Originally published on TEDxWilmington.com

Alessandra Nicole for TEDxWilmingtonLive, Photograph by Joe Del TufoSome of you here know that I lost my grandmother in February and that we had been pen pals for more than twenty years. What you may not know is that our relationship deepened 100% because of that paper letter exchange. She was severely hard of hearing growing up and my memories of her are peppered with the sound of her hearing aids screeching from feedback because she had them turned up so high. My five cousins had siblings they fought with and through it learned to speak up for what they wanted and to be heard when it counted. I was a sensitive only child that was intimidated by all of that, and thus my grandmother knew my cousins better than she knew me for many years, because I was so quiet around her and we didn’t know how to reach one another.

When I went away to college and she sent me the first letter there, suddenly I had a way to fully communicate the all of me. Our relationship became very vibrant and rich through an exchange that finally allowed me to be fully seen and heard. And, being six states away, having a letter come through the mail to me felt like getting a message in a bottle. Sitting with it in my hands felt like a hug. Seeing her handwriting and reading it with her voice in my head felt like a kiss on my homesick heart.

I think about children today who only have email at their fingertips; an oxymoron because what do they actually touch? When communication is via popcorn text message and Instagram photo caption and emotions are summed up by animated gifs and emojis, how much authentic communication is actually happening? But what I really think about are the sensitive children who are having trouble connecting with others in their very family and are missing out on developing connected and meaningful relationships, are missing out on being truly seen and heard, are missing out on bonding with another generation of their own family.

I invite you to celebrate National Letter Writing Day with me on Friday, December 7th and write a letter to someone near or far in your life. It could even be to someone who lives right under the same roof as you! I’m talking a letter, not just a card, on a piece of paper, more than two paragraphs long. Fold it up, seal it up in an envelope, put a stamp on it, and send it through the mail. Tell me about it, if you want. pen@paperletterexchange.com

Letter writing causes even the busiest and most frenetic of minds to slow down and think through concepts and thoughts with great consideration. According to an article published by the Guardian, “Pens and keyboards bring into play very different cognitive processes. ‘Handwriting is a complex task which requires various skills – feeling the pen and paper, moving the writing implement, and directing movement by thought,’ says Edouard Gentaz, professor of developmental psychology at the University of Geneva. ‘Children take several years to master this precise motor exercise: you need to hold the scripting tool firmly while moving it in such a way as to leave a different mark for each letter.’

Operating a keyboard is not the same at all: all you have to do is press the right key. It is easy enough for children to learn very fast, but above all the movement is exactly the same whatever the letter. ‘It’s a big change,’ says Roland Jouvent, head of adult psychiatry at Pitié-Salpêtrière hospital in Paris. ‘Handwriting is the result of a singular movement of the body, typing is not.”

Letter writing helps develop and reinforce vocabulary and language skills, creativity and humor through metaphor creation, and delivers dopamine to the nervous system that lasts much longer than hearing a text alert or seeing a red heart indicator on an app. Letter writing has been described as natural ritalin and natural prozac. It also helps one deal better with difficult times. And receiving a letter to read: the same. The connecting from the brain to eye to hand to pen to paper is a cognitive one that delivers a host of long term benefits in the act itself, and when practiced regularly can even become spiritual, meditative, divine. You are present and therefore become a channel between the subconscious and conscious, letter writing is a cleansing therapy and a zen art. And once all of the physical, mental, and spiritual benefits are added up.. there’s more.

Letter writing helps a mentally sharp ninety year old widowed man who can’t walk anymore and has been left to exist the rest of his days in a dismal nursing home feel alive, seen, heard, thought of, cared for, and like he matters. It helps a quiet woman a third his age connect to him and ask him all the questions about his countless adventures through life. It could help a child gain insight into world history and geography and economics and politics and all things romance. It could help a parent connect with an estranged daughter and make amends. It could take a new romance to the next level. It could help a prisoner feel like a person who counts again. It could help a child grow into a special bonded relationship with a grandmother that will shine on in her heart which will spill onto all those around her long after the ashes have been laid to rest. I’ve seen it all happen.

Those conversations, even if they are not cross generational but peer to peer, will never have the same quality in the context of an Facebook message or a Snapchat story. They will hardly have the lasting power and the artifact quality. They will hardly have the gravity, the connection, and they certainly will not do much to develop the cognitive, educational skills, and deliver the long term positive physiological benefits to which letter writing lends itself. Handwriting letters does something the keyboard and tapping letters on a smartphone touch screen will never, ever be able to do.

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See Alessandra Nicole’s TEDx talk HERE.

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…that got a standing ovation and made friends, strangers, and our host cry. 👀 The toughest thing I’ve done and biggest risk I’ve taken in almost ten years. The response has overwhelmed me and made my heart sing. Still taking it all in…

photos: Bob Turner and Patrick Carmody

Read about my journey:

my first blog for TEDxWilmington

my second blog for TEDxWilmington

bits from Abiquiú

May 11, 2017

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Ghost Ranch, NM, near Abiquiú in Rio Arriba County in north central New Mexico

In March / April of this year I was able to explore the same hallowed ground that painter Georgia O’Keeffe celebrated in many of her works. Ghost Ranch was a restorative sojourn. Red faced mountains amplified the fiery sunrises and sunsets and stood protectively in silhouette when the navy night revealed billions of stunning pinholes to heaven. Free of many distractions, I spent my days on horseback admiring the landscape, in hot springs, and in my sketchbook.

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follow Alessandra on Instagram @Alessandra_Official

catskills gravity

August 31, 2015

“Traveling – it leaves you speechless, then turns you into a storyteller.”

   
 

  My pistol of a great aunt Freya from Amsterdam. She grew up in nazi occupied Holland. She makes award-winning dandelion wine, is a consummate storyteller, sharp wisecracker, and is a well-read, multi-lingual, vibrant, inspiring, formidable spirit. There really aren’t enough words to describe the All of her! 
 
 
Great aunt Bunny, her twin sister (my paternal grandmother), their brother in front of the little chapel on the Karsch family farm in upstate NY, early 1930s)

   
The little chapel on the Karsch family farm today, 2015

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It’s really cool inside, the family has Christmas Eve service annually and hold occasional memorial and wedding services there

 
Twins, their brother, and my great grandmother on the family farm I visited every summer growing up. Apparently, the twins worked the farm as their father preferred to play music and on any instrument around. My grandmother finally “escaped” the farm to go to Temple University in Philly to become a nurse. To this day she’s still a hard working woman and my favorite pen pal. Her “little” brother- my well-spoken great uncle Willard- and wife Freya reside on the land now.  Willard rebuilt the house pictured, preserving many of its original elements. 
  

Mural in Middleburgh, NY

   
  
   
  My second great grandmother Dorothy (first one passed away before I met her and my great grandfather remarried) lived here in town for years and I stayed with her often as a young girl. It’s just ten minutes’ drive from the family farm up on the mountain.
 
Here’s lookin at you, Kid  


Next- to make it full-circle to my birthplace of Stuttgart (when there was still a West Germany) to reconnect with the maternal side of my family. 

  
My very first passport as a German import – ha!!

  
Me with my EU / German passport 

All of me

August 12, 2015

  
Learning to read + play chord charts from a dear friend and Berklee-trained musician and he’s decided to start me off with some lovely John Legend.  

The Piano

August 3, 2015

  
This is my piano, Anita. She is a circa early ’60s Mason & Hamlin with a remarkable Steinway-esque tone (the two brands were fashioned and manufactured in the same warehouse.)

We took her over from a writer a couple of frigid Januaries ago and I named her after a friend who left us far too soon the November prior to that. She was essential to my working through the grieving process and has become so wonderfully interwoven in my diverse day-to-day as I wear the hats of Photographer, Writer, Illustrator. She is the thread that brings together my facets, and she both gives me wings to invent and anchors me in my creativity, and being.

Her previous owner had her painted years ago and though I have considered taking her back to her original black laquer, the painting on her has become a part of her charm. 

Like another special love I have that I enjoy, I have longed for her for years before she showed up in my life. And like that other special love, she offers the rare dichotomy of setting me free and giving me great gravity. Through her I have articulated musically thoughts and feelings that go far, far beyond anything words (and even brush strokes) could as adequately express. The composer’s language is a profound and soul-stirring one.

When I was very young, my grandparents kept an aunt’s light brown upright Werlitzer for her in their humble living room. I spent weekdays there for a summer both noodling on the piano and playing along with my grandpop’s AM radio. I was and still am extremely adept at picking the notes right from songs- at playing by ear. 

Unfortunately, the aunt disliked the piano being kept active by my tiny fingers and she had it transferred to a storage unit (where, tragically, it rots to this day, as a matter of fact.) 

We didn’t have extra money for music lessons for me and I would sit next to friends on their piano benches as their parents forced them to practice their lessons, watching eagerly and hungrily. As a teen, a gifted and busy friend of mine would teach me different things as she was able. I would skip lunch each day to sneak into my school’s auditorium and practice on the baby grand stored in a corner back stage.

I longed for a lifetime to have a piano of my very own, and that longing has finally been slaked. This is Anita! It is astounding how much warmth and soul a piano lends to its home. 

November!

November 1, 2013

I read a quote online recently that I can’t seem to relocate but the essence of it was something like this:

Who will regard your dying as beautiful?

Those of us in love with the season of Autumn as much as I must on some level regard aging and letting go as a beautiful process; a glorious celebration in bursts of colour, sexy textures, smokey scents. Summer’s tantrum is through and the following season is an eloquent, sensual eulogy before a snowy funeral, really; at least if you live in an area that experiences four proper seasons.

Where else in life do we regard the aging and dying process as such a gorgeous one? What if we were to embrace it in each other with such revelry, presence, appreciation as well?

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