On April 30, 2011, Jeremy Vinluan began to handwrite one letter every day for the next year. In a few short weeks, he’ll write his last one.
No one writes letters anymore. Ask the postal service, which is closing branches across the country. Even email has become too cumbersome. We text. We tweet.
Senior journalism major Jeremy Garcia Vinluan is not like the rest of us. He writes letters, the old-fashioned kind, the ones that begin by laying a sheet of paper across a desk in his Marianist Hall room or a table in some café. He has done this every single day for nearly a year now.
Each day, and sometimes more than once a day, he has held a lined sheet of notebook paper in place with one hand. With his other hand, his right hand, he has scratched a pen across the lines, transferring the ink from its tip to the surface of the fibrous pulp. It absorbs the ink, preserving the very precise patterns of his hand’s motion.
He does it, he says, to understand what it means to be a Marianist.
With a group of 11 other students, Jeremy participated in a ceremony in Immaculate Conception Chapel last year in which they committed to a year as lay Marianists. They pray and share their faith journey together. The letter-a-day project is part of his personal commitment to exploring the Marianist charism.
The Jeremy who emerges from these letters, read as a whole, is a young man of immense compassion and faith, one who alternately struggles with and embraces the realities of his life while yearning for human connection and meaning. They are, for him, inextricably linked.
As an uncertain high school student in Virginia Beach, Va., contemplating his future, Jeremy got advice from his mother: “Do what your grandmother always did,” she said. “Pray.” And he did. Several weeks later, he got a call out of the blue inviting him to consider UD, a Catholic, Marianist university. His grandmother, a devout Catholic, “loved Mary her whole life,” he says.
It was not coincidence, he believes, but rather “the law of faith. Providence made it happen.”
When he got to campus, he discovered Virginia W. Kettering Residence Hall. He cannot pass it without thinking of his late grandmother, whose name was Virginia, though he still calls her “Lola,” a Tagalog word for grandmother. When he learned that the commitment ceremony for lay Marianists would be April 30, his grandmother’s birthday, he saw another sign of Lola’s faith and guiding hand and took the leap.
By the time he writes his final letter April 30, 2012, he will have handwritten 367 letters, 2012 being a leap year. Many are anecdotal and mundane, the stuff of everyday life. He sends them to family, friends, classmates, Beta Theta Pi fraternity brothers and complete strangers. As he wrote to a friend Oct. 30, “So many letters. And so many people.”
His first letter was to his mother, thanking her for attending his lay Marianist commitment ceremony.
“I wish Lola would be here to see my big day. The truth is that her presence is alive wherever I go in life,” he wrote April 30, 2011. “Today and this letter are dedicated to you and the loving memory of your [mother]. I am so proud to have you as my mother.”
A different person has received each of the letters that have followed, each a single sheet, front and back, which he photocopies before mailing. He has no master plan of recipients but decides each day to whom he will write. Those decisions are part of his commitment to connect with others. In that, he is inspired by Adèle de Batz de Trenquelléon, co-founder with Blessed William Joseph Chaminade of the Daughters of Mary and a dedicated correspondent known to have penned more than 700 letters.
Adèle and Jeremy are part of a much longer epistolary tradition. St. Paul famously wrote letters to early Christians in Corinth, Galatia, Thessalonica and elsewhere and addressed ones directly to saints James, Peter, John and Jude. Twelfth-century love letters exchanged between Abelard and Heloise endure today, and the novel grew immensely in popularity in the 18th century when it took the epistolary form.
Jeremy admits he didn’t realize what he was getting himself in for. “When I made my personal commitment, I didn’t realize writing to 367 people would be an adventure for me,” he wrote June 9, to a Marianist sister on campus. “I also didn’t realize that I would be writing to 367 children of God.”
Some of the children of God to whom he writes are also children of the earth. To a young cousin who just visited, he wrote June 28, “You even called me FUNNY BUNNY over and over!” and signs it, “Your funny bunny partner, Jeremy.”
A week later, to another cousin, just 2 years old, he describes an event that would redefine his life.
“When I was at your age,” he tells her, “I was a healthy boy. Healthy by our society’s standards. Something happened to me around age 3. I started to lose my hearing in both ears.”
That hearing loss shaped the trajectory of his childhood as his family struggled to identify his ailment, seek treatments, all unsuccessful, and accept his condition’s inevitability. Today, Jeremy speaks with a vocal distinction that some first-time listeners mistake for a foreign accent, and he wears cochlear implants that translate audible signals into electrical impulses his brain can interpret. (On Jan. 12, he wrote to thank Graeme Clark, the developer of cochlear implants.)
The implants do not deliver sound but a proxy for it that allows him to converse. As he puts it in a Sept. 6 letter to a Beta brother, “The way I hear the world is beyond your wildest dreams.”
Jeremy’s letters reveal that he has contemplated hearing loss as both a burden and a gift.
“God does have a twisted sense of humor,” he wrote to a friend in August. To another, he wrote, “God speaks to me through the silence of the universe.”
To a Marianist brother, he wrote, “I should be grateful for being able to hear sound and speak with my voice. I also should be grateful to turn on/off my hearing. It is like being a superhero.”
As much as anything, his hearing loss is a source of connection to others. “Meeting you last Saturday made my night,” he wrote Sept. 14 to someone he’d just met at a party. “My plan for that night was just to say happy birthday to my friend, then leave. That plan backfired when you asked me if I know ASL [American Sign Language], and we ended up signing for hours.” In September, he met a community college student studying ASL, “the first girl,” he wrote Oct. 1 to an ASL interpreter, “to get my attention.” (In a letter to another former interpreter two days later, he backs off: “Just because we use ASL to communicate to each other doesn’t mean we’re romantically linked.”)
Jeremy’s hearing is but one part of his life. A much bigger part is his heart. Over hundreds of letters, it emerges as large, questioning, compassionate and playful.
“You may be wondering what I am doing here in Akron,” he wrote to LeBron James Oct. 22 after spotting him at a store. His friends, he explains to the NBA star, don’t understand why Jeremy left Virginia for college in Ohio. “I do not think such a choice is crazy. I’m sure you understand.”
He writes other strangers. In late July, he wrote the vice president of park operations at Busch Gardens in Williamsburg, Va., to tell him how great a time he had at the park. On Aug. 17, he wrote to thank a woman who cut his hair. On Dec. 9, he wrote UD’s vice president for financial affairs: “You have been signing my [pay]checks since I first started working for UD.”
His longest letter is to his father, for reasons he prefers to keep private. He withheld that one and nine others from the collection he offered for review for this article. The subjects contained in some of the letters he provided are deeply personal as he explores the complexities of his family, friendships and own life.
Pause to consider how very physical Jeremy’s entire letter-writing project is. We communicate digitally, our fingers gliding across keyboards. We tap lettered keys, but that is a fiction. A keyboard does not type a letter as a typewriter does. It sets in motion a complex series of digital ones and zeroes that our monitors display back to us as characters. When we hit send, those electrical signals hop from server to server to the recipient, whose display renders the ones and zeroes into images of letters and words. It’s as real as the actor flickering on your television screen.
Jeremy touches each sheet of paper with his hands. He puts each sheet in an envelope. He addresses, stamps and seals each envelope and hand delivers it or places it in a mailbox. The postal system merges his mailed envelope with millions of other pieces of correspondence and then distinguishes it by a state, a city, a street and a number. A human letter carrier brings it to another mailbox and slips it in. Another person’s hand pulls it out. The recipient tears open the very envelope Jeremy sealed, pulls out the very sheet of paper on which he wrote, and sees the marks of his very own hand. The process is nothing if not intimate.
His words can be, too. He writes often of his Lola.
“Something happened to me this morning,” he wrote to a campus friend Aug. 1. “I was rearranging my bedroom. I have a statue of Mary. It is about 2-to-3 feet tall. When I moved the statue, I felt several papers at the bottom of the statue. I thought it was odd because I emptied the statue a few months ago. … One of the small papers I found happens to belong to my Lola. The paper is not just a small paper but a small envelope with a list of petitions inside. … One of the petitions to our Blessed Mother is ‘Jeremy’s hearing and speech.’ … I’ll keep this for a long time. I knew that my Lola was praying for me.”
In these letters, more than anything, he is a young man asking the questions that confront a senior about to go through another transition.
“Only God knows my real purpose in life,” he wrote to a cousin Sept. 29. “And I’ll wait and wait.”
He does so with ever-hopeful optimism. “I always end up in positions and places I never thought that I would be in.”
His letter-writing project, and his yearlong commitment as a lay Marianist, will soon conclude. Many of his 2012 letters bear one of the 139 Forever stamps that his mother gave him at Christmas to help him mail his letters as quickly as possible. “I am using my mother’s gift to me,” he said.
His final letter, the letter of April 30, 2012, will be addressed to his beloved Lola. He plans to deliver it personally.
“I will burn it,” he said, “so it can reach up to heaven.”