Wednesday, June 26, 2013

You've Got Mail (But Not The Kind I Remember)

I didn't expect this to be the most nostalgic stop of the entire tour. But as I stood in front of the wall of hundreds of gleaming brass boxes, I felt the air suck out of me and was transported back in time, thirty years, to be exact.

I was nineteen and scanned the wall of boxes for my assigned number. I found it quickly after the other students moved aside. My fingers hastily worked the combination, and I peered through the little window in the box. I could see one, maybe two, envelopes, a couple fliers, and maybe... I swung the little door open and reached inside. Yessss! A pink slip!

The only picture I took of the entire tour-- the wall of mail boxes.

"When I was in college," I told my daughter, opening with that qualifier, not for the first time that day, "we got a pink slip in our box if we had a package. Your worse day could suddenly change if there was one of those in your box!" The tour guide continued in her perky tone as I wandered back in my memory.

No bigger than a memo slip, Pepto-Bismol pink, that piece of paper held the power to make an entire day. If I got one, I'd quickly rush to the mail window and hand the worker my slip. Why did she move so slowly? I watched her disappear behind the wall. Anxious students in the queue behind me shifted feet, impatiently waiting their turn, gripping their own amazing pink slips. Finally. She rounded the corner. I glued my eyes on the box in her hands. That was mine!

"Thank you," I said as I took the package, addressed to me in my mother's handwriting. I tucked it under my arm. Half the fun would be carrying it to my next class where I knew other students would stare at it with envy. A box from home meant cookies and goodies to share with dorm mates, maybe a new shirt or pair of earrings Mom had picked up on her last shopping trip, and probably a little cash tucked into a new pair of socks-- a little extra spending money treat. I couldn't wait to get back to my dorm room and rip into it, and yet waiting and wondering what was inside was delicious. In the meantime, there was a letter from a high school friend written on lined notebook paper to read and one from my grandpa written in his slightly shaky hand writing on sheets of white stationery. He and I had recently started exchanging shy letters with each other, and I relished the opportunity to get to know him a bit better.

"We don't do pink slips anymore." The tour guide must have overheard my comment, bringing me back to the present. "Now we will send you an email if you have a package." She smiled at the small group of students and parents.

No pink slip? Where was the fun in that? But then I thought over the four years my son was in college. I sent him packages, but I don't know if we ever exchanged a single, real, hand-written letter. He was more likely to respond to me in a quick text or email than ever sit down and write a real letter. In fact, I could hardly remember the last time I wrote a real letter to anyone. How sad.

I realized, as we walked away from the beloved mail room of my alma mater and on to the cafe, serving lattes and frappuccinos (that wasn't there when I attended this college, I hastily pointed out, yet again, to my daughter) that the art of letter writing was quickly dying. What will future biographers use to research the hearts and stories of people's lives? A transitory email that no longer exists? A text message lost in the cell phone universe? It's all so temporary and fleeting anymore. No longer will there be a box of letters hidden beneath the cedar-scented blankets of a hope chest, a written history of someone's life and relationships. My kids Skype with their long distance friends. We exchanged letters and carefully posed pictures (you didn't want to waste the film on your 110 cartridge by making a funny face).

The campus has changed in so many ways. Most of the changes, including a state-of-the-art music performance hall, and gorgeous new wellness center, are welcomed, a true enticement for future students. But, I thought as I glanced one final time at the mail room before we left the building, I'm not sure all changes are for the best.

Friday, June 7, 2013

Angels Among Us

Microsoft clipart
Have you ever spoken with a fireman, or someone who places their life on the line for the protection of others?  It might be tempting to assume they receive an adrenalin thrill or ego boost when they're out on the job, but if you dig a bit deeper, I suspect you'd find a more noble motivation is really in their hearts. 

Several months ago, I had a conversation with a volunteer fireman. Somehow in the midst of our random gab we fell into the topic of religion. He happened to mention he was "religious", without providing me a more specific definition. That was all right; I didn't feel compelled to probe. 

I told him that church and religion have always swirled all through my life, and yet sometimes I still struggled to find God, to make him real. 

He simply replied, "Get in a fire someday, you'll figure it out."

I wanted to hear more. "How so?" I asked.

"It's God in you," he replied. "Angels help you find your way out when you're in the fire."

I grew silent, thinking about his words. "How do you know it's angels and not just your wits and skills leading you out?" I finally asked.

He hedged. "You wouldn't believe me. I swear I have seen angels."

I'd like to believe there are angels among us. I want to believe that. I've seen goodness in people, certainly, but, honestly, never an angel. "What do they look like?" I wanted to know.

"All good things," he responded. "No face, you just feel the goodness in them. The love. It's amazing."

My doubt nagged at me, and I searched to find a logical explanation, but, really, who was I to question his experience? Perhaps when he was in the fear and inferno of a burning building, when the heat feels like hell itself, and smoke obscures up from down and right from left, he truly is guided by angels. I have no reason to doubt his experience. Maybe he sees them because he has to look for them. He needs them. 

Maybe I don't see angels because I don't look for them. I don't think I need to see an angel. I think I already know right from left and up from down. Or maybe it's just that my building hasn't burned hot enough. 

As we drifted off to other subjects, I kept thinking about his angels. Safe skepticism still nagged in my brain, but I didn't voice my questions. I hoped he'd continued to see his angels and that they'd keep on guiding and protecting him each time he was out being a hero fighting fires or rescuing people. 

And I hoped, someday, I would see one too. But his words carried a bit of a warning, or perhaps a challenge about finding that angel: Get in a fire someday; you'll figure it out.