Thursday, November 20, 2008

Borrowed Joy, Daily Hope

Ever since I was old enough to reach the mailbox I have always loved checking the mail. It's a little Christmas every day: whose special message awaits inside those envelopes? Since the advent of e-mail, personal mail seems a thing of the past—I'm lucky to get a handwritten signature on a computer generated Christmas card— yet hope endures. Anticipation burbles within me each day as I walk down to the end of my long drive to see what the postman has brought.  

The other day, sandwiched between our bills, a new manuscript to be edited (always a treat!), and the typical influx of holiday catalogs, was an unexpected gift: a 9 x 12 white envelope from the University of Mississippi, addressed to a young woman named Alexis. This was a mistake—her address placed her just over the hill from me, about two miles by road. I had put the envelope back in the box and was raising the flag when red words at the bottom corner of the envelope caught my attention. Important Documents Enclosed: Letter of Admission, Housing Application...

I remembered waiting for my own sons' letters of acceptance to colleges a few short years ago. And before that, awaiting their SAT scores. Awaiting word from my own college applications 34 years ago, and before that hoping that re-taking my SAT had raised my score. But this is only November, I thought, and most schools don't notify until early spring. Mississippi might be one of those schools that markets themselves by sending out fake acceptance letters saying, "Dear High School Senior: This could be you!"

I couldn't help myself. It was just a flat white envelope, after all. Not that I had done anything like this before in my entire life, I pulled it back out of the box, pressed the envelope to the first page beneath, and held it at a slight angle so I could see through it better. 

"Dear Alexis," it began.


"We are pleased to be able to inform you..."

Ooh—it's good news!

"...that your application of admission to the University of Mississippi..."

Oh my gosh, she really applied...

"... has been accepted."

Woohoo! WE ARE IN!!!

I couldn't put that letter back in the box. If it ended up there once, where might it land the next time? How long would this exciting news be delayed?

I ran up the hill to the house and grabbed the phone book. Unfortunately Alexis had a common last name for this area and there were four columns I had to cross-reference for her address. In my excitement, I missed it the first time and had to go through them all again. My heart pounded as I made the call. A girl answered.

I was still panting from my run up the hill. (Note to self: get back to walking regularly.) "Hello, Alexis?"

"Lexie isn't here, she's at work." 

"May I speak with her mother, please?"

"Yeah." The phone clunked down. "MOMMY!!!"

It took the mother several minutes to get to the phone. I kept hearing an odd whacking sound in the background. I heard the woman interrogate her young daughter thoroughly about who it is and what they wanted. I almost hung up.

But it turned out Alexis' mother was thrilled I had called. "No, don't put it back in the mail. We've been waiting for this. Tell me how to get to your house and I'll be over as soon as I get my younger daughter out of her tap shoes."

I took the letter to the end of the driveway and paced until the minivan pulled up, as excited as if the university had flown me in to personally offer a full scholarship. I smiled, shook the mother's hand through the driver's side window, and handed over the letter. I asked where else Alexis had applied.

"University of Virginia and Penn State." As we spoke, the chubby girl in the back seat fought for a moment in the spotlight by lowering her electric window and trying to climb out of the car. Her mother told her to stay put.

"Alexis likes the south, then?"

"Not exactly. She wants to be a forensic scientist, and these schools have the best programs, according to our research. Mississippi is the last to accept her, and her number one choice. I don't know how I'll wait until she gets home."

Without saying a word I reached into the car, pressed the envelope to the page beneath, and tilted it just so before her—and watched my joy spread to a new face. 

Maybe I was so excited because, as a writer, I spend way too much time alone. Maybe it was the fact that the preponderance of my personal mail of late, due to a new flurry of submissions, has been rejection—but Alexis' news buoyed me through the rest of the day. Earlier that day I had never heard of her; now I'd met her mother and her chubby tap-dancing kid sister and I knew she lived just over the hill and worked at the local Wal-Mart. But most importantly, I had been allowed access to her dreams.

Because I have a good memory for emotional highlights I can almost always access remembered joy. And when my own dreams seem so far away that I have trouble sustaining hope, Alexis reminds me that I can latch on to someone else's as they enter one of the pure moments of unadulterated hope life offers us. Like marriage. Birth. Baptism. Graduation. Publication. College acceptance.

I believe that what I put out into the world will come back to me—and who knows, it might just arrive in my mailbox. From now on I'll always think of Alexis as I check my daily mail. The excitement it holds may not even be for me—but hope for one of us is hope for us all.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Do the Right Thing

Every now and then we are blessed with the awareness that we are stepping into our own small moment in history. That happened to me today, when for the first time I went to the polls with my entire family—among us both Republican and Democrat—unified in our intent to vote for Barack Obama.

Should he win, of course, we have taken a role on a much larger world stage. But as a mom trying to raise responsible citizens in the shadow of their father's alcoholism and suicide, it was a notable moment in our family history when today my two sons voted in their first presidential election by my side. These are the same little guys who ran their Matchbox cars down our dog's back and kept cool on Pennsylvania's wickedly humid summer days while belly-flopping in a plastic pool out in the side yard. Now they are 19 and 21, voting for president. Where has the time gone?

Marty is living at home while on co-op through Drexel University and Jackson drove home from Princeton, NJ last night after work so he could vote first thing this morning and get back to Westminster Choir College for class—despite my best efforts, he missed the absentee deadline. For once, however, missing a deadline was fine with me! Somehow it makes me feel more secure, knowing the great lengths (like a four-hour round trip in a car with a front bumper held on with Gorilla tape) people will go to to vote Obama.

Overheard at the polls this morning, as one man in line recognized another coming out of the booth: "Hey man, I hope you did the right thing."

A loaded question. I was pondering it when my husband Dave spoke up for all to hear:

"He did the right thing. He came out to vote."