“We lay aside letters never to read them again, and at last we destroy them out of discretion, and so disappears the most beautiful, the most immediate breath of life, irrecoverable for ourselves and for others.” ~ Goethe
I’d like to start this month’s article by begging you, pleading with you not to take a moment of your life for granted today, no matter how creatively in the flow you are or how jam packed, bogged down or productive your day is. Don’t let one single breath slip by unappreciated, not a smile, or a phonecall, or a scrap of paper from a friend, or a coffee date that you’re considering cancelling because of work. If you’ve drifted away from a loved one because of busy-ness and stress, head for home and find a safe harbour before it’s too late. Say thank you, say sorry, say something.
It all started in the attic. I went up to find a map for my son’s homework and while I was rooting around among teetering piles of cardboard boxes, I found an old plastic bag with Portuguese writing on it and I knew it must contain something from the time my husband and I spent teaching there twenty years ago. I carried the dusty, musty smelling thing down to my bedroom, spilled the contents onto the bed then gasped with my hand to my face as I saw piles of envelopes covered in my mother’s handwriting.
Guilt came first; here were all the letters she’d written to me in my years abroad. So many letters. Most of the time, between brief phonecalls, all I sent my folks were scrawled postcards and clichéd tourist gifts. She ended every letter with “We love you” and every letter was an expression of unconditional love. If she was saddened by the self-obsessed way I neglected my family or anxious about me living alone in foreign countries, she never showed it.
Tears streaming down my face, I realised, for the first time, that my mother had a gift for fresh, immediate writing. I savoured, in a way I’m sure I didn’t back then, the details of her everyday life as she described, with a canny eye and gentle humour, the simple goings-on in our Scottish mining village.
I felt her presence wrap itself around me as I laid them to the side, knowing I would keep and treasure them – but I had to read the others now. A window to my past, to another world, to another self had been opened. Like an archaeologist, a time traveller, I kept reading.
I found cards and letters of love and support from friends I’d written to before I went into surgery to have a tumour removed. I suddenly remembered sitting by the hospital bed, writing ‘thank you’ and ‘I love you’ letters to everyone in my address book – just in case. How I wish I could turn back the clock now and thank them again, with an older, wiser understanding of how powerful and authentic their messages were. There is deep, raw strength in the honesty that brings us closer together in situations where we feel the wings of death brush past our shoulders.
A pile of flimsy blue air mail envelopes with their red and white striped edging, letters from my best friend in his beautiful Greek script, teasing me and loving me, unaware that in a few short years his life would be tragically cut short by cancer.
A funny postcard in what we called Portuguenglish from a linguistically brilliant student of mine who’d become a good friend; he threw away his lonely young life with a heroin needle a few years later.
A bundle of fat envelopes addressed in the small, shy handwriting of a Scottish friend I’d been at university with, envelopes bursting with beautiful, expressive, heartfelt letters to cheer me up and keep me company during many a painful, lonely time abroad before I met my husband. He wrote to me about music, art, books, life and love and it didn’t dawn on me until today – so selfish and self-centred was I then – that he was in love with me. My heart stumbled and I wiped my wet face on the back of my hand as I realised that he saw then the very best of me, a glimpse of my real self, my soul, the part of me that has been rediscovered and nurtured by my marriage, my children and my coaching journey. He let me go eventually, “getting rid of dead wood” he called it, and the pain I felt then was excruciating because I didn’t realise why he was doing it. I do now, but I can’t apologise, can’t thank him, can’t start again and show him pictures of my kids. And I wouldn’t wish this feeling on anyone.
As I sat shredding letters for recycling, letting go of all but a precious few and whispering silent apologies and gratitude for the memories that made me the person I am today, I decided I’m going to write some real letters and notes to the folk I love, something they can hold and choose to keep in a ribbon-tied bundle if they want to; real letters in unique handwriting on scented notepaper or carefully chosen postcards like we sent back then, when people left a part of themselves on paper and thank God they did.