be careful of the words

January 9th, 2012

This probably puts me in the category of a Kevin Costner sympathizer.

I’ve begun thinking in apocalyptic terms about what seems certain to be the demise of the US Postal Service. Admittedly, I’m a cultural throwback. I still think of writing as something that you do on paper, with your whole hand, in a cursive script that is elegant and intrinsic, like your DNA. I still think of community as consisting of people with bodies, using arms and legs and good manners to stand in line patiently at the post office, where we buy stamps, grouse about the three-penny price increase, see somebody we know, say a kind word, conduct our minor essential business, and go on our way, until next Monday or Thursday or tax season or the holidays.

I’ve noticed that they’ve started selling greeting cards in my little post office, which is ingenious, really, in a demoralizing way, since the only people who enter a post office these days are the sappy has-beens like me. People who saw those lame Kevin Costner movies in the 1990s predicting the disappearance of the post office, global warming, and the end of the world as we know it. And now we really do know it.

One of the cool things about my family is that I have cousins who grew up in Japan, and one who still lives there. Scattered visits and rare letters were the little we shared growing up, but I always appreciated their artistic sensibilities, which seemed so lacking in the rest of us clodhoppers. My cousin Debbie uses her considerable watercolor talents to practice a Japanese folk art called etegami. You can see her work here. Like all folk arts, etegami is becoming lost and impractical, since it is the art of painting postcards. Yes, postcards. You remember them, right? Postcards were the texts of the twentieth century. A little scrap of sentiment that arrived from a distance. You read it, turned it over, and used it as a bookmark or a coaster. It got spindled and stained. Postcards weren’t often kept, but the connection was. The connection was never lost.

Etegami is the art of ephemera: a one-time, one-off, simple drawing accompanied by a few apt words. Ideally, the drawing is bold and even awkward, spontaneous, original, intensely observed and heartfelt. It is human. All this is expressed on a single piece of paper that, once received, might become a coffee-stained coaster or grocery list. Yes, yes, this is how it really is! A hand brings ink to paper! The paper turns to dust! This is the beauty of our lives, what makes them precious, what draws us close. Nothing lasts but the love for what does not last.

I’m sharing my family fortune this week by giving away a set of etegami coasters by Debbie featuring fruits and this written reminder of seasonal time:
Be careful of the words you say,
Keep them soft and sweet;
You never know from day to day
which ones you’ll have to eat.

The coasters are so beautiful that you won’t want to use them. But do, so you’ll know the true value of what we cannot keep.

To enter the drawing for the coasters, leave a comment on this post by this Friday, Jan. 13. I will ship to the winner, anywhere in the world, via the late, great US Postal Service, which I love.

Subscribe to my newsletter • Come to a retreat • Facebook me • Follow me.


  1. The paintings are so simple and beautiful. I love them!

    Comment by May — January 10, 2012 @ 8:13 pm

  2. I read this post just in time. Today, I am writing my first letter to Amelia, the child I am sponsoring through ChildFund. At first, I thought I should type the letter since it might be easier for her and her family to read. However, I am now reminded how personal and special handwritten letters are. I want her to know that I took the time to correspond with her the traditional way, rather than being lazy with my words. Instead of a typed memorandum to Amelia, I will be writing a long, handwritten letter. Thank you for being on this page today. I needed reminding.

    Comment by Crystal Jones — January 11, 2012 @ 9:05 am

  3. Nice synchronicity as just yesterday sitting in my department meeting with educator-tech folks, we were asked to do some reflective writing, right after an inservice on the use of Twitter in the classroom. Several remarked on the “incongruity” – why write when we could tweet? I appreciated the return to an old “technology” of paper and pencil – a more intimate, organic, visceral way to engage.

    I hand painted postcards when I journeyed solo last year for three months in Europe. Simple paintings of spring flowers, captured in the moment, to give as gratitude for the hospitality of friends, old and newly made, to accompany the “home” made pewter maple leaf of my country.

    Thank you for the occasion.

    Comment by Katharine Weinmann — January 11, 2012 @ 9:45 am

  4. They are lovely and so is this post. I have a feeling we’re going to regret a lot of these things we’re losing right now … all because we’re so self-absorbed in our own lives and not those of the rest of humanity.

    Comment by Shawn — January 11, 2012 @ 9:52 am

  5. As a child, I loved running down the driveway to peer into our mailbox. There were unexpected good and bad surprises. I still remember the blue aerogramme paper and can almost visualize my grandfather’s handwriting. When I handed that letter to my mom, an instant smile came to her face. It’s one of the best grins I’ve ever witnessed.

    Comment by Rudri Bhatt Patel @ Being Rudri — January 11, 2012 @ 12:36 pm

  6. How wonderful! I loved this post and would treasure one of these etegami! Thank you.

    Comment by Jeanne Menzel — January 11, 2012 @ 12:54 pm

  7. Thanks for sharing your family stories and your thoughts.

    Comment by Paul Brennan — January 12, 2012 @ 8:35 am

  8. It is just frightening and freaky to imagine the world without the post office!

    Comment by Mama Zen — January 12, 2012 @ 10:55 am

  9. Thank you for your post and for the link to your cousin’s art.

    Comment by Marlisse — January 12, 2012 @ 9:04 pm

  10. I come back to your posts about once a week. I am always crying after I read them. They make me realize what having a ‘soft, open heart’ really feels like. Thank you for your words. Thank you for your practice.

    Comment by Judith Smith — January 13, 2012 @ 5:19 am

  11. The post offices I remember in small English villages always sold a wonderful variety of things. In the post office in Rainford, Lancashire you could find greetings cards, candy (weighed out by the ounce)toys and books and wonderful embroidery and cross stitch kits. What fun it was to go to the post office!
    (I just received thank you notes from my grandchildren for their Chrismas gifts. I love that they still hand write short thank you letters.)

    Comment by Judith Smith — January 13, 2012 @ 5:33 am

  12. Thank you for sharing this art. These would make a lovely gift. Useful AND beautiful… can’t beat that! Thanks for the opportunity to win.

    Comment by Bianca — January 13, 2012 @ 10:18 am

  13. Love these wise words and would adore them in my home for little eyes to memorize!

    Comment by alisa — January 13, 2012 @ 4:01 pm

  14. The message on the coasters is a reminder to be mindful. Not just of how you feel in the present, but how you may feel in the future, and that often those things are not the same. It allows you to increase your own awareness in the fact that things around us shift, causing things in ourselves to shift. I like that. And I find that to be true every day with parenting. Today my daughter’s volatility is maddening and gets under my skin, and tomorrow I will not notice it. And the reasons why can’t always be pinpointed, but just to know that my own reaction to it can determine so much of what happens helps me to be calmer. Ultimately, being mindful helps us to protect what is sacred–not just ourselves from stupid things we may say, but our loved ones as well. Your words say it best, without doubt. But when we leave the earth, not one thing we own will matter. What matters is the love we carry in our hearts.
    My daughter is 4 1/2, my son is 2, and my third child will be born in 5 weeks. I remind myself every day. The toys, the mess, the laundry, the extra tv time, these things don’t matter. All that matters is the love!

    Comment by Sarah Stanton — January 14, 2012 @ 10:12 am

  15. me too…love things old-school…handwritten letters, in the flesh gatherings and conversations, and time for slow meanderings. thank you, karen.

    Comment by melissa — January 15, 2012 @ 7:48 am

  16. Just catching up on my blog reading, and as a lover of snail mail, I love every single bit of this.

    Comment by Christine Mason Miller — January 15, 2012 @ 4:28 pm

  17. I have a special place in my heart for the Post Office. My dad was a letter carrier, retiring in 1976 after 33 years with them. He worked for them at a time when you could get a letter delivered to someone by simply addressing it something like, “The owner of the hardware store on Court Square, Trenton, Tenn.” That has been a long, long time, in more ways than one.

    Comment by Donn — January 21, 2012 @ 6:11 pm

  18. A few years late to this party but so very happy to have found your blog.
    Enjoying every minute as I read the wonderful archive of wit wisdom and inspiration

    Thank you!

    Comment by Nancy mccarthy — April 21, 2020 @ 1:27 pm

RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URL

Leave a comment

archives by month