I want to talk about the lost art of writing a love letter—not only the kind we might write to our beloved partner, but also the type we might write to our mother, our friend, our dying neighbor, or our own self.
These days we are trained to write either methodically and intentionally through structured essays designed to educate or inform (like this one) or informally through sound-bites or emojis—pithy one to ten-word phrases that we use liberally on social media or through texting. (You go girl! J) Also, popular these days, is a hybrid, the how-to or list essay: “Ten best hikes in San Diego” or “How to start a blog in 2019.”
Each of these is valuable. We need cogent well-ordered arguments to help us share new ideas. We also like simple sound-bite words of encouragement, especially when we are facing a big challenge. And who isn’t drawn to a simplified list of the top ways to do something or the best places to go written by someone who has been there and done that before?
But, I want to talk about another method—one that has gotten a little lost in the hustle and bustle of life these days—one that is less “ordered thinking,” less “pithy response” and more unstructured flow.
This kind of writing comes from a different source. It comes from slowing down and tuning in to our still center—from feeling our emotional connection to an issue, to a person, to our own self. It comes from a place of vulnerability and flow. Love letters escape the boundaries of the thinking mind, avoid the academic culture of structure and the word-limit boundaries of social media to meander through heartfelt territory fearlessly.
Writing a love letter is as much for the writer as it is for the reader. When we allow words from the heart to flow, we escape the inner critic who constantly compares and judges our writing. We let go of perfection to write from the heart. A love letter is more than just stream of consciousness writing in our journal, though. A love letter has an intended recipient with whom we hope to communicate and connect.
All of this became apparent to me last Fall. I sat down to write one day and realized that I didn’t need to instruct or educate. I didn’t need to quip. I needed to tune in to a deeper place—to be awash with emotion without being swept away. I needed my words to both honor and connect and to serve as the long embrace that I could not give physically. In short, I needed to write two very different love letters: one to my mother and the other to a neighbor.
My mother lives in another state and has had an increasingly difficult year taking on more and more responsibilities in caring for my mentally ailing father. Also, she was facing the milestone of turning 80. I wanted to show her I saw how difficult this past year was, that I was proud of her, and that she still seemed so young and lively.
To my mother, a woman who lived in occupied Holland during World War II, who grew up to be passionate about reading survival stories, I wrote a letter that talked about her love of survival stories as a metaphor for her current difficulties. Her mainsail husband was torn, and the ship of their life together was foundering. She faced an endless sea with no guarantee they would find a safe shore together. She now relied on strict anti-Alzheimer’s protocols and supplements the way a lost sailor used bare hook lines-hoping for a nibble of hope. Her doldrum days were similarly marked by fatigue and despair. Like that lost sailor appreciating the company of dolphins, she too often managed to find something precious to focus on—a new recipe, a cup of tea, a simple walk. I told her in my love letter what I saw: that the stories of survival she so loved were a pure reflection of her own heart. She harbored little self-pity and instead drew from a feisty reservoir of inner strength and a deep conviction that could and would help her manage whatever was placed before her. She was not only a survivor but a lover of life, and I wanted her to know that I saw that in her. It was the most important thing I wrote last year.
Giving this letter to her that expressed my love and gratitude while acknowledging her difficult journey, also fulfilled me. I felt like I had shown up for her birthday, notwithstanding the distance. Words bridged the gap. Later, she told me receiving the letter meant everything to her and was a turning point in being my dad’s caregiver. She relaxed. She was in the middle of a survival story, and she was doing a helluva job.
My neighbor was facing her own life passages. Her husband had died earlier in the year. Shortly after, she embarked on round-the-world travels, then arrived back home to our neighborhood feeling a little unwell to learn she had inoperable Stage IV pancreatic cancer with only months to live.
In the case of my neighbor, I felt helpless. Imminent death is hard—not something we, as a culture, are comfortable with. I didn’t know what to do or say—even casseroles were not an option. I ran headlong into not being able to “fix” this problem. In facing these truths, I got to see that connecting and communicating with someone during difficult times must not require me to fix the problem. Instead, it invited me to radically accept what was in front of me while staying kind, curious, open and loving. It required me to do my best to connect anyway. To simply try.
To my neighbor—a woman I did not know well—I sat down one day and gave all my attention to the space she had carved in my heart. I wrote to her about meeting her at yoga and what a deep comfort it was to know that a like-minded soul lived just across the street. I wrote that I appreciated her enthusiastic and engaged approach to life and loved the connection she had with the community and her extended family. I thanked her for the time she went with our daughter to a Zen, Buddha and the Brain class, even though she was a Christian and the class was far away. I told her I saw her as someone who fit everywhere and made bridges as she went. I mailed it, even though she lived across the street, because her family had indicated she was not accepting visitors, and I appreciated they needed uninterrupted time with her. I wrote it by hand, and in writing it, I felt intimate and connected with her.
To write these letters, I needed to draw from a different writing strength. My usual methods of communicating through structured essay or three-word lines of encouragement were inadequate. I needed to sit quietly, to let the words find me, to allow my writing to flow uninhibited and unstructured—awash in love, while mired in uncertainty. These important moments were asking me—a writer—to write not about them so much as from them—to wade deep in acceptance of the profound difficulties that life sometimes offers.
Life is full and often sweet, but also precarious and fragile. At any given moment it might be happy or sad, messy or clean, perfect or imperfect. As writers we might not be sure how to capture it all—Novel? Memoir? Non-fiction?
My advice: Practice by writing a love letter and let the word tears flow.
Photo Credit: https://pixabay.com/3397135/