How to be Neighborly: Checking In
Words By Killeen Hanson Photographs Britt Chudleigh
Relationships need check-ins. Everyone is happy to receive a note that says someone is thinking of them—whether it’s a long letter, a vintage postcard or a text message. Keep in touch.
A woman once received a letter from a dear friend who was traveling far from home. He was sitting in the airport bar, the man wrote, waiting for his flight, and a young girl had just walked by. She reminded him of the woman. She had the same eyes, the man wrote, the same smile, the same face. She looked just as the woman had when she was young.
The letter was written on a cocktail napkin from that airport bar, folded hastily into an envelope and licked shut with a two-penny stamp. It wasn’t anything particularly special. It wasn’t full of details or professions of affection. Rather, it was a small, two-penny reminder written on a cocktail napkin: simple proof that he had been thinking of her. The man didn’t add the letter to his to-do list. He didn’t delay because he had to meet someone for dinner, or until he had a spare hour or two to devote to the task. This was simply one letter among many, part of a quotidian, unaffected habit of letting people know they were thought of.
This scene, from Charming Billy by Alice McDermott, has lingered with me over the years since I first read it. In comparison to that letter writer, I’m guilty of long to-do lists and of putting things off so I can do them “right.” There is a small pile of letters on my desk that I have yet to respond to, one from an embarrassing 13 months ago, because I want to write a “proper” letter. By that, I mean the kind that I imagine 19th-century correspondents might have exchanged. It’s an unfortunate cycle: the longer they sit unanswered, the more pressure I feel to make the response special. This, then, means they’ll sit on my desk still longer.
Two-penny letters are like drops of water into buckets. Over time, one hopes those buckets become full, saturated. We know that relationships of all kinds need regular check-ins. If it happens too infrequently it’s hard to make much progress. The friendship drifts. The water evaporates. Neither will be as full as they might have been.
My parents are both inveterate letter writers. Every week, almost without fail, I receive a letter from one or the other of them, full of clippings from the local hometown paper, old drawings of mine from elementary school or $20 bills for gas money, though I’m long past asking to borrow the family car. Their letters are not particularly photogenic or calligraphic. My father’s letters come on old business letterhead. My mother, though you’d never guess it, is a pro at steaming open junk mail envelopes and stashing her own notes and clippings inside before forwarding them on. Their messages are often only a paragraph or two, just long enough to share a quick anecdote. I’m glad to know that they think of me. They’ve filled my bucket to overflowing.
I’m trying to live up to their example. I’m personally a big fan of postcards and sticky notes. It’s the simplest thing to jot “What a lovely garden,” on a postcard and tuck it in a neighbor’s front door. Or to write “Love this!” and stick a note to a work-in-progress on someone’s studio table. “Hi, friend. Coffee soon?” is another good one. I collect postcards at cafés, bookstores and flea markets. Because they’re often free and quirky, they can prompt great messages. And because the space for text is so limited, there’s no pressure to write something especially weighty or profound. Instead, you simply tell someone that you were thinking of them. That they were on your mind, even amid the day’s hustle. If you add a stamp, that’s more to the better. Everyone loves mail.
My parents are proof that there’s no excuse, not when it’s so easy, for not telling someone you’re thinking of them. If it occurs to me that I haven’t talked to Silas recently, or that I ought to invite Lilah to dinner, it’s as simple as a sentence or two. For those more digitally inclined, it can be a quick text message or email. I save each and every letter I receive. There are years of them in my closet. What blessings.