It was September, just starting to get cold here in southern Sweden, and I remember the looks on their faces. When locals would ask me if I had ever been through a whole winter here, I would say, "No, this will be my first."
No matter who it was, their whole face went sour. "Ohhhh..."
October came. Layers started piling on. An underlayer of wool pants, long sleeve shirt, a scarf you actually needed so the breeze didn't chill your neck. In November, beanies became the norm, plus long wool or down coats and mittens. My husband schooled me on how mittens are warmer than gloves because your fingers share heat inside them. Every day my daughter Helena wore snow pants with suspenders to preschool, along with all the other clothing necessary to stay warm and dry here and one day as she flopped to the floor in frustration over all the stuff she had to put on and take off several times a day, I counted 12 items. Twelve tops and mittens and socks and layer upon layer upon, oh sweet darling spring will come, layer.
On Christmas Day out walking with family, the icy wind chill of the drizzling gray day left me realizing I was really in for it. We were really in for it. This winter would be long, dreary, dark and cold in a way we'd never known before.
This photo of my daughter and me on Christmas day in 2017 shows how we felt about the Nordic cold.
Ohhhh, what this winter strained out of me. How I've gushed silent spills of praise for my California home climate. Deep longing for sun. My skin more pale than it's been since I was in my mother's womb.
Winter in Scandinavia is a big adventure all to itself. Letters lifted my daughter and me out of many dark days this winter.
Once among the best postal systems in the world -- surprise surprise, we are talking Sweden here -- these days it's dropped down several notches. In recent years it became semi-privatized, and now natives comment on how disappointing service is these days.
On many days my frustration about postal cost and delivery here led to praise, once again, for our U.S. postal service. It is one thing we do well in the States. Complain about long lines and underfunded offices all you want; it is cheap to send a letter in the US, and our postal system does it pretty darn well most of the time. In 38 years of sending lots of mail, I've had almost unnoticeably low mail loss, delay or damage. An international stamp in the US costs $1.15. In Sweden, it's 21 SEK, which converts to $2.53.
Yowch, that's an expensive habit.
Yet it's a happy, healthy habit. For every 10 letters or cards I write and send, about one person writes and sends one back. Decades ago I decided this is just fine. My soul spins in joy to write to people. It is as much a gift for me as for the receiver. And because I write a lot -- and Helena now has a card-making practice -- we've gotten mail every week for the past 9.5 months, all the way across the world. Sometimes it's one letter. Sometimes it's a stack of ten, and wow how good that feels.
I see the hand writing on an envelope from someone who loves me...
She touches the orange and purple crayon drawing of a pal back home...
I notice people seem more willing to vulnerably share feelings from across the ocean...
I strategize on how to "make the most" of each piece of mail we send...
And I reach for courage to ask friends to write to us, because it really does make a difference...
Receiving mail from friends and family 5,200 miles away has made us feel like we were still being held in the love of friends and family back home.
It has eased winter's edge. And it has helped my daughter retain a memory of friends she treasures, so that she's rooted emotionally, so that she has continuity in her relations, and so that when we return home, she sees faces and hears voices that are familiar to her, where she feels safe, seen and loved. How wondrous is this for a child who has just lived for a year in a whole new land, learning its language and adapting to its climate and culture?
To all the friends who have written to us -- and to my mother, who has been outrageously thoughtful and generous in sending us packages -- WE THANK YOU. Letter writing is a powerful art. It is an art of Love. Your mail has been the sun on many dark days.
Jessica Rios, Founder of Leaning into Light, is a mother, coach, lifelong letter writer, and eternal fan of Mr. (Fred) Rogers. This deeply personal blog and our free recorded conversations are devoted to one of her greatest passions: illuminating the beauty of the human spirit.