Tuesday, June 2, 2015

More about Letters--This time with stories.

Last blog post I wrote a lot about writing letters, but looking back at it, I wish I had included some more stories about really special letters I've received. So here are some stories.

When I was deciding which college to attend, a friend of mine wrote me a letter. She was a Houghton student, and studying abroad in Orvieto at the time, and she wrote me this sweet little letter on tiny sheets of graph paper, with maybe a drawing tucked in? The letter wasn't a glorification of that school, just told me about all sorts of things. Weird things- pizza with the homeless guy who lives in the woods, the lovely things- the deep and important relationships with professors, special opportunities that I should look for and things to consider as I look at different schools. The letter itself didn't convince me to go to Houghton, but my friend's writing it certainly influenced me in my choice. It was pretty special to get that sort of attention.

Some of my favorite memories of getting letters are from friends from Deerwander, a really excellent Bible summer camp up in Maine. I remember one of my friends writing to me after 9/11, telling me her feelings, her fears, how shaken she felt. Another friend was telling me about her decisions about college, taking time off, thinking about professional ballet and wondering/fearing what the future might hold. (Just a few weeks ago she graduated from medical school with an emphasis in surgery.) These letters from Deerwander friends were full of recommendations of books, encouraging scripture quoted, lateral thinking puzzles to think about, questions still unanswered, written out prayers for each other, and they were what made it feel like we were still friends, even though there were (and are) many miles between us. A bunch of us started writing letters when we were still in high school, going to Deerwander every summer, and one day I looked across my bench and happened to notice that all six of the people sitting in the row with me had handwriting I recognized from letters we'd exchanged.

After returning from studying in London, I had a strange summer of backwards homesickness. I missed London, missed it dreadfully, and didn't see much of friends with me in my hometown. So many of us wrote long letters to each other, full of shared memories, of hopes for future study, of crazy pipe dreams of living in London again. Those letters were also full of companionship, where we wrote in depth about what we love about each other. I know that sounds corny, but the group of thirty students that went to London together came back strangely unified. We'd eaten together, struggled with difficult texts together, written papers with each other's help and encouragement, sung together, and with each other had had one of the most formative experiences of any of our lives. For me, I know it was the first time I felt liked and accepted by a whole group. I'd been a bit of an outsider growing up. I had some very close friends, but not friend groups, and even in orchestra or acting groups, or homeschool classes I felt a little too serious, a little too far from a normal teenage existence. But the London group was different. My friends knew me well, and liked me, and that was a rare gift. Writing letters that summer felt like a way of holding onto that community, even as we knew it would get diluted back on campus.

When I started dating Owen, I remember making strict rules for myself. I couldn't reply to Owen's letters until I'd written back to all my other friends who'd written to me. Wanting desperately to not make being in a relationship something that hampered my connection with all my other friends. And I think that was a really good choice. I kept a connection with many of my friends, an intimate one. I knew when people were thinking about starting a new relationship, I knew the pain friends of mine were feeling as they struggled with a breakup, or a death in the family. I got letters which told me about the items on their windowsill, or the way they felt about classroom management with their 2nd graders.

I still get these letters-- not long ago I got a letter from a friend of mine who'd been struggling with depression and lack of direction for so long, and suddenly her life seems open and clear, and it was such a joy that I was beaming about it for the next week. I get letters from my nieces, the littlest of whom needs grandma to write for her, but the older one can write to me all by herself, and I like thinking about letters as becoming an intergenerational thing. That I'm allowed to write to people older than I am as well as those younger than me, and that we can have a relationship through that. Sometimes when I get a letter, I take it somewhere special, all sealed up, to a park, or to the couch with a cup of tea brewed. I remember the surge of joy when I'd see a letter from Owen--when I was finishing my second thesis he started writing me little short notes more than once a week. They were funny and sweet, and getting them was such a joy it was almost painful.

In a way my love of letters is part of why I write this blog. I know it's not the same. Nothing like the same sort of intimacy, as it's open to anyone to read, and there's not the give and take of written letters, but I have always preferred sharing my thoughts with other people to journaling privately. I like to try and tap into what other people are feeling, and sometimes a good way to connect is to share stories of your own.

So there are some stories about what letters have meant to me. Thanks for reading.

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