Nearer to Spring: A Story of Christmas Lost and Found in Letters

 Letters come from a time when writing them was considered part of life. It was something you did as a matter of course. It was expected. “Write no matter how tired you are, no matter how inconvenient it is,” Theodore Roosevelt wrote to his son in l917. For his part Roosevelt was one of the most prolific correspondents ever, pouring out more than 150,000 letters in his lifetime.

Letter writers were from all walks of life. Sigmund Freud devoted every Sunday afternoon to them. At eighty-six, poet and National Book Critics Circle Award winner Donald Hall still writes about 5000 a year. I send about 500.

Why bother with Christmas letters, notes, cards, and pictures sent through the mail? Thanks to the miracle of modern messaging, most people follow one another’s activities minute to minute all year long. They Facebook, tweet, blog, post and pin. In fact, why bother with Christmas? Isn’t it simply a commercial extravaganza? These questions caused me mounting despair, so much so that I briefly resolved to throw in the towel on many of my favorite traditions related to the holiday, including sending and saving cards.

Buried among boxes of old correspondence I intended to throw away, I found a faded copy of E.B. White’s Charlotte’s Web. Some pages were lost. Others torn. On the cover a worried pig stared at an acrobatic spider not unlike the one watching from the dusty windowsill in the garage where I worked.

In the foreword, writer Kate DiCamillo explains why the story is the best selling children’s book of all time. “…and things didn’t turn out well. But they also did turn out well. And that is the crux of the miracle of the book. Every word shows us how we can bear the triumphs and despairs, the wonders and heartbreaks, the small and large glories and tragedies of being here.” 

At the outset, neither the milky winter sun nor the sharp fluorescent overhead lights were enough to dispel my gloomy determination to cast Christmas out. As I reread the story of Charlotte the spider, Wilbur the pig and Fern the young girl, something unexpected happened.  I thought I was saying goodbye to Christmas—its memories, magic, and  mail. It turned out to be hello—to faith that shone in unexpected ways from unexpected sources in unexpected places.     

This book is my way of thanking card senders, letter writers and letter readers—a fraternity of scribblers whose correspondence wove a web as impressive as Charlotte’s. A web that rescued, amazed, and accompanied me. A web whose pattern helped make sense of the world, reminded me of events long past, and encouraged me to recognize the extraordinary beauty in ordinary lives.

It’s easy to disparage the whole writing business in an era where TLDR (too long didn’t read) is a common response. There is another viewpoint. Essayist Phyllis Theroux wrote,

“To send a letter is a good way to go somewhere without moving anything but your heart.”

Here’s a little piece of mine for you.

What happens when Christmas gets lost? Discouraged with Christmas—the commercialism, the family fatigue, and the fading appearance of cards and letters—Anne Koch vows to cast Christmas away. The short essays assembled here trace her transformation from fed up to fascinated and exhausted to encouraged as she revisits decades of holiday mail, spurred on by a chance meeting with a garage spider and an encounter with her childhood copy of E.B. White’s Charlotte’s Web. For anyone who thinks Christmas is obsolete, inconvenient, or simply a season of empty sentiments employed by master marketers to lure people into a world of more—a world where technology has made cards and letters irrelevant, this book tells a different story. 

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Look Both Ways: At the Intersection of Yesterday and Tomorrow

At the intersection of two narrow roads in the California gold country foothills a dilapidated store squats on one corner. Signs plaster the windows. Some are legible: Cash only. Candy. Fishing supplies. Ice. Others are too faded to decipher. Outside, a giant red circle is attached to the corner post between a sagging roof and a rickety porch like a lollipop in the middle of a stick. Its neon yellow letters proclaim BELIEVE IN SOMETHING BIGGER. Was it a religious statement?  As the car idled at the four way stop I squinted to read the small print underneath. POWER BALL TICKETS AVAILABLE HERE. Not the religion I had in mind, but a religion nonetheless.

Across from the general store a new convenience market competes for traveler’s attention. It has its own window sign collection: Cigarettes. Slurpee’s. Beer. Missing pets’ pictures. Reminders to recycle.

On the other two corners highway markers and street names lean awkwardly on battered poles. They’re victims of drivers who either didn’t see them, or misjudged their locations. If you didn’t know which way to go when you arrived at the intersection the signs wouldn’t help.

Life is a journey with road signs of its own. Sometimes I saw them. Sometimes I didn’t. Sometimes there weren’t any. Sometimes, like at the dusty foothill intersection, there were too many to sort. The short essays and poems here recount my trip along the highway I traveled with millions of others. It began in the optimism after World War II when women’s roles were clear, when technology was more about clever appliances in every home than in every fiber of life, and when money was a means to an end and not a religion.

The essays are organized around the metaphor of traffic and its signals—from an ancient Arabic word that means “Distribution. People and vehicles coming and going together.” The selections move from clear parameters and priorities at the outset, to puzzles and paradoxes that confused me, passages that challenged me, to choices I made as I escaped the grip of the past and the cult of the future. The last section celebrates the present’s timeless possibilities.

Like many of us—middle class, Caucasian, female—the journey began on the main road. Miles and miles later I left the highway. Without society’s signals controlling my speed and direction I had a chance to look around.  Look up. Look in.

Eudora Welty wrote, “I am a writer that comes from a sheltered life. A sheltered life can be daring as well. For all serious daring starts within.”

I am that writer too. 

How does one respond when the frozen past meets the fluid present? Reject and retreat or reflect and reframe?

"Look Both Ways" is a collection of short essays that look back and forward along the path many have traveled—from the road of certainty to one of possibility. Using the metaphor of traffic signals as a frame, Anne Koch considers what shaped her thinking, what upended it, and what opportunities lie ahead as life’s journey winds on.

The book is the final installment in an essay quartet "A Conversation with the World." The first three volumes recount her quiet affection for ordinary life—popular mysteries, arts and crafts, and teaching."Look Both Ways" focuses on transitions. How they surprise us, frustrate us, and free us for a future that builds on the past, invites the future, and celebrates the present.

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Following Alice: A Life in Teaching

How does someone arrive at a career? 

 By design? Default? Duress? For me it was a toy train. A twinkling tree. And a  four year old’s imagination—the place most adventures begin.

 The heavy black engine pulled a boxy coal car. Next came an orange flatbed—perfect for hauling marbles and wooden sewing spools. A boxy red caboose brought up the rear. On its tiny back platform the child imagined waving goodbye, like an old-fashioned politician, as she traveled on adventures beyond the Christmas house.

 I spent hours that holiday season moving freight, taking trips, building cities around the elongated track with magazines and books. It was important work.  Although there were wooden blocks in the toy chest, Dad’s hardback books were much better construction material. With their heavy leather covers and gold embossed spines, they made perfect walls, towers, and bridges.  I can think of few better ways to introduce a child to books than to let her stack them, upend them, rearrange them, pretend to read them. The silvery oval, surrounded by its book buildings, led the child to a career destination—the mysterious, maligned, magical world of school. 

"Following Alice" speaks to everyone whose dreams of teaching school collide with a much different reality. Using the adventures of Lewis Carroll's young "Alice in Wonderland" as a backdrop, Anne Koch explores the distance between formal training and true teaching. In a series of brief essays she traces the path from confusion to catastrophe to celebration as she learns. This book is a tribute to the skill of dedicated professionals in both parochial and public schools, who model the qualities that make a difference for everyone—the care, the challenge, and community building that often are underappreciated but matter more than ever in the strangely disconnected-connected age in which we live. 

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Finding Home: A Memoir of Arts and Crafts

One Christmas Jim brought home a set of calligraphy pens, the least wanted item in his office holiday party swap gift exchange. A beheaded fountain pen and collection of odd-looking nibs, they were left behind by the disappointed recipient. I was delighted.   It was like meeting an old friend after a long absence.

Finding Home speaks to everyone who appreciates arts and crafts and the role they play making a home. In a series of twenty-six brief essays the author reflects on a range of topics-from rug hooking and macrame to tole painting, letter writing, calligraphy, card making, and porcelain painting. The book is a tribute to the ability of modest excursions into popular crafts to make a difference-by making us aware of the beauty and lessons found as we create in multiple mediums. Lessons not only for the projects we undertake, but for living.

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Indie Bound


It's All About the Story: Composing a Life in Books

I can't pinpoint when the affair began. Certainly it was before I could read, a detail that never kept me from carrying books from room to room like some children carry blankets or stuffed toys. Somehow I knew whatever was trapped inside was special, fun, even important. Years later, decades after countless esoteric reading lists for courses I took and some courses I taught myself, I began to wonder what happened...not to the "important" but to the "fun".

"Composing a Life in Books" speaks to everyone who appreciates mystery, detective and romance stories. In a series of 22 brief essays, Anne Koch reflects on these genres—why they matter, where they come from, how they work, when they help, and what makes them relevant to modern life. This book is a tribute to the ability of old-fashioned storytelling to sharpen our awareness of the human condition and to lessons that are found not only in "serious literature," but popular fiction, as well.

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