Have you written a letter lately?
Is it hard to find time, or motivation, or your stationery?
Are you out of stamps, or out of your element?
Are you more unsure of who to write or what to write about?
When I set out to write a letter every day for a year, I wasn’t really worried about to whom to write. It was convenient timing that we had just moved across the country, and there were friends I missed and wanted to keep in touch with. I also have several old friends from past places we’ve lived, who have themselves moved by now. With my plan to write a letter each day, maintaining contact with friends all over the place would immediately feel easier.
What I didn’t expect was that writing a few short letters to my friend Heather in Orlando over a number of months would make me remember so many things I liked about her when we used to live there and be friends in real time. I didn’t set out to recreate something from the past as much as to catch up on things present. But I was happily surprised to find such camaraderie in our correspondence. Heather and I rekindled our friendship with what felt like only a little effort because the letters themselves did the work.
Writing to another friend Kristen proved similarly satisfying. I spent a solid hour one Sunday afternoon writing Kristen a four-page letter. I suspect it took her less than four minutes to read my letter, but the time I spent writing was worth every three thousand, six hundred seconds. While writing to Kristen in our backyard that afternoon, I remember that I sat outside barefoot for “grounding,” which is something I had developed an interest in at the time.
“Grounding," also called “earthing," is a way of trying to connect the electrical currents in one’s body with the electrical currents in the Earth, in pursuit of balancing things out and experiencing greater physical health. My knowledge of grounding remains limited and I haven’t kept up with the practice because I mostly forget to take off my shoes when I sit outside. I also don't like for my feet to get dirty. Even today, on the rare occasion when one of the kids sees my bare feet, they never fail to make an exclamatory remark about “seeing Mom’s feet!”
I can’t say for sure if grounding works because I never gave it enough of a chance to notice a difference. What I have noticed, though, is that writing letters grounds me relationally in a way that very few things in life do. I feel steadier, not on my feet, but in my head and in my friendships.
Another grounding metaphor for letter writing is gardening. I’m not passionate about gardening, even with my veggie sleeve tattoo, but I do have some experience in the dirt. We had two garden boxes in our backyard when we lived in Illinois, and now in South Carolina we’ve doubled that to four. We’ve grown tomatoes and cucumbers, zucchini and yellow squash, green beans and green peppers, and the occasional herb. One year we outdid ourselves and had not only our backyard boxes, but also a community garden plot and a CSA share as well. That was too much. You can't appreciate what you can't handle. But producing just a little bit of food in our own backyard was, and is, an ordinary thrill.
When spring comes and TJ and I make up our minds to garden, it quickly becomes up to us to prepare the soil and plant the seeds and water the plants and pull the weeds. We have to do our little parts in the production in order to experience the best possible outcome and enjoy the fruits of our labor. Alternately, on any given Saturday, I can go to the farmer’s market or to Trader Joe’s and buy those very same veggies that someone else’s hands, or machinery, cultivated on plots of land all over the state, or country, even the world. The end result of the crunchy cucumbers or those vine-ripened tomatoes might be similar, but it isn’t the same. Eating the impersonal produce, while still full of vitamins and minerals (let’s hope), isn’t healthy in all the same ways as eating what my hands touched and my eyes watched all through the growing days.
I have to work, yes, but thankfully, the soil and the sun and the water bear most of the weight. Our garden grows! And when I eat the foods my hands have a small part in growing, I experience a satisfaction in my soul that is just as life-giving as the food itself. I am able to live more wholeheartedly through our little gardening endeavors, a life more connected with the cultivation of what is mine to cultivate.
And what is mine to cultivate as I communicate?
To curl my very own fingers around a pen to make letters on paper to send to another person who will curl their very own fingers around my letter as they read it feels whole-hearted, substantial, and soul-satisfying. I could just as easily (actually, more easily, some would say) write the same things in an email or a text that I could write in a letter. While communication would still occur, to correspond electronically is the equivalent, I think, of letting someone else do the watering or weeding. The message is relayed (the produce still grows), but there just isn’t the same investment or personal touch in the relationship as there would be if you got down in the dirt yourself.
When I choose to give myself to another person in the form of handwritten communication, I am tangibly staking out a plot of ground in our relationship and saying with all my heart and soul, Grow, grow! There is something that a handwritten letter does in a relationship that knits us one to another in deeper and more significant ways.
Rumi said, “Let the beauty we love be what we do. There are hundreds of ways to kneel and kiss the ground.”
Writing letters is my way.