Dear Leo and Miller,
We had your 3rd birthday party on Friday Leo and you were duly spoiled rotten. You were still up at 8:30pm delirious with tiredness and every now and again you would ask in a pathetic little voice – more present? more cake? I felt terrible for Miller during the party. Every so often I would spot her through the legs of adults, pushing her little pram about and staring up at everyone. It has always been a tradition in my family that you have a ‘party tea’ on the day of your actual birthday. Some cousins still have them now in their early 30s. It’s more a chance for grown ups to see eachother because the months fly by so quickly and everyone is so busy that making plans is just impossible. So at least you can rely on the next birthday coming up for an enforced get together or we wouldn’t see each other half as much.
I have reached the part in the Steinbeck book where he has sold the rights to Of Mice and Men to Hollywood which has enabled him to buy a new typewriter and go on holiday with his wife Carol. In a similar sort of theme (although I have nothing to celebrate, certainly not a financial wind-fall) – I have decided to buy myself a Mac Book Pro because I think it will help me write more and better. A holiday will probably have to wait however.
At this point in the book, his father has just died (not long after his mother) and his tone is so weary and sad it’s almost unbearable. But he tries to sound perky and cheerful at regular intervals, presumably to keep the reader from wanting to put the letter down and never pick it up again… And it made me realise why letters are a much more useful exercise than a diary. If you have some sort of audience to consider, it prevents you falling head-long into a wallowing outpouring of doom and self-pity. If that is your mood that day. So it’s good to have to consider the listener. Because all writers are vain and want their work to be read: I don’t care what they say. Me included.
Dear Leo and Miller,
Reading more of Steinbeck’s letters is certainly having the desired effect. Some people need physical exercise to keep a positive frame of mind and I have decided that I need good literature. It’s nourishing for the soul and quiets the mind. Even when it isn’t actually offering any advice, just reading something well written is comforting in itself: it can gather your thoughts for you. AA Gill (another writer who I think is brilliant) puts it like this “Writing, for me, is the great organiser. It’s while I’m writing that I think most deeply about things.” That’s what I hope, in some small way, these letters can offer you two. I’m not suggesting you are going to be blown away with any skills of mine but I am going to quote lots and lots of stuff that I read or hear that I think is note-worthy and which can help you navigate your way through difficult times. And I don’t mean devastating life-changing times, I really mean the little every day disappointments or worries that can slowly gain momentum and cause the most damage to a person. If I can provide even the smallest reassurance or just a distraction – then that makes me happy. Because life can be really really tough. But is always worth it. Always.
While we were on the subject of AA Gill he also said this which I think is good. When asked what people should know about him, he said: “‘Well one is that I’m a Christian. And I believe in being honest – that’s really important – telling the truth. I suppose to be kind whenever you can be. I also want to have an optimism about people – I would rather leave my wallet on the table and have it nicked once or twice than have it chained in my back pocket.’
I do have something quite important to tell you in this letter. Well, it’s important to me and consequently you. Leo, I have put you into nursery on a Monday morning (which take you up to 3.5 days per week) and Miller, your Granny (my Mum) is going to look after you on a Monday morning. And the reason for this is so I can be totally selfish and have four whole hours every week where I can please myself. Recently I have been feeling strange. Not myself, not quite right. It felt like I was craving something but I had no idea what. I wasn’t unhappy but I felt that I had to change something. It slowly dawned on me that what I was craving was time on my own. To the point that I would deliberately forget to buy something from the shops during the day so I had the excuse to go out later on my own. This is bad. This is ridiculous. I was getting excited to go to Waitrose to buy bread just because it meant 20 minutes by myself. So I have made the decision to basically get rid of you both every Monday morning so I can do the things I enjoy that have absolutely nothing to do with you, such as – playing with my clothes, ringing my friends, sorting out boxes of photos, reading fashion magazines full of clothes I can’t buy anymore. These activities have become luxuries because of time: you two take up a lot of time. They seem trivial but they are important because I do them alone and doing them makes me feel like me. And I cannot lose myself just because I am a parent. Karl Lagerfeld (a genuine legend) said this (which is slightly extreme but I agree with the sentiment): “Only being interested in yourself lets you be more available for others. My mother said “You should never sacrifice yourself too much because afterward you’ll have nothing more to give. So think about yourself, then you can be interested in others and be useful.”
I love you both very much but I am giddy with excitement at the thought of being totally alone in the house to do whatever I want. I had a brief taste of that freedom yesterday and spent it re-arranging my wardrobe and filing receipts. I won’t lie: it was bliss.
It is our wedding anniversary today and we are going to the cinema. Which is our favourite thing to do. Even if we don’t go and see a film, we still go to the cinema, specifically the Tyneside Cinema. It is a wonderful place that I hope is still going strong when you are growing up.
Dear Leo and Miller,
So it was your Auntie Jess’s wedding on Friday and all went well. I did the reading and everyone agreed it was the most beautiful letter and perfect for the occasion. Annoyingly (because I did know it word-for-word) I had to look down twice during the reading to check my place but I suppose that’s not too bad considering I had about 150 pairs of eyes on me. Including a bride and groom on the verge of tears. Not only was it well-received but it also made everyone lament that people don’t write letters anymore… Which has made me even more determined to see this project through. Or at least stick to a disciplined regime. Which I have decided is one letter per week of around 500/1000 words. At the very least.
I have started reading the book John Steinbeck: A Life in Letters (which admittedly I bought to give to Jess as an extra wedding present but decided I needed it right now more than her) to get my brain chugging and fill my mind with noble ideas and inspiring language. I have been absorbing too much rubbish recently: through hastily read trashy magazines and dreadful American reality TV. Both of which I love, but when they aren’t balanced out with anything decent, can start to make you feel a bit grimy and depressed.
You two weren’t invited to the wedding by the way. Don’t feel too despondent about this. It was so everyone could enjoy themselves without spending the whole time making sure their children weren’t breaking things or hurting themselves or running riot etc. The adults present did enough of that. But there was a big, child-friendly bash at a cricket club the next day and you were both there, in beautiful new outfits which stayed pristine for about 20 minutes before getting covered in cream cheese and grass stains.
It really was a wonderful wedding and exactly the wedding they both wanted: a massive party with some vows said in the middle. It’s a nice feeling to know that my sister is now happily married to someone she obviously adores and who she’s not going to get bored with (or he with her.) Because I think that might be the key to a happy marriage. Some other things are very important too but that’s a big one.
I could go on and on and on and tell you so much more about the wedding but you will hear stories and see photos (there are a lot of photos) and hear more stories… for a long time to come. What I will say is that if either of you are ever asked to give a reading or a speech at an event like a wedding, always say yes. Unless you turn out to be crippled with anxiety about public speaking (like your father) I strongly recommend that you take the opportunity to play a part in an important day of someone you love. I nearly backed out of reading at my Grandfather’s funeral when I was about 22 and I’m so glad I didn’t because you’ve carried out an important service and people are grateful and thankful and remember you for it. I spent a good four weeks learning the Steinbeck letter off by heart and recited it so much to you two that Leo – you started asking for a “Dear Thom” whenever we set off anywhere in the buggy. But the feeling afterwards was worth the nerves and I won’t deny that I basked in all the following glory. It’s a proper sense of achievement and also, it doesn’t hurt your confidence to be told by your supernaturally intelligent cousins that they could never do anything like that.