Read an Excerpt
One: Making Connections in Changing Times
When I had my first baby, I received a gift at the hospital with a note that read, "To Jonathan: We're so glad you're here." I'll always remember that note—and the person who sent it. This baby was one I feared I'd never have. I had tried to become pregnant, unsuccessfully, for three years and had watched other women wheeling baby carriages, feeling waves of despair that I would never have the chance.
Then, magically, a few days before I was due for an appointment with yet another infertility specialist, I received the good news—I was pregnant. Though my doctor warned me that things could yet go wrong—I could miscarry—I willed it to be all right, and it was. When I saw my beautiful, perfect son for the first time, all the heartache and doubt and fear that I'd never have a child was swept away and I felt an exquisite joy. This was not just a baby, this was the most wanted baby in the world.
That brief but meaningful note let me know that someone else understood my happiness. Oddly enough, the writer of the note was not a close friend, but at the moment I read her words, we shared a special bond. She had acknowledged how much this child meant to me.
If she had simply called or signed her name to a printed card, I'd have appreciated it. But, as I learned that day, there's nothing like a personal note to make you feel touched and remembered. That fact remains truer than ever today. In this age of impersonal technology, a handwritten note makes a human connection that is as valuable as the sentiments expressed.
In other centuries, people had to write notes and letters to stay in touch with friends, family, and others important to them. On a trip to Mount Vernon, I learned that George Washington wrote almost forty thousand letters during his lifetime.
Of course, technology provides many other ways of communicating today. You turn on your speedy computer and push a button to e-mail your friends, family members, and others at work or in the community. You can contact anyone on the phone from a train, in your car, or virtually anywhere—even walking down the street. You also can send an instant text message. Yet there is a difference between talking and connectingand that's what this book is all about.
The reality is, you just don't express yourself on the telephone in the same way as you do on paper. The give-and-take of conversation interrupts the flow of thought; the immediate feedback from the other person seems to stifle free expression rather than facilitate it. That's why a phone conversation with someone you love can sometimes feel so unsatisfying—the human connection is incomplete.
When you speak on a cell phone, noisy distractions in public places or service interruptions add extra jarring notes. E-mail and text messages discourage you from slowing down and giving thought to what you write. The whole point is quick communication, not pensiveness and deliberation.
In these uncertain times, the need to connect seems more urgent than ever. Special occasions offer the opportunity to do that, whether you're adding a few lines to a store-bought birthday greeting or writing your own stand-alone note to say, "Hello, I miss you," to a loved one in another state or on another coast or thousands of miles away in another country.
When you write, there is no response to distract you from reaching within and exploring exactly what you feel and want to say. There is no gadget or other equipment to act as a barrier. What there is is an enormous sense of satisfaction. One woman told me, "When I write, I speak a whole different language. I become more open. It's as if a poetic part of me seems to spill out."
At the very same time technology has provided new modes of communication, you may be confronted with new reasons to write. Not so long ago, congratulations on a ninetieth birthday or a sixtieth wedding anniversary or becoming great-grandparents was rare. "Singles" didn't adopt babies. People didn't launch new careers in their fifties or sixties, or retire and later return to the workforce. Other complex scenarios, unknown twenty years ago, may demand a personal response from you, as well. You may wish to express support to someone who has been laid off after thirty-two years with a blue-chip corporation, or who struggles with the stress of moving an elderly parent into assisted living. Or perhaps you want to send good wishes to multicultural coworkers at an important celebration or holiday.
Even for the simplest and happiest occasions, it's human to start out feeling, "I can't think of a thing to write." Awkward, uncomfortable situations present an even greater challenge. But regardless of the circumstances, words from the heart make a difference. There's no mystery to finding them, and you can master the art of writing meaningful notes even if you weren't at the top of your English class. What you write doesn't have to be poetry or run to pages; often just a personal line or two added to a greeting card speaks eloquently. Meaningful notes are not about good form, either, though sincere wishes can never be anything but good form.
Handwritten sentiments remain the gold standard and cannot be replaced by a card and just your signature. When the recipient is important to you—when you care about the impression you make—you can always relax and feel confident that you are doing the right thing by expressing warm words and personal reflections. You also know you are making an impact.
In these hurried, busy times, receiving a note or personalized card in the mail is a total experience. The person discovers among the magazines, catalogs, and bills an envelope that looks different, that feels different, that is addressed by hand. Knowing that you have taken the time and trouble to write brightens the day. Opening the envelope and reading the words bring a smile. And that note in the mail continues to make an impact. The recipient often reads it again later and perhaps even shows it to others. How often do you have the power to grab someone's complete attention during the course of the day?
A note is powerful, too, because we are assaulted by a barrage of information—much of it having little or no importance. Yet personal words on paper often are saved in a shoe box, becoming a memory to be revisited through the years—a part of a life record that may even be shown to children or grandchildren.
We're all touched by life's milestones, trials, and triumphs. The guidelines that follow will help you find words that matter for any social occasion and also clarify when e-mail is and isn't appropriate. The goal is to help you recapture the spontaneity that came naturally during childhood and get in touch with feelings that may ordinarily be brushed aside. As you become comfortable with them and put them into practice, you're likely to discover a part of yourself that has been there all the time.