What kindness can you offer through an old-fashioned snail-mail letter?
In the closet of my mother’s house in Ohio I have two huge storage bins filled with letters that were sent to me between 1973 and 1988. There are more than 1,000 letters – all written to me starting when I was nine years old – up until age 22.
I pulled them all out this week as I am visiting my mom and had promised myself to channel Marie Kondo and “tidy up.” For years I’ve ignored the bins in the closet of my old childhood room, except to pull out the one filled with Archie Comic books which I shared with my son when he was a kid.
But this trip I was determined to get rid of stuff. People always say, “If you haven’t looked at it or used it in a year, you don’t need it; toss it out.” I hadn’t opened those containers of letters for 32 years. Couldn’t be anything I cared about, right?
Wrong. Really wrong.
Within minutes of opening the first storage bin and pulling out a stack of letters, I realized I was tapping into something extraordinary. A sweeping glance at the return addresses opened up doorways that had been shut for decades: friends from grade school, high school, college and my post-college years in NYC and Los Angeles, relatives who are now deceased, people whose names I didn’t even recognize at first but whose stories trickled back into my memory.
I opened and skimmed through a few. There was my mom, back in 1976, telling me details about her work in HR at a hospital when I was staying with my Grandma for the summer. There was Amy Ross, my best friend from elementary school in Dryden, NY, writing to me in 1981 and telling me about our mutual friends and their high school antics. There was my boyfriend, Ed, writing to me back in 1985 when I studied abroad in London my Junior year of college (and when our relationship was on its last legs).
I started pulling out bigger stacks of letters and began sorting them by person. It wasn’t long before the entire bedroom floor was covered in piles! I arranged them in order – by eras of my life: Dryden, NY friends, Brookfield friends, college friends, NY City Arts Program friends, London semester abroad friends, Los Angeles friends. (The list stops there because once I moved to my current home in San Francisco, I stayed put for 30+ years. And there are bins more of letters there!)
One of Marie Kondo’s now-famous tools for de-cluttering is to ask oneself, “Does this bring me joy?” Well, I can tell you that each letter I picked up, every handwritten address, every 10-cent, 13-cent or 22-cent stamp brought a smile to my face. I was holding history in my hands. My history…and the history of so many people whose lives have been entwined with mine – even if for only a short moment in time.
That process alone, the sorting and sifting, the reading of some random letters, filled me with a deep sense of appreciation for the journey of my life and all the amazing people I’ve met. It also filled me with a profound sense of loss. The loss of this very connecting and intimate way of communicating with people.
In these letters, even people I didn’t know very well (for instance a boy I met in college while visiting a friend’s college) would write several pages about what they were thinking about, what was important to them in the moment and the impact our meeting had had on them.
In these letters, people would write about their confusion, their fears, their questions about life, love and learning. In these letters, people would take the time to think about me and my life. They would ask me questions. They would reflect on things I’d said in previous letters.
I am so moved by these gifts of letters, which were gifts of people’s time, love and attention.
Isn’t it possible that oftentimes the widespread availability of texting and email allow us the illusion of being connected to people we love; but really, they rob us of the depth? Don’t we sometimes shoot off a two-line text when really the person we love might be lonely for more? I’ve been thinking about this a lot over the past few days. I made a quick list of the benefits of letter writing (and later, letter re-reading).
How letters connect us to ourselves and others:
—They invite self-reflection.
—They allow us to share details of our lives with others.
—They allow us to invite others to share stories of their lives with us.
—They are a reminder to slow down, to process our lives, to consider what matters.
—They inspire an appreciation for our relationships.
—They show others how much we care.
—They create threads in the fabric of our lives.
—They are a historical reference to who we were and how we’ve grown.
—Later, we can share old letters and gift others with their younger selves.
—They are an invitation to go deeper and not skim the surface, like a text or even an email.
—They invite is to examine the how and why of our lives.
—Re-reading old letters invites a sense of forgiveness for our younger selves and previous choices.
—Re-reading old letters can spark a discovery of who we are now and what is essential to us.
I’d like to challenge you to write one letter this week. Choose someone in your life with whom you would like to connect even more deeply – maybe your best friend, your sister or your mom. Maybe you want to reconnect with a dear friend from your youth. Maybe there is a new friend with whom you feel a kindred bond and you want to strengthen that connection.
To make it easy, you could start with a short letter telling that person how important they are to you and why. You could even say, “I’m participating in a letter writing challenge. This feels weird, but kind of fun. Here’s what I’m thinking about today. [Write one or two paragraphs.] What’s on your mind?”
Another easy way to write a letter is to find a photograph of yourself and the person you are writing to. Then write a short memory about the moment which was captured in the photo. Express some appreciation for the experience. Include the photo in the envelope.
If there is a song or book that reminds you of someone? Use that as your letter-writing prompt: “I’m reading ____ and thought of you. Here’s why. Love, me.”
Watch what happens:
Pay attention to what it feels like to put a stamp on your letter and drop it in the postal box. How does it feel to do something a little out of the ordinary? How does the other person respond? Did you learn anything new about yourself?
I’d LOVE to hear from you. Please leave a comment about your experience!
AND – I congratulate you on being game to connect with someone you love in a new, er, old-fashioned way!