Getting Through with Letters

Sigh. I really need to take a news break. More and more, I switch the radio from NPR to the local college station, which plays everything from alternative rock to reggae to jazz to prestissimo electric—at night when students need sometime to keep them awake or to accompany their drug use. After last week, and this week, and the last forty weeks, and the next forty weeks, I need music and movies and a delicious book more than ever.

We’re planning a Hawaii Zoom surprise party for my sister’s upcoming birthday. Hawaiian shirts necessary, if the Proud Boys haven’t cleared them all out of the thrift stores. Leis, songs, a Zoom background of Wailua Waterfall or a beach. She had planned, before all plugs were pulled on travel, to spend this milestone birthday in Hawaii with her husband.

So that’s one thing. The other is more people are writing letters. It’s the strangest thing. I’m of an age where letter-writing once was the principle way we stayed in touch, and I was pretty bad at it, for a writer that is. No one would ever want to compile my letters into a book. And besides, there aren’t enough of them because I didn’t like to write letters and so long periods of time intervened in my postal schedule. Recently I got a card from a dear friend in another city, filled front and back with news about her family and garden and news. It was downright inspiring and so sweet. I dug out blank cards and sent them over the holidays with notes scrawled in my unfortunate handwriting. I owe a whole bunch of people cards. I like to make my own cards—no paper cutting or gluing, but with photographs. And so, yes, this project too is on the “need to get to soon” list, which ever grows longer, never shorter.

What’s even weirder is that I used to keep every card I ever got. I have birthday cards from my childhood, hand written notes from a long dead grandmother, a slew of crazy adolescent cards and letters that my dear cousin, who succumbed to AIDS in 1986, and I sent back and forth throughout our childhood and onward. I have Bruce’s letters to me, but none of mine to him—he may not have been the letter hoarder I became. A few years ago I embarked on transcribing them all to a folder on my computer, with the idea of producing a weird and crazy family book with photos and current events and reminiscences of driving around Mountain View, where he tried out community college for a while, in his huge Chevy, listening to classical music on the radio. He became a flight attendant, ultimately, and more than once I had lunch with him in Pittsburgh, and after I escaped that city and was back in San Francisco, we regularly hung out together.

When the husband and I moved a year-and-a-half ago, I culled the birthday and Christmas cards, but saved the letters. The letters I wrote home to my parents during the Lost Period I spent in Pittsburgh came back to me after our mother died. I haven’t read them. They’re probably happy and vague with no hint as to what my life at that time was really like. It was enough seeing my various Pittsburgh home addresses, all of which in one way or another, triggered a mild case of PTSD.

I once got a letter from a boyfriend I broke up with—more in a panic mode because I sensed he was going to drop me and I wanted to do the dropping first. There was no hope of reconciliation in his letter and I tore it up in little pieces and mailed it back to him. Later I was able to laugh and shake my head when he told me of opening the envelope, and all these little pieces of paper floated out. A poet, he probably wrote a poem about it.

You can’t tear up a text.

A Zoom call can’t replace spending time visiting family and friends in person.

You could print out an email and then tear it up, but it’s not the same.

This blog is like a letter. What’s weird is I can write it and post it and people can read it, but when I think of sending it directly to a friend or family (gulp) I quail. Letter writing for me has never been easy or true or honest. Maybe because I figure I just sound depressed and who wants to depress everyone else?

I read a sweet and moving memoir in the New Yorker from writer Rachel Kushner for their Personal History column. She grew up in San Francisco, and wandered from lost landmark to lost landmark just as I did as a child and later as an adult. I’d like to write her a letter, or chat with her on a Zoom call. Her piece was depressing, but supported by a bit of steel. Events in her slice of life were unsettling, but she made it through. So do we all, looking back and reading old letters, reminiscing on Zoom calls. We get through and we can stop listening to the news any time we like.



About Jill Zeller

Author of numerous novels and short stories, Jill Zeller is a Left Coast writer, 2nd generation Californian, retired registered nurse, and obsessed gardener. She lives in Oregon with her patient husband, 2 silly English mastiffs and 2 rescue cats—the silliest of all. Her works explore the boundaries of reality. Some may call it fantasy, but there are rarely swords and never elves. More to the point, she prefers to write as if myth, imagination and hallucination are as real as the chair she is sitting on as she writes this. Jill Zeller also writes under the pseudonym Hunter Morrison


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