Putting Pen to Paper: Why Handwritten Notes Still Matter

 

As I settled in to my new office, I quickly hung diplomas and cherished photos of my family. However, looking around my space, I realized that I have a plethora of handwritten notes displayed as well. These beautiful cards and scribbled messages on scrap paper outnumber my children’s framed faces. There is something comforting in reading the carefully thought out words etched in a friend or colleagues’ unique penmanship. It is grounding, and a tangible reminder of a connection to another person, and, even if professional, reflects what is often missing in the modern digital age—authenticity.

Rapid email correspondence, text messaging, and social media have sped up our personal and professional lives so much in such a brief period, that we are constantly bombarded with information. We are overstimulated and, while our circles are ever broadening, loneliness and social isolation are becoming public health issues. A 2015 article published in the United Kingdom’s The Independent stated, “…our growing reliance on social technology rather than face-to-face interaction is thought to be making us feel more isolated. It means we feel less connected to others and our relationships are becoming more superficial and less rewarding.”[i]

Although not a cure-all, the simple act of writing notes can have an enormous impact on personal and professional relationships. While emails, Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, message boards, E-vites, constant “likes,” and texts give us instant and often too constant contact with one another, humanity is filtered through devices. We have resorted to using Emojis to relay emotions, without realizing how simplistic these cartoonish characters are and how completely incapable they are of expressing the complexities and nuances of our feelings. I shamefully became way too excited recently when I realized that I can add color to my Facebook posts… it is time to disconnect.

Meanwhile, the handwritten note, with words carefully chosen to fit within the boundaries of stationary, is neither too romantic nor passé.  To send a note requires time, patience, reflection, a good pen, careful attention to script, an address, and a stamp. It requires a purposeful effort, which then, in turn, relays the message that the recipient matters. Meghan Markle, former author of the popular lifestyle blog The Tig, wrote recently about the “Art of the Handwritten Note.” In the post, she expressed her joy at receiving a personalized letter. “I am a gal who just loves getting mail… I absolutely relish it.  I know my mailman’s name, I race to the door when mail comes (usually just fliers or bills), but I always hold out hope that there will be a letter.  A sweet letter.  And that I will have the tactile experience of un-creasing the paper, reciting the words, and holding someone’s thoughts in my hands.” [ii]

Office mail is no exception and can offer a respite from the hectic professional world. Electronic communication is fast and free; but you get what you pay for. The Harvard Business Review points out that, “Personal messages are often notes of gratitude, civility, and appreciation that reach beyond the conventional thank-you.” They show what author John Coleman describes as “acts of investment” and can leave lasting impressions and memorabilia.[iii]

According to celebrated blogger and etiquette expert Janice Sessums Gibson, “Professional emails and texts are easy to save, but lasting memories are created when you send a handwritten note. The handwritten note lets a friend or colleague know that you appreciate them.”[iv]  Cards are displayed on desks, on boards, and on refrigerators. They are a cherished gift of encouragement.

Further, when asked whether handwritten notes still set job applicants apart in today’s digital age, Ben Milsom, Chief Ticketing Officer of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, stated, “The handwritten note is a differentiator. Today, we live by text and email, so for someone to take the time to purchase nice stationery and sit down and write a letter is something that I value and conveys their personal brand.”

Be mindful, however. Issa Sawabini, Partner at Fuse, warns professionals about reliance on electronic spelling and grammar checks: “In a digital world, sometimes a handwritten note can have a big impact… Make sure you write something meaningful and actually proofread your work. You can’t include a note at the bottom blaming your iPhone for any spelling errors.”[v]

[i] Rebecca Harris, The Loneliness Epidemic: We’re More Connected Than Ever, But Are We Feeling More Alone? Independent (2015), http://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/health-and-families/features/the-loneliness-epidemic-more-connected-than-ever-but-feeling-more-alone-10143206.html (last visited Apr 5, 2017).

[ii] Meghan Markle, The Art of a Handwritten Note The Tig. (2014), http://thetig.com/art-handwritten-note/ (last visited Apr 5, 2017).

[iii] John Coleman, Handwritten Notes Are a Rare Commodity. They’re Also More Important Than Ever. Harvard Business Review (2013), https://hbr.org/2013/04/handwritten-notes-are-a-rare-c (last visited Apr 5, 2017).

[iv] http://etiquettewithmissjanice.blogspot.com/.

[v] Abraham D. Madkour, In Today’s Digital Age, Do Handwritten Notes Still Set Job Applicants Apart? Street & Smith’s Sports Business Journal (2016), http://m.sportsbusinessdaily.com/Journal/Issues/2016/04/11/Opinion/From-The-Executive-Editor.aspx? (last visited Apr 5, 2017).

Identity Crisis {The Year of Yes}

StudentsWhen I was a little girl, I did not play with baby dolls. I played with a chalk board, and I would force my brothers and the neighborhood kids to be my students. I would give them assignments, grade papers, and line them up and march them around the yard. I tutored the kid across the street, and his dear mom, Peggy, may she rest in peace, joked that the grades I gave Brian were the best he ever received. She would hang them on her refrigerator.

When I describe myself to people, “teacher” is the first word out of my mouth, right after “mom.” It is my natural gift, and education is my passion. Unfortunately, I was always told I could and should do more, whatever that means, so a relationship in my early twenties with a high-powered attorney inspired me to leave my beloved teaching career for law school.

I do not regret my legal education one bit, nor do I regret practicing. My favorite job was working for the law school immediately after graduation, because it combined a little of both worlds. My degree and experience have opened doors for me that I never dreamed possible growing up in a one red light town. However, the classroom is where I am my most comfortable, creative and inspired.

When I had my children, it seemed natural for me to return to teaching. There is no better schedule for a family, and I was able to work at one of the best schools in the state, which allowed my babies to eventually attend the best schools themselves. I was so excited to get back to my calling, and I did it with joy and enthusiasm. However, even with clear objectives, I was given grief by those I loved most. I was told I did not have a “real job” and questioned about how I could turn my back on money and prestige by simply being a teacher. As sad as it is to type these truths, it was even more devastating to live them.

After my divorce, I hung in as long as I could, until I could no longer financially justify my position. I was highly effective, successful and involved. I absolutely considered my students my own and have built life-long friendships that I will forever cherish; but the rumors about teacher pay are real.

More than anything, though, I was emotionally drained. After visiting my closest friends over the holidays, both T and K commented to me that they had finally figured out what was keeping me from completely healing. My storehouse was dry. I was “Mama B” to 200 kids a day, then had to come home to my own, and teaching at the level I was doing it was sucking up all of my extra energy. My brain was fried. Both friends encouraged me to pray about the situation and start looking for jobs.

To say I was terrified was an understatement. I was not sold on the fact that I needed a change. I did not think I could take the leap and give up my time at home with my children. I was not sure I was even marketable. But, then there was this #YearofYes promise I had made myself, and I decided to start applying. It is not an accident that Shonda Rhimes ended her book with one of my favorite quotes:

You must do the things you think you cannot do.  Eleanor Roosevelt

So, there you have it. Within a month of me applying for jobs, I had an offer I could not refuse, and I had to say good-bye to some of the most incredible people I have ever met. My students were so wonderful, and they showered me with gifts and cards of encouragement. It was amazing how much love I felt as I packed up my classroom and prepared to leave a place that was mine and my kids’ home away home for eight years. But it was time for me to graduate, and I think everyone knew it but me.

I was explaining to a colleague this week about my #YearofYes challenge and how powerful the book has been to me. When I told her it had inspired me to change careers, she was shocked, but it is true! As my bestie K said, “You’ve sacrificed enough of yourself. It is time for you to thrive.”

I am still a mom and a teacher, and I absolutely think teaching is the most important profession in our society. However, my focus has changed, and I think the move will make me a better mother in the end, because I will have balance for the first time in a long time.

Letter from Studt

letter from student

My First Praise & Worship Concert {The Year of Yes}

I am a firm believer that God puts people in our lives– for good, bad, a challenge to grow– for purposes which we may not always understand. For the very few that have left bitter tastes in my mouth over which I have to pray, there are oh so many more for whom I am grateful. JZ is one of those!

We have known each other for about a decade but have become spiritually connected as we have gone through divorce and single parenting simultaneously. She is that friend who always seems to miraculously know when I need prayer, uplifting, a word of encouragement, and a batch of her mom’s divine homemade cookies. Without fail, my phone will vibrate with the most beautifully on-point messages of hope and survival from her, and they are always at precisely the right times.

Recently, she and I went to my first praise and worship concert together. We had so much fun seeing Rascal Flatts in the fall, that she invited me to see TobyMac with her. I am a traditionalist and new to the more modern spiritual genre, so I was not familiar with his songs. I do love the #speaklife messages that he circulates on social media, though, and I was thrilled with the experience.

JZ at TobyMac

My favorite performer of the night was Mandisa. When we were both going through the toughest times, JZ would send me songs to listen to during the day. “Overcomer” is our joint mantra.

It was incredible to get to hear this song live and belt it out with my sweet friend. It is funny, I recently looked at pictures of JZ and me taken a few years ago and, although we look the same on the outside, there was something missing before. Now, it is as if we glow. That shimmer is God, y’all, and He is indeed good, all the time! Our friendship is proof of that.

 

 

Southern Gothic

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Confederate Soldiers at Rest, Montgomery, Alabama

I have always loved cemeteries. Even as a young girl, with a nostalgic historian’s heart, I enjoyed walking through them, admiring the artwork, the names, the family groupings. To me, there is great beauty in them, and old Southern graveyards even enchant with their ancient trees and draping moss, harboring sassy mockingbirds who keep watch over the quiet stone inhabitants in respite from the busy modern world.

Since my Mom died, I have rarely been to a cemetery. I have always been good about visiting my family plots, regularly placing flowers and cleaning up their resting places, an obligation ingrained in me from childhood. Write thank you notes, Becky Jo, and visit your people, that’s what Southern Belles do. But my Mama, against all family tradition, chose to be cremated. Three months before she died, as we were leaving our swimming hole on the St. Marys River, she told me that when she died, she wanted to be cremated and her ashes spread. I fussed and fumed at her, because she was young and healthy, and I did not want to be talking about death on a hot summer afternoon. She insisted, however, and I was forced very soon to honor her wishes against the protest of many of our kin.

I never understood why she made this choice. I tried to and I even spread her ashes in a poetic manner, playing her favorite Beatles song, “Here Comes the Sun” at dawn while doing it. Now, I get it.

Yesterday, I was in Montgomery, Alabama, making my way through the lovely Oakwood Annex Cemetery, and an overwhelming wave of emotion hit me. I realized sort of stupidly for the first time that my Mama wanted to be cremated, because she was single and did not want to be buried alone. I knew it as if she was whispering the message on my heart, and I got teary-eyed, because I, too, now have that fear.

As the day went on, I thought about my  life and my relationships and got very, very morose at the thought of dying and not having a loved one to lay beside. Granted, I have my grandparents and other family members and I have my kids who will hopefully, God willing, be with me when that fateful time comes. But not having a husband, not being a Mrs. whomever, not belonging to another human being when passing, just breaks my heart and makes me cry.

Maybe this is part of some midlife crisis I am having. A quick search actually showed that the fear of dying alone is quite common. I am not scared of dying itself and have no sense of its impending call as I think my Mama must have had. Maybe this new sensitivity is a sign of my longing for deeper companionship. Maybe it means my heart is healing, that I am ready to be fully committed, hell if I know. Whatever it is, the flood of emotions that overcame me as I snapped pictures of magnolia trees and Confederate graves haunted me like a ghostly specter throughout the day, and the fear lingers with me, even now.

I do not want to die alone.

As women glide from their twenties to thirties, Shazzer argues, the balance of power subtly shifts. Even the most outrageous minxes lose their nerve, wrestling with the first twinges of existential angst: fears of dying alone and being found three weeks later half-eaten by an Alsatian.” ~Helen Fielding, Bridget Jones’s Diary {my favorite book}

The Anxiety of Intimacy

My best friend and I have had many conversations about dating. She has walls up from past hurts, which is completely understandable. She does not want to let her guard down, does not want to be taken advantage of, does not want to seem vulnerable.

She gets frustrated with me, because I am so open to meeting people. I easily connect, enjoy hearing people’s stories, even like the cat and mouse chase. The writer in me enjoys the fodder it gives me for good laughs with my girls.

She worries that I risk getting my heart broken too much, but she is wrong. I never let anyone near my heart. There is so much scar tissue built up that it is going to take a skilled surgeon or hunter gatherer with a sharp knife to get anywhere near the actual organ.

I learned at a very young age that a man does not show up when he says he is going to, that he will pick and choose what is important in your life and you are completely at his whim. I remember sitting for hours staring out of my grandma’s window waiting for him to show up for whatever grand adventure had been promised, only to be disappointed while others made excuses for him. I stared out in crowds at pageants, awards ceremonies, graduation, hoping for some sign of support and approval. But all the crowns and trophies and scholarships and accolades could not make him appear. So I started making excuses for him, and I started blaming myself. I am not enough. I am never enough.

When he did show up, he made me feel like a million dollars, so I would try harder. And, hence, the roller coaster ride of emotions I have been on since I was born. I have got to be better. I have got to work harder. I have got to obtain some level of perfectionism, because maybe then he will say I am enough.

This very basic lesson in my formative years set the pattern for my adult partners, as I strove for fulfillment and acceptance in dysfunctional relationships, slowly chipping away at myself and building scar tissue around my heart until I married. As my dear friend Iris pointed out this week, that decision to marry was the only real mistake I have made as an adult, because it was the one in which I gave up and settled; but it made me a mommy and something about that woke me up to the vitality of life and the need for healthy, intimate relationships.

Only now, I am like a wounded animal. Friendships and casual dating I can do and I can do them well. I can give my all to my children. I can love my students whole-heartedly. Hell, I can love strangers and have a soul full of empathy and compassion.

But a truly intimate relationship with a man? It is completely foreign to me, because as soon as someone tries to pierce my scar tissue, I shrink away in anxious fear. I literally torture myself with the negative messages I learned as a shy five year old suppressing tears of rejection and disappointment. I beg my friends for reassurance, and then I close off and push away.  I try to stay so busy that I forget that I ever needed that affection in the first place. I shuffle quickly like my rescue puppy does when anyone tries to pet him, because he, too, has learned that love hurts.

I wish that I could wrap this post up with a pretty ending, but I cannot. All I can do is admit that I at least recognize my patterns and want to fix them. Iris insists it is as easy as replacing the bad thoughts with positive ones, like breaking my Coca-Cola habit last year. So, I am committed to praying and filling my thoughts with scripture, of acknowledging how much my children and students adore me and why, and counting the blessings that are my friends, every single time my inner dialogue says that I am less than. After all, the whole goal of this “Year of Yes” is a better, more full life, one filled with intimacy and passion and love. Finally, I realize that I am worth the effort of healing. I want more and maybe, just maybe, I have met someone worth the trying.

If you want crappy things to stop happening to you, then stop accepting crap and demand something more. —CRISTINA YANG, GREY’S ANATOMY
Shonda Rhimes, Year of Yes: How to Dance It Out, Stand In the Sun and Be Your Own Person   

I should say that this post is absolutely meant with no disrespect. I still adore him and crave his attention and approval. But I have learned to set boundaries now, another step in the healing process, and I hope one day to understand the why behind his behavior. If that does not happen, then I will have peace knowing that I at least tried. I have always tried. I just will not make or accept excuses anymore.

The Not So Long Drive Home

There is no where else on this planet that I would rather be than at home, near my extended family and friends, near the Okefenokee Swamp, the muddy St. Marys River, and Fernandina Beach. I do not live that far away–2.5 hours easily. Yet, as much as I want to be there, I often make excuses not to get in the car and drive where I know I am loved, where I know my dogs are welcome, where I know I can just relax and be myself, and where I absolutely am certain that I will know half the people in Winn-Dixie.

I deny myself this occasional refuge, because four years ago, my mom fell asleep at the wheel of her car driving from where I live home to have Christmas with family and friends. She hit a tree head-on off Interstate 10, less than a mile from a sign for the Lake City “Rest Stop.” Oh the irony of that extremely large sign, which actually gives me a brief sense peace when I pass it. She is at rest.

The trauma of stopping at that location to lay a wreath four years ago, of claiming her demolished car with my son’s Match Box toys scattered everywhere, of arriving at the funeral home with the clothes I had purchased for her that morning… As much as I miss home, the trip over is almost unbearable, because of the anxiety I experience.

But that cannot happen anymore. I have an upcoming trip planned that is out of my norm and am very excited to head to Jacksonville. In this Year of Yes, I will choose to focus on the destination, rather than the road. I will fill my car with the joyful sounds of the praise music Mama loved, and I will pray, knowing full well that my Mama’s spirit is in a far better place, and that I am free to live fully in the meantime.

It’s time to move on.

“Saying yes . . . saying yes is courage. Saying yes is the sun. Saying yes is life.”
Shonda Rhimes, Year of Yes: How to Dance It Out, Stand In the Sun and Be Your Own Person

On a much lighter note, one of my favorite songs out right now is by Ed Sheeran. “Castle on a Hill” reminds me so much of my tribe– all the close friends of mine with whom I have grown up and old with. This will be playing on repeat as I pull into town.

Castle on a Hill.jpg

Sweet Home Alabama {The Year of Yes}

My students say that I am Reese Witherspoon’s character in Sweet Home Alabama, because of my stories about my small town Southern upbringing. There are worse characters to be compared to, I suppose, so I am okay with that.

Recently, my friend asked me to meet halfway for a night on the town. Since it’s the Year of Yes, I could not say no. Besides, it was Valentine’s weekend, and I was excited to have fun and be adventurous. We decided on Troy as our destination, and I messaged a former student who attends college there for recommendations.

Troy 2.jpg

The drive was easy, and I realized that I have sadly spent very little time in the Great State of Alabama. Troy is quaint and has a charming downtown square that I adored. I immediately made my way to the local boutiques and bought Valentine’s Day gifts for the kids. The selections were fantastic, and I loved how friendly the shopkeepers were. I even found adorable trinkets for my son’s sweetheart.

troy

For dinner, we ate at a local seafood shack and enjoyed a laid back atmosphere and people watching. Afterwards, we ended the night at an adorable wine bar called Sips, where we laughed and exchanged life stories before heading out and listening appropriately to Hank Williams and Hank Jr., while touring the town some more.

But it was one of my favorites, “Night Train,” by Jason Aldean that ended up on repeat, as we sang karaoke in the car. Something about that song just fit with the unseasonably warm, Southern Alabama evening, thick and haunting.

 

Motherhood {The Year of Yes}

You can quit a job. I can’t quit being a mother. I’m a mother forever. Mothers are never off the clock, mothers are never on vacation. Being a mother redefines us, reinvents us, destroys and rebuilds us. Being a mother brings us face-to-face with ourselves as children, with our mothers as human beings, with our darkest fears of who we really are. Being a mother requires us to get it together or risk messing up another person forever. Being a mother yanks our hearts out of our bodies and attaches them to our tiny humans and sends them out into the world, forever hostages.”  ― Shonda Rhimes, Year of Yes: How to Dance It Out, Stand In the Sun and Be Your Own Person

playing-in-leaves-casey-asa

Photo by Captured by Casey

motherhood

Photo by Captured by Casey