In June I wrote about Riding Full Circle Through Depression, sharing how five years after depression stole my sense of adventure from me I was able to return to a previous desire and go horseback riding on the beach with my sister. Then in July I wrote about how I had just lost an online friend to suicide and the feelings it brought up were many and varied, ironic in a way because it returned me in some senses to the period of time when depression reigned, not so much in emotionality as in content. Life goes in circles that way. Doors that were opened are never exactly closed, and sometimes a breeze from today pops back into the past and jars them open so that they gape again until you go back and shut them a little more firmly (or ore tenderly as the need may be). After I lost Wink, my online friend, I started an art project in her honor, and through working on that I’ve returned in a way to the me that I was half a lifetime ago in high school.
Mandalas for Marinke
The art project is called Mandalas for Marinke and you can read all about it and see the amazing contributions here on my crochet blog. But what is important to share today is the process that I engage in when contributions arrive. As I first began the project, I took myself to the stationary store that I love in Japantown and picked out a few things that I knew were going to be useful for me although I didn’t know why. I got heart-shaped stickers. I got three beautiful pastel polka dotted notebooks. I got a rubber stamp that looked like doilies or mandalas and purple ink to use with the stamp. My mind flashed so briefly that I hardly noticed it on the memory of an art store that used to exist on 4th Avenue in Tucson, a store I’d visit after school with my friends, rarely purchasing anything although occasionally getting stickers to use in the friendship books that I sent through the mail to my pen pals. A brief flash, from half a lifetime ago, and it passed.
Since I started the project, my daily mail is filled with beautiful crochet mandalas, handwritten letters, occasional small gifts and lots of color. I sit down each day with the stack of contributions, opening each one and giving it my full attention, reveling in the beauty that comes not just from the handcrafted art itself but from the loving intention of each participant in the project. I hold that love in my hands and let it course through me and try to send it out to wherever Wink’s spirit may be and to the hearts of whoever may currently be in need of such love so as to avoid joining her in her fate.
Then I pick up one of those polka dotted pastel notebooks, the purple one currently, and I record the contribution in there in my own handwriting. I write down the contributor’s name, address, email, website address, social media links, the number and type of mandalas that they sent in and if they wish to be anonymous. In the front of the notebook, I keep a running tab of contributions that includes each person’s name and location, so that I can see at a glance how many mandalas have come in and from where in the world they originated.
Somehow that process of recording the mandalas in this way is important to me. It’s not just about keeping the record. I do want the record – to include information in the upcoming art show and book, to be able to contact contributors as needed – but if it was just about that then I’d write it all up in a spreadsheet on my computer where it could be easily tracked and sorted and accessed. No, it’s more than that, somehow; it’s the combination of posterity and yet fragility that comes with handwriting each contribution down into the record. It’s like a guest book in an ancient inn, with people dropping in from all around the world and leaving their unique mark on the essence of the place.
If the person who sent the contribution is from somewhere in the United States, I write out a postcard thanking them for their contribution. (I intend to do something for the people contributing from other countries down the line but for now it’s easiest on postage to stick with this.) I write it on a postcard leftover from the mailings I did when I first wrote Crochet Saved My Life, the book that introduced me to Wink and her story. It takes me back to my own depression and my own triumph over the worst of it and the early days of knowing Wink. Each postcard includes a doily rubber stamp and a heart-shaped sticker and my handwritten thanks. Simple but I try to infuse it with my true gratitude as I write each one.
After that there’s a process of photographing and tagging and filing away the mandala contributions. I take the pictures and load them into my blog with the messages from the people who sent them, preparing them to be posted in their own individual posts in the days to come. I secure each contribution together with a tag that reminds me who it’s from so that it’s ready for the next stage – which will be an art book and art show, likely in early 2016. I place the contribution carefully into a file system that keeps the mandalas flat and ready for display. I try to email the people who sent their he(art)s to me to let them know I am grateful.
Pen Pals from the Past
Until now, it had been a long, long time since I’d received daily mail, and a long, long time since I’d handwritten notes in this way. But oh how the memories have returned. Let me tell you about my pen pals and how they gave me the world when life seemed so small and desperate.
I was in seventh grade when I got my first pen pal, Melanie, and I remember being so excited because she was from Canada and at the time it seemed like such foreign, magical place. She, along with my next few early pen pals, came from a pen pal service that I discovered in the advertisements in the back of one of my favorite teen magazines. This was pre-Internet, so I had to send away in the mail for someone to make that connection for us. It cost me a dollar and a SASE (postage was 29 cents at the time, I think) and it took time.
Junior high was awful for me, like it is for so many children. There are names now to describe what I went through – bullying, slut shaming. There are books to help the teens and parents who struggle with these things and classes for the educators to attempt to remedy the impact of the cruelty of children against children. But those things didn’t exist back then, there wasn’t a name for what was happening, and it was just ugly and hard and required a resilience inside of me that was strengthened by my few close friends, my first boyfriend and those letters that came to me in the mail at the end of some school days and transported me to another land.
I became a little bit addicted to pen palling. By high school, I had discovered Friendship Books. This was how we in the world of pen pals met other pen pals. You created a little paper book and decorated the front of it with your address, some information about you and whatever art you wanted to create. You sent it to one of your pen pals, who added her art to the next page and sent it to one of her pen pals and at the end the last person was supposed to send it back to you. You could contact anyone in the book that you might want to be pen pals with. Today it’s called mail art. Back then it was just friendship books. A couple of years later I’d discover the world of zines and take the whole thing to another level still.
High school was rough for me in a way that was different from junior high. Junior high was rough on the outside – with mean people around doing mean things. High school was rough on the inside, with the mean parts of my brain doing mean things to myself in a way that it would take me another ten years to even begin to understand. I had trouble tolerating the sitting still of school, the taking in of information when my brain was already so full of the ruckus inside of itself. I often wrote letters to my pen pals in class, and I swear it helped me to stay sane.
By my junior year of high school, I had over 100 pen pals. No exaggeration. Most of them were my age and were in the United States. But some were from people older than me and some were from other parts of the world, and I’d collect the stamps off of their envelopes, soaking them in water to remove the gummy part and sticking them in a shoe box, making tick marks on the inside of the box’s lid to indicate how many had come from where. These tick marks are not so different from the marks I’m making in the front of the Mandalas for Marinke notebook, and many of the letters came from the same countries that the mandalas are arriving from.
Each day I’d get home, first from school and in later years from work (at a daycare, then an office, then a bookstore) and I’d immediately check the mail. I’d pull out the letters that were for me, sit down with them, read through each one, look at the friendship books or zines they contained and place them aside to respond individually. An individual response included my letter, of course. I’d pull out the friendship books from that envelope, decorate them and file them to be sent to someone else, pull the same number out of the files to be sent to the person I’d just responded to. I’d organize my response and fill the envelope with glitter, confetti and appreciation for the friendship that was coming to me from across the miles.
Those letters might have saved my life. They certainly made it bearable.
Yesterday and Today
I met Wink through the world of the Internet and that’s how I’ve been connected to the many people who have contributed their amazing art to the Mandalas for Marinke project. I’m grateful for the world of social media and the way that it’s made me so in touch with so many people from everywhere who can understand a little bit of my soul. But I have to say I’m also grateful that it wasn’t around half my lifetime ago because what I needed then was the intimate connection of one-on-one letters sent slowly through the mail, each one allowing me to get to know the other person (and myself) a little bit more, a little bit at a time.
When I imagine what junior high and high school would have been like for me if Facebook existed, I cringe. I was an impulsive teen who occasionally sent racy photos to the few boys that I pen palled with; I’m certain I’d have victimized myself with sexting if I’d been born a decade or so later. More than that, the world that opened to me through pen pals would have been exposed to the rest of the world I was engaged in – in such a way that I wouldn’t have been able to find or share myself with the vulnerability that those handwritten long-distance pages allowed. It’s not that today’s mode of communication is worse or bad; it’s just that looking back I’m so grateful for the difference in the years that I had, at least in that way.
And I’m grateful for the way it’s different now, even as I see some things that are the same. Returning to the receiving of mail, the handwritten recording of notes, the connection of one-on-one message-sending, the art that comes through the mailbox … it has returned me to memories that had faded into sepia tones in my mind. It has re-opened a door that was closed just slightly improperly, stuck in the door jamb in an awkward way, and it has allowed me to re-open that door, check out the room inside, be thankful now for what I couldn’t see clearly then, and perhaps close the door in a gentler way so that it isn’t stuck in awkwardness any longer.