He said to honor ourselves

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Somewhere near Lake of the Coheeries, a place that can have cruel winters but is nevertheless enchanting. (Photo by A. Hallinan)

New Year’s weekend I retrieved from the closet the boxes of letters I’d saved from my younger days, back when people took up pen and paper to communicate. I thought it was about time to sort, organize, and purge.

I’m not sure why I saved these missives, but I’m glad I did, especially now that I write memoir. Picking up an old letter and hearing the voice of a friend from long ago can take me back in an instant and call up a stream of long-lost memories. After decades, I still recognize a friend’s distinctive handwriting.

You may be familiar with the mega bestseller, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing, by Marie Kondo, which advises readers to keep only those items that “spark joy.”

Well, that’s great advice when it comes to saving or not saving old letters. I found many letters that sparked joy, so I ended up saving more than I discarded, but that’s OK.

I’d like to share excerpts from one of those letters with you. I’m quite sure the author wouldn’t mind.

The letter is from my first manager at Eastman Kodak. Ronn hired me into his department of instructional designers and media producers when I moved upstate, after 7 years in New York City and then grad school.

I was having a tough time getting acclimated to Rochester after the big city. It’s a family town, and I was single and lonely. I’ll give it a year, I thought.

I was lucky, though, to meet Ronn, a brilliant and eccentric outlier, and to get the interesting Kodak job that I did. To me, instructional design was ho-hum, but as one of the department’s media producers, I worked with photographers, videographers, graphic designers, and other creative people. It was stressful, sometimes consuming, but fun, too. I remember visiting the photo lab one day at Kodak’s State Street headquarters, where one of the gigantic Colorama photos that always graced a wall of Grand Central Terminal was being assembled.

At the time, Kodak was the home of world class photographers and innovators who brought the science and art of imaging to the world. Rochester had reaped the benefits of the altruistic genius, George Eastman, and as I began to discover the riches here, I felt more at home. Rochester had art films, dance, world renowned schools of music and photography, and medical research. This was before cities marketed themselves, and Rochester had always been quiet about its cultural and technical riches and quality of life. If it tended to be overlooked, that was just fine with the people who lived here.

My old copy of Ronn’s letter was a photocopied good-bye and thank you to our department. After I’d been at Kodak about a year, Ronn took early retirement. I believe he was in his late forties or early fifties at the time. He was one of the thousands upon thousands of employees who would take early retirement or be laid off over the next decades as Kodak had to dismantle itself.

I would go on to have two other managers at Kodak, both male. All three of them made a point of paying me well. Kodak definitely had its flaws, but in the 1980s it was a progressive leader in employee development and training and equitable treatment of women. In my view, my years at Kodak would turn out to be the only time I was fairly compensated, except for when I was a consultant and could set my own rates. Although I’ve had other satisfying jobs, they did not pay well for a variety of reasons: they were more creative than technical; some were traditionally women’s occupations; I got further behind when I became a mother;  and we’ve had decades of stagnant or declining wages. I mention this in light of what Ronn had to say to us in his letter.

Ronn had never been a corporate type. He could get away with wearing jeans among the suits because everyone loved him. He’d been restless, and was eager to make a change so he could have more time to write, paddle his canoe, read, and go fly fishing, among other things.

When I hear Steve Jobs’ famous words, “Stay hungry. Stay foolish,” I think of Ronn. He wasn’t hungry in the ambitious, Silicon Valley sense of the word. He was hungry for life, and he was never afraid to open himself up to others, even if some might see him as sentimental or naive.

winterstale2Before he left, Ronn made a point of spending some time with each of us. He wanted to introduce me to the founder of one of Rochester’s ad agencies, so we drove there one afternoon. On the way, we talked about Mark Helprin’s remarkable novel “Winter’s Tale,” and how it had affected our lives. I told him I’d been astonished to encounter one of my very own dreams among the pages of that novel, and we speculated on the meaning of dreams in our lives.

I remember Ronn speaking to us at his going away party, holding next to him the tall, graceful canoe paddle carved from hardwood that we’d gotten him as a farewell gift.

Later he sent us the letter which I ended up saving. He’d gone off to Vermont and had been consulting, reading fiction and poetry “like a bandit,” and paddling among the waterfalls, ponds, lakes, rivers and granite cliffs of Western Quebec and the Adirondacks.

He wrote:

markhelprin_winterstale“Please take care of yourselves (and I don’t mean that as a pseudo-parent statement.) Remember to honor yourselves. I know what it’s like to be a developer or producer. The crap can be overwhelming. And not all clients can recognize your talents.

Know that I think of all of you. (I truly mean that.) In fact, in a strange way I think that I see each of you more clearly than when I saw you every day. To be very old fashioned, I think that I see each of you as individual souls – which is very nice.”

If it sounds like I was a little bit in love with Ronn, I was, though I don’t think I realized it at the time.

There are some wonderful people in the world, aren’t there?

Do you save old letters?  Which remarkable people have you crossed paths with in your life?

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Another view, by M. Hallinan

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I met my husband here, and so I stayed. (He is a paddler, too, by the way.)

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A village near Lake of the Coheeries

17 responses

  1. Not long ago I took all the letters I had received from my sisters and best friend, separated them into piles by sender and in order chronologically. Read them all, saved a few and returned them to the senders. I sent along a letter saying i was not sick and still loved them but the letters were telling me what was happing in their lives and I thought they might like to read them and remember the good and bad times. I lived in Rochester from 69-72 and taught art at the DeWitt Rd. School in Webster. I lived on Berkeley St. btwn. East Ave. and Park St. within walking distance of the Eastman House back before it had been so beautifully enlarged and rehabbed. It was a wonderful city which gave me many wonderful memories. I was not yet a gardener when I lived there and yet some of my strongest memories are of the trees on East Ave. and the lilacs in the park. Thank you for a lovely post. I read a few others including your book lists. My husband was a Conscientious Objector during the Vietnam War and did his draft service in a hospital in Cleveland when the river caught fire. Those of us who are of an age still remember the moment and the place we heard the news of Kent State. I’ve read poetry about it but never a book. Maybe it’s time.

    • Linda, thanks for commenting. I’ve thought about returning some of the letters, too, and I probably will some day, because I do think it’s interesting for people to read their “past” selves. Those beautiful trees – most of them – are still there on East Avenue. I’m glad my posts brought up some good memories!

  2. Reblogged this on Not really that creative and commented:
    Last year I did a podcasting course with Valorie and was surprised to see her name pop up when I was reading some book reviews on Goodreads. She’s a lovely writer so I thought I’d share this post. I was also interested learn that we have similar backgrounds, having both worked in instructional design and in the photographic industry.

  3. I like to save old letters, too. Especially if they are meaningful. I still have postcards from grandparents and old aunts. I treasure them not only because of the love they convey, but also their handwriting was beautiful. Whatever happened to the visual artfulness of writing? My handwriting is awful compared to theirs…

    • I have some old cards and letters from my aunts, too. I’m getting back to writing Christmas cards at least – turns out now that I have a bit more time I enjoy that. I think beautiful stationery and papers and journals are coming back. Yes, and my handwriting isn’t the greatest either, but I enjoy writing with my favorite thin marker.

      • You will be interested to hear that my 14-year old spent $30 of his savings on an embossed, leather bound journal with a metal clasp. He fell in love with it in the museum shop during our Warhol visit. He’s been using it for sketching, but I’d say this definitely supports your statement that actual pen and paper is on the up and up.

  4. I’ve saved lots of old letters and just saved some from being thrown out recently (stepmother cleaning out my father’s house!) I love that they trigger forgotten or dimly remembered memories and I can see how they would really assist the memoir process. Thank you so much for sharing this with us Valorie.

    I love the ice fall, I just spent Friday speaking with one of my French students all about Cascade de glace, or ice falls. I had no idea it was a popular sport for rock climbers here in France, there is a very short season for it here (and it’s right now), as it requires perfect conditions, a totally fascinating insight and some incredible formations of nature to be seen, if you are courageous enough to brave it and climb one!

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