperative for elders, making sense of ourselves and giving shape to our lives is what writing has always been about at any age. Blogging gives that need a new dimension through the medium itself and the sharing of our thoughts with so many others than personal letters allow.

In championing personal writing, Ms. Quindlen laments that it is a

“…concept that has been lost in modern life: writing can make pain tolerable, confusion clearer and the self stronger.”

I think bloggers – old and young – intuitively know this, and that we are on the bleeding edge of a renaissance in personal writing. Our blogs (and saved emails too) will become as important to our current and future loved ones as handwritten letters were to people of another era.

Comments

Bittersweet truth.
And I feel quit sad that I didn't save my father's letters that he wrote to me when I lived in Germany at the time my husband was stationed there. However, from the time my husband went to Viet Nam, we kept all our letters. They fill a trunk! What a read that would be! Maybe we should burn them as your parents did! Pretty telling stuff in there.

I began writing to pen pals when I was 8 years old, back in 1962. It started as a school assignment. I even remember my first pen pal's name -- Kathy from Buffalo, New York. When that first letter came back from her and I held it in my hands, I felt as if I was holding manna from Heaven! From that point on I was hooked. At some points in my life I had up to 30 pen pals but my average was anywhere from 5 to 10. They were made up of friends who'd moved away, pen pals I found from magazines, and family members too far away to see often. I even met a few pen pals on travels around the US. I had boxes and boxes of letters I'd saved. Then, as a young bride, I burned them all when my young groom realized I had letters from boys I'd known mixed in among them. How I rue that day now, 32 years later! My last 'snail mail' friend, the 75-year-old mother of my childhood best friend, recently acquired a computer and we are now writing back and forth via email. It's not the same. I miss spying those fat envelopes tucked in with my daily mail a few times a year in her most-distinctive hand writing. Now it's blogging that fills that void in my life. I don't have boxes of letters to leave to my little grandson, but I'm making a paper copy of my blog for him, just in case computers don't survive -- I don't foresee THAT happening, but you never know. Even though emailing is so convenient, if people were still interested in writing actual letters, I'd go back to them in a heart beat.

ronni, thank you for gathering these ideas together. this mix of letters, blogging, aging is one of your best. sad that the word "letters" has an almost vintage ring.

I hope you're right about the renaissance. I get sad when I think about reading and writing and books and newspapers and letter writing and how these things may be falling by the wayside.

I save everything...especially letters and correspondence of any kind. Sometimes I think I'm nuts...but other times I'm so happy to have them all to look back on. I have things since I was a kid, and among them some cards and letters from my father...my most treasured possessions other than things from my kids.

"...bleeding edge of a renaissance in personal writing"

Oh, my! I love that phrase!

Great blog and topic. I wrote penpal type letters a lot through the years to family and friends. When it was a guy, I'd burn all of his when we would break up or get mad (far more satisfying than a delete button) but finally anything left went when I married... which I have kind of regretted but they'd not have been my letters anyway.

I have a long term woman friend, where we exchanged letters for years whenever we didn't live close. One year, she gave me a stack of mine that I had written her when my first child was born. I very much appreciated that as it recorded an experience where I had taken the time to write her to keep close but hadn't written much in my journal at all.

My few email contacts are deep friendships with whom I exchange very lengthy emails when we write, but we can go months between writing. I have saved those especially from one friend who shares a lot of spiritual insights with me. I need to often reread them several times just to get 'it' and find sometimes they make more sense to me as I get a bit more mature in this or that area.

I've been lurking on this site for a while and linking to so many other wonderful writers. Many of these blogs really do have the essence of written letters, carefully describing life and reflecting on it. I think that is what's most distinctive about these elder blogs, compared to many others: the reflection that's included. Today's post and everyone's stories about letters really show that. Thank you to everyone for taking the time to share your thoughts.

I am banking on the fact that the blog posts will be important to my descendants; that is why I print them periodically, and put them in a 3-ring binder.

“…concept that has been lost in modern life: writing can make pain tolerable, confusion clearer and the self stronger.”


Great quote. I can remember times in my own life when I had to sit down with pen in hand and write in order to live through the pain, clear my thoughts and grow strong enough to move on.

There is something sweet about being able to pull out old letters, opening them, pages crinkling softly, smoothing them out and savoring the words - looking at the stamps, the postmarks and return addresses......remembering both good times and bad.

Recently I was clearing out some old stuff with a young friend - she found a batch of letters tucked away in a box and asked if she could read them. Hours later, she was in tears saying that she'll never have something like this - because she corresponds with e-mail. I just smiled, hugged her and after drying my own tears, tucked them away again, perhaps not to see light of day for many more years, if ever. I also ordered her a box of fabulous stationery and a stash of stamps. She now writes letters in addition to those grand e-mails.

Ronni,

I loved reading how your great-aunt Edith said you were old enough for your letters, made me tear up and smile at the same time.

Too bad the art of writing personal letters is going the way of the daily newspaper, disappearing. My mother still writes letters, and I save them all, not like my emails, deleted once read.

Before the word blog was coined some of us were online blogging, but it was through bulletin board systems, in the early eighties. Electronic messages could be sent throughout the world using Fidonet, but it took two to three days to get a response.

Back in the good old days, my first modem ran at the lightning speed of 2400 baud, on my IBM AT computer. For the layperson, this means a one-megabyte text file would take one hour to download, compared to six seconds using DSL today.

Last year AARP ran a great story about bloggers, and it said only five percent of bloggers are over the age of fifty.

Looks as if we are in the minority, I’m 53.

Beautifully said. Thank you.

Delurking here to say, "That was beautifully written." I enjoy your blog.

I certainly find the writing I do on my blog to be finding the pattern of my life.

My daughter went to visit my mother last weekend and was given all the letters I wrote to my mother. After Julie finishes reading them, she is sending them on to me. She read me a few lines here and there, and they reminded me of things I had entirely forgotten.

Your thoughts certainly resonate with me along with Ms Quinlan's observation that "...writing can make pain tolerable, confusion clearer and the self stronger."

Elderblogging does seem to provide an opportunity to "...review, reflect upon and sum up one's life" which, as you note, Jung perceives as a task of aging.

I find your sharing of these thoughts quite meaningful in describing the value blogging can have in ours and others lives.

I had a fantastic correspondence with my Great Aunt Lois when I was in college. She related to me what it was like to be sent to Vladivostok with the Red Cross in World War I, right when the Russian Revolution started. Someone I knew in college took her letters and never returned them.

I am 53, and I was kind of forced into blogging, in order to tell my mother's story, Her and her husband had a very active life in their late 80's then a family member decided they both belonged in nursing homes and all their assets liquidated. It Was horrible, my father died when separated fron his wife, and she lost her compass when put in a nursing home and became totally disabled. I never thought they could be people so evil, So I was forced into blogging to let the truth be told. They were separated without a court order, just on a whim, because they could , they were old, had dementia, and were easy prey, I felt bad because I could not protect them. Most people don't think about this , unless it happens to them, then it's too late. Please
support the cause come to ElderAbuseHelp.Com and use the auto letter responder to write a few letters, if you can. Do it for all our sakes, we are all getting old, and elder abuse is called the epidemic of the 21st century. I had no idea one out of four elder will be abused. Did you? Come by you will feel good about it, I promise.

Ronni:
I, too, read Anna Quindlen's excellent column. I was in agreement with her. Perhaps it is my age (71) that still prompts me to sit down and write a letter. I find that there is often a good reason for that effort. I can take time to play with the words, re-arrange them, get them just so. That's hard to do with a quick phone call. Another reason I write these letters is to let the recipient know that I cared enough to take the time to remember what a good time I had; what an interesting experience an event turned out to be; or even that I had something to say and I wanted that person to know how I felt.

Bob Greene once wrote a column - probably twenty years ago - about a funeral of a friend's father. The man was an apparent warehouse of stories and information as well as jokes and serious beliefs. Greene noted that what a shame it was to have lost all that knowledge because of a death. He likened it to losing a hard drive with irreplacable information. It can never be retreived. That column prompted me to sit down over a period of several months and write down stories about growing up in Lafayette, Indiana - well over a hundred pages of my memories; stories my grandmothers told me; things I learned from Uncle Charles and Uncle Harold; sad stories and very happy ones. It was all stuff that made me who and what I am today. It's probably time to hunker down and start looking among the cobwebs in the back closets of my mind and put more stuff down on paper.

Another thing I have noticed is this: when I do sit down and write a letter or even a note, there is almost always a phone call or an e-mail saying "thank you"; thank you for taking the time not just to write but thank you for treating me in such a special way.

That's great reward - another memory to cherish.

Bill

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