Thrift Store “Signs”

From Mary K~

Mary and I have taken on this co-writing book project with another partner, the God that guides us. Besides our shared interest in writing (letter and otherwise), we share a love of God, tea, reading, and stationery. And though both of us love a good thrift store, it could be said that as a mother of eight and a former eBay seller, I am master at the art of thrift-store shopping. In fact, my husband and I often spent time in thrift stores as part of our “date days.” I mention this in my book, Refined By Fire: A Journey of Grief and Grace (Familius, October 2014):

“At a Goodwill store just weeks before David’s death I’d lamented the lack of vintage stationery—the dearth of paper products in our thrift store adventures.
     “No one writes letters anymore,” I’d said. “So why don’t I ever find vintage paper and stationery here?”
      David had just smiled at the simplicity of his wife’s desires.
      The first time I visited a Goodwill store after David’s death, I couldn’t believe my eyes as I walked up and down the same aisles he and I had frequented together. At every turn, on nearly every shelf, there was something that caught my eye. That first solo trip, I filled a cart with books on grieving, boxes of stationery, pads of paper, scented candles, and pretty baskets. My eyes practically bugged out of my head when I spotted a flock of small bird statues similar to the ones David had given me the previous Christmas. It was as if someone had personally stocked the shelves with me in mind. I left the store in tears, holding bags of merchandise that felt like gifts from above. While I’d rarely seen stationery in my thrift store trips with David, after his death I couldn’t stop finding paper. There seemed to be no end to the books, cards, and stationery available.
     And I bought it all.” (page 70)

It was true that for two years after my husband’s death, I was finding stationery at every Goodwill I visited, filling several drawers and cabinets with the bounty. I now have enough stationery stocked away that I could write ten letters every day for the rest of my life and still not deplete the supply. Of course paper-lovers will understand that there is no such thing as “too much stationery,” and there is never enough. Two years after David’s death however, the abundance of stationery available at thrift stores abruptly stopped. The first time I left a shop without stationery, I thought it was a fluke, but after several months of not finding paper, I knew the source had dried up and it was back to normal in regards to my thrift store trips. By that time I had realized I would never be able to fill the hole that David had left with paper, anyway. Though I was extremely disappointed by the lack of stationery, it was eleven-year-old Abby who questioned it.

“Doesn’t God, or Daddy, still care about us? You don’t find stationery and I don’t find Littlest Pet Shop toys anymore.” (she’d been finding LPS toys at every thrift store we shopped, just as I was finding the stationery)

I pondered the valid question a moment before I answered.

“I think we were finding so many of the things we loved for those two years because we needed it more then. It means we are healing. God brings us what we need when we need it.”

In a similar vein, Mary and I have seen and experienced signs that God is blessing this book. We begin our writing sessions with prayer and ask for God’s guidance in who we are to approach for a guest essay. We have followed God’s leading in our choice of chapter topics. Repeatedly, we have gotten together and agreed on a topic or idea we thought the other had broached, only to discover that neither of us had brought it up. Where did that idea come from?

So, it has been nearly eight months since I have felt God’s hand in my thrift store forays. Until yesterday, that is. The first thing I spotted on a shelf  at Goodwill was the “Circle Journey” box. “Keep in touch. Write back & forth with someone special in a Circle Journey book. Capture life with words, images, energy and heart,” the words on the front of the box proclaimed. Inside are envelopes, photo corners, stickers, idea starter and a 60-page, Circle Journey book. “Start a Circle Journey book with a friend. Send it back and forth…then keep it forever,”  I continued reading on the back of the box. What an amazing idea in this world of e-mails and texting!  What a perfect idea for Mary and I, was my thought before I moved on to the bookshelves. The book I picked up first was The Friendships of Women, by Dee Brestin, a book we had compared ours to in the book proposal. I’d borrowed it through inter-library loan, so was glad to find a copy for my own bookshelf. I felt a chill go down my spine when in rapid succession, I added Letters from Skye by Jessica Brockmole, Pen Pals by Olivia Goldsmith, The Vintage Teacup Club by Vanessa Greene, and Tea Time with God to my cart.

What is going on? I wondered. These are all books related to things Mary and I will be writing about: letter writing, friendship, and yes, tea. We are often drinking tea as we write, and mention it frequently in our letters. I smiled to myself, seeing these books as a sign that God is blessing our endeavor. The only thing missing is stationery, I thought wryly.

You guessed it. The next thrift store was a goldmine of stationery. Not one box, but matching boxes of cheery blue stationery with hot air balloons and a “Have a bright ‘n breezy day” greeting, priced at a mere 49-cents a box, a bounty I will share with Mary. There was a package of lovely flower print paper and envelopes, with a butterfly at the top and bumblebees at the bottom, both full of significance for me, 88-cents and my next choice for a letter to Mary. Then there was the Main Street Press stationery folio for 99-cents and a huge bag of notepads and another filled with designed printer paper, along with a box of vintage Normal Rockwell print stationery. For less than $10 total, I was blessed with a gift that will bring me (and the recipients of my future letters) joy for months.

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And once again, I am given a sign in my thrift store finds. God is, indeed, in this “Mary & Me” project.


Other People’s Words

From Mary K~

Something else that Mary and I often share in our letters: seemingly random clippings from magazines or newspapers. However, they are anything but random. Something in that clipping, that page-a-day calendar page, or the scanned page of a devotional, touched the heart of one Mary enough to share it with the other. We will make copies or pick up extra newspapers or magazines to share our published pieces with each other. We are both avid readers, as well as writers. We devour magazines. There are many times the words of another writer resonate with us, and we often share those words.

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It was only late in the year 2011 that I began writing down words that touched my heart. Unlike some writers, unlike my friend Mary H, I had never kept a journal. I do have nearly 20 years of “day books” hidden away in a cabinet, the engagement books that allow enough space for short comments. Even those are painful to look at now, stark reminders of what I once had, with comments like “60-degrees, out for breakfast with David and then off to Dubuque for shopping while Emily watched Abby. Beautiful day~”

Perhaps it was the example of a mother who left behind notebooks where she’d jotted down favorite sayings, quotes that meant something to her, and her own words, that gave me the idea to begin filling a journal with other people’s words. For several years, the Paper Coterie company had offered generous coupon codes that allowed me to make up these hardcover personalized journals for minimal cost. I have half a dozen personalized journals still in my cabinet. Each time they offered a coupon discount, I’d utilize it for a journal, even making them up for friends and family. (Perhaps it was deal-seekers like me that put them out of business.) I was never sure what I was going to do with these beautiful journals, until December 2011.The chosen journal has a photo on the cover that immediately thrusts me back in time, one taken in my mother’s house the winter after her death.  It was my husband David who encouraged me to use her empty house as a private writer’s retreat. I spent many hours there; sipping tea, listening to music, praying, crying, healing from the loss of a creative mother, and yes, writing.

The author whose words I first chose to inscribe was Phyllis Theroux. The book was appropriately titled The Journal Keeper.

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And what words of Theroux did I choose to write down?

“Thinking about Mother, I compare her to the late stage of a dandelion. All the earlier, fleshy brilliance is gone. Now she is a fluffy, globe of light, holding herself erect as ever but ready, with one puff, to fly away, be gone.” (page 39)

A fluffy globe of light…My mother was diagnosed with terminal cancer in August 2010. After her diagnosis, she, too, held herself erect, seeming a beautiful globe of light until she died on my birthday in November of that year. Thank you for those perfect words, Phyllis Theroux.  I filled less than half this journal before my husband died in March 2012. One of the last entries was from Madeleine L’Engle’s Walking on Water:

“Faith is for that which lies on the other side of reason. Faith is what makes life bearable, with all its tragedies and ambiguities and sudden, startling joys.” (page 15)

The morning after my husband’s death I began my first “real” journal in earnest, one filled with my own words. Ironically, the quote I had chosen to have inscribed on several of the journals was one that would never be fulfilled with David: “Grow old along with me.” For someone who had never mastered the art of journaling, I filled the first journal rapidly, and then began another one. These two journals also contain the words of others, words from authors like C.S. Lewis, Madeleine L’Engle, and Cecil Murphey. There are personal prayers written in these two books, along with Bible verses. Words of comfort and encouragement. Words of faith and strength. Passages from these two journals are included in my book, Refined By Fire: A Journey of Grief and Grace. I knew it would be more accurate and helpful to others if I was to share the immediate pain of loss, rather than looking back on it.

I’ve gone back to that original 2011 journal now. Sometimes it is words from a novel that captures my attention. Today the words I wrote down were taken from Shelly King’s The Moment of Everything.

After the death of a good friend and mentor of two of the characters, this note was included in a sympathy card:

“There are cards we could send that are already prepared for times like this so we do not have to be. There are books we could recommend to you and groups you could join to help you process your feelings. None of it works. This is grief. It will hurt and hurt until one day it will hurt a little less. Think of that day.” (page 232)

Yes. Exactly. While books written by those who had gone down the road of grief before me did help, it was true that grief was something I just had to get through. And one day, it did hurt a little less. It still blindsides me sometimes, when grief hits with the particular sharpness of that first wound, but I can tell those who are newly grieving the truth: You will not always feel the way you are feeling right now.

And then there is this passage, on what it is for one of the characters to send a handwritten letter:

“Then in the night’s light, I walked to the postal box across from the Dragonfly, opened the door, and dropped in the letter before I could stop myself. After working in software for a decade, I understood the bits and bytes of e-mail, Facebook posts, tweets, and texts, but dropping a piece of paper into a box and it appearing on the other side of the world a few days later? That was true magic.” (page 26)

The magic of a letter... what Mary and I have felt all along~

Sharing The Highs and Lows of the Writing Life

From Mary H.~

This past week I was working on a chapter about being a writer for our book “Mary & Me.” I referenced a talk I had given several years ago to the Iowa City branch of The National League of American Pen Women. It was about the highs and lows of being a writer. Many things have changed since I wrote the paragraph below (both Mary and I have had much more published, for one, plus we write more letters per week than we did then). One thing that hasn’t changed is the importance we still place on our letter-writing relationship and how we support each other in our writing achievements and endeavors. It is just as crucial to us now as it was then, especially as we co-write “Mary & Me” in the months ahead:

My busy life with three young children continued. I didn’t write articles or poems much during that time, but as I’d said before, I’d been a longtime faithful letter-writer. I wrote to Mary, a home-schooling mother who now has eight children. She’d been my friend, neighbor and also a member of Playgroup. Writing Mary kept my skills in shape and later provided me with a great source of encouragement and support. For you see, Mary has had a book and over a hundred articles and columns published. To this day, we still write each other old-fashioned, snail-mail letters at least once a week, sometimes more. We share the highs and lows that we each experience with our acceptances and rejections. It’s a real HIGH to have her as a weekly writing friend.

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The Hidden Art of Handwritten Letters

In the coming weeks and months we will be reviewing books as part of our blog; books about female friendships and those that deal with handwritten letters, since both topics are integral to our work in progress.

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We will begin with an older book, one published by Edith Schaeffer in 1985. In that year the Marys had not yet met, but both were avid readers and had discovered the joy of writing. It was Mary Kenyon who purchased The Hidden Art of Homemaking at a Christian bookstore, attracted by the subtitle “Ideas for Creating Beauty in Everyday Life,” and the delicate pencil illustrations within. By 1985 Mary K. had nearly abandoned her own habit of sketching everything in sight. One too many poorly done attempts at drawing her firstborn son had turned her away from one craft and towards another. Her delight with essay portions of college exams led her to believe she might just have a talent for writing, despite the solid “C” grade she received in the single college level writing course she took. She has a file of “A” graded term papers and illustrated (yes, illustrated!) essays that prove otherwise. Though she is now horrified that she dared to draw delicate flowers on more than one cover page of her college essays, she can confidently lay blame on the influence of Schaeffer’s words. It was her book that first planted the idea of combining writing with sketching of some sort:

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“You are writing a letter to a friend, your fiancee, your husband or wife, your children…but as you express yourself or your mood better with a sketch than in words, you sketch at the top of the page, or intersperse writing with sketches. They can be beautiful, serious or amusing. You have made the letter more interesting and more communicative. But you have also enjoyed yourself and stimulated your own imagination in the doing of it. Ideas carried out stimulate more ideas.” (page 49)

So Mary K’s sketches on the cover page of her college essays, while not recommended by either Mary now, were a product of her stimulated imagination and creativity, appreciated by her Psychology professors for some obscure reason. But it was Schaeffer’s viewpoint on letter-writing that resonated most with Mary K:

“What can you write? Letters could well come first of all. We all have someone waiting for a letter, and each of us has someone thinking about him or her and wishing the mail would bring some sort of word, some message. ..Write now. Communicate with someone now. Start by writing a letter to one person, and continue by writing to others who are waiting for a letter.” (page 136)

These words still apply to letter-writing. The idea of a handwritten letter is not old-fashioned, and neither is the main topic of Schaeffer’s book. Both Marys believe that each of us is born with some inherent talent. In fact, Mary K. has done many presentations on “Utilizing Your Creativity in Your Everyday Life” for women’s and young mother’s groups.

The Hidden Art of Homemaking continues to have merit for readers today. It could be argued, however, that as a new wife and young mother, Mary K might have spent more time on other chapters of Schaeffer’s book, considering topics such as “Interior Decoration,” “Flower Arrangements,” “Food,” “Creative Recreation,” “Gardens and Gardening,” and “Music.”  We are sure her eight children would have at least appreciated more attention to the “food” and “creative recreation” chapters.

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What Could Be Better Than Sending a Letter?

Poetics aside (because it does rhyme, after all), is there anything better than sending a letter, except perhaps, receiving one? If you are not a letter-writer but can handle crafting an e-mail, then for one week only, this group, Snail Mail My E-mail, ( will handwrite your e-mail message and send it via postal mail to your chosen recipient. From their website:

For one week only (Nov. 10-16, 2014), we invite you to type a message to anyone— family, friend, secret crush, or congressional representative— and send it to us. We’ll then handwrite your message and post it via regular mail to the recipient of your choosing, for free!

What an amazing idea! Snail Mail My Email (SMME) was created in 2011 by artist Ivan Cash, who originally conceived the project as a one-time, month long initiative where he would write and send out strangers’ emails one at a time.10,000 letter submissions later, Cash had to enlist the help of hundreds of volunteers to send letters all over the world.

SMME has since transitioned to a week-long annual event, held every November that anyone can participate in.

Book Contract Signed!

Today was a milestone day as Mary Potter Kenyon and Mary Jedlicka Humston signed a contract with Familius for their book with the working title Mary & Me: Two Lives in Letters. Whether you are intrigued by the art of the handwritten letter, or by various aspects of female friendship, you will want to follow our blog as we share photos, websites, interviews, book reviews and essays related to the subject of our book, which is described in this section of Mary Potter Kenyon’s introduction:

It has never been the length of the friendship that brought astonishment. After all, the majority of baby boomers could likely claim a long-standing friendship in their lives. No, it was always the letters; the pen on paper, inside a stamped envelope, mailed-in-a-mailbox letter that was awe-inspiring.

            “You’ve been writing letters every week for over twenty-five years?” The question always evokes disbelief, particularly since the dawn of the Internet and e-mail. We quickly correct the misconception.

            “Well, at least one letter, but usually more. We write each other three or four letters a week. And we never wait for a return letter before beginning another.”

            Conservatively speaking, at just three letters a week for twenty-five years, that would equal 3900 letters each, but we’d both agree that estimate is much too low. We have, on occasion, written the other two letters in a single day.

            This book will explore a friendship that began in June 1986 and will most likely not end until “death do us part.” The fact that one of the women in this relationship had never really had other female friends outside of her sisters while the other woman had too many to count is all part of the story.

For many years, ours was primarily a letter-writing friendship with a few face-to-face visits now and then. That changed in November 2011, when we traveled six hours to attend a writer’s conference and stayed at a motel together for a few nights.

When my husband David unexpectedly died a few months later, our relationship deepened. In fact, on the morning of March 27, 2012, I’d been sitting on the couch writing a letter to Mary when I decided to wake my husband for his coffee. For at least thirty minutes I’d been sitting within arm’s reach of David’s chair where he sat with his eyes closed. When I leaned over, touching his arm and whispering his name, he did not respond.

I didn’t even know he was gone, I would repeat over and over to my sisters. How could I not know my husband was dead? I was just sitting there drinking coffee and writing a letter to Mary, and all the while my husband was dead.

We will also be including essays from other women that display a unique aspect of friendship,including a woman whose primary support during her son’s cancer was an online group of women that she would only meet in person at her son’s funeral and another woman whose life was saved by a virtual stranger who is now her best friend. The final section will include chapter-by-chapter discussion questions for groups to reflect on in their studies and book clubs.

mary and me signing contract