Sunday, June 10, 2007

I won't be writing these monthly letters any more

Martha Stewart (not the housewares guru) was one of those luminous individuals that we may encounter, if blessed, on rare occasions in a lifetime. For several years our work brought us together and we shared a deep connection. We then drifted apart – neither of us made the investment of time and energy necessary to sustain our relationship.

Martha had fought cancer for many years. I eventually learned she had suffered a relapse and was dying. Why is it, I wondered, that a crisis, life threatening illness or death may be the only ‘wake up call’ that returns people about whom we have cared deeply into our field of vision.

From the time I learned of her relapse until she died, I wrote to Martha nearly every week. And I sat down and compiled a list of friends and relatives with whom I wished to stay connected. For about three years, through the beginning of a new marriage and my year in Sri Lanka, I wrote these “Dear Family and Friends” letters every month. Then a turbulent period in my personal life began. It seemed to demand all of my psychic and emotional energy. I stopped writing. Many connections I had nurtured over more than three years weakened, atrophied and were lost.

But the process helped motivate a more durable institution. Dana Meadows had been one recipient of “my Dear Family and Friends” letters. She had started to write a weekly column, The Global Citizen (now archived on line). She made copies available monthly to a growing list of subscribers, and began prefacing the columns with a “Dear Folks” letter. These letters chronicled the breakup of her marriage, her bout with cancer, her decision to resign from a tenured Dartmouth College professorship, her Pugh Fellowship, and Macarthur “Genius” award. For years, “Foundation Farm” in Plainfield New Hampshire was Dana’s home. Her letters were enriched with descriptions of gardening, making hay, lambing, sheep shearing and much more. Foundation Farm was often a refuge and workplace for me. As I write, this Sunday morning, memories of listening to Prairie Home Companion, singing hymns accompanied by Dana’s piano playing, making blueberry ice cream and struggling with books we were writing, together and separately, become vivid.

Dana’s letters described her decision to sell Foundation Farm, to buy the Cobb Hill property in Vermont and to create a co-housing community that would be linked with the Sustainability Institute she had founded. Later letters told how she sought to build and blend the two institutions by empowering them with a common vision. In February 2001, Dana was struck down with Bacterial Meningitis and died.

But the “Dear Folks” letters did not. Susie Sweitzer, who was both a Cobb Hill Resident and Sustainability Institute staff member continued them for an additional six years; until now. They came in ‘hard copy’ once each month, not as one of the scores of emails I received each day. When they appeared in my mailbox, I opened them almost immediately, created a quiet time for myself, and was transported.

In her concluding letter Susie writes, “So why …would I stop doing something I enjoy so much and you enjoy reading The short answer is that it didn’t seem to make sense any more, this monthly hard copy, rambling, farmy, community-experiment sort of letter.” The longer answer is that each of those aspects of the letter were an issue for someone on the Sustainability Institute staff… A number of the Institute Staff wanted our publications to focus primarily on the projects and programs and ‘serious’ learning that is the mission of the Sustainability Institute which has, after all been the sponsor of the “Dear Folks” letters all these years.”

The absence of monthly Dear Folks letters will create a void in my life. It would be easy to criticize, but irresponsible. After all, I could have played a far more active role in the Sustainability Institute and Cobb Hill. In fact, I was seriously considering how best to do so when Dana died. That was not to be my Karma, however. Now the appropriate response to the final “Dear folks” letter is to thank Susie for her contributions to my life. I wish the Staff of the Sustainability Institute well as they pursue their new vision.

In a small way the idea that began with news of Martha Stewart’s relapse does live on in yet another incarnation, this dormgrandpop blog. Blogs may now be the genre of choice for such communications. In their Dear Folks letters, Dana and Susie rose to a daunting challenge: staying connected by blending the personal and professional sides of committed lives with grace, humor, civility and humanity. Though Susie “won’t be writing these letters any more,” the challenge remains.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Nice to know about your interest towards Sri Lanka.
We run a charity called Light House Foundation ( and our main aim is to have a "think tank" for policy making in future.
I am confident your research to this regard would help us in large.
If your intersted to learn more about our activities please drop me a mail on

Thank you.

3:16 AM  

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