Lately my mother spent seventeen days in the hospital. People did many kind things for our family, for which we were grateful. So, like the very proper person my mother is, in the midst of her worst pain and drugged-up nauseated confusion, she declared that someone must hurry off to get stationary because there would surely be many thank-you notes to be written.
I am the closet writer in the family. Not much stock is placed on this skill generally, but it is known that if you need a well worded Bible class lesson, an anecdote for the family newsletter, or that last minute eulogy, I am the one to call. So, of course, I was the designated thank-you-note writer. (My apologies again to anyone who did not receive one and should have! I am sure I missed a few!)
I love writing letters. I have been an ardent letter-writer since late childhood. I loved writing in general, but it was frustrating to spend time agonizing over a poem or a short story that was only going to land in a shoe box, never to be seen or read. Letters were the perfect antidote to this frustration. For the small price of a stamped envelope, I had a guaranteed captive audience of one. And the fact that often people would say something positive in return, usually that getting a letter made them feel good, was like lighter fluid on the flame. As a perpetual giver, I must always be striving to make others feel good. Ahh, writing with a righteous purpose!
I have always enjoyed challenging myself to pick just the right words to make the recipient actually smile, or (if I am in rare form) laugh out loud! I wrote reams of letters on paper until I finally graduated to electronic communication, but typing just seems bland and utilitarian. I still often prefer paper, as the feel of writing words longhand often alters the phrases I choose in interesting ways. Even as email is rapidly giving way to the far less elegant text messaging, I find myself still striving to always put in some quirky, personal touch into everything I write. Sometimes, though, I seriously do stop and wonder…why? Because I have learned one thing over the years about letter-writing. Almost no one writes back.
So it begs me to question myself, why do I put out the effort? What drives me to write letters to people I fully assume will never respond? Why weary others with long words and waste trees on completely unnecessary, often ridiculous communications? What makes letters at times more appealing than other forms of writing, such as writing this blog? I similarly never expect anyone to respond to any of my blog posts, but I feel quite different about writing them than I do about writing a letter.
I think the difference must lie in the purpose. When I am writing a letter, I am thinking of the other person. I am trying to pick words that will be significant to them particularly. I am focusing on the positive. I am trying to encourage or build them up in some way. In my world, the purpose of letters is simply to make others feel good about themselves. Only twice in my recollection have I written a personal letter for any deeper reason, and even those two were still full of positive encouragements around the hard lump of exhortation.
The other writing I do is quite different. Those efforts, such as this blog, my private never-seen projects, or even the couple of articles I have put out for publication, are all for self-exploration and personal growth. They involve me picking apart my faults and weaknesses, ruminating on the challenges and failures of my past, and then exhorting myself to change. I might occasionally give myself a tiny pat on the back in passing, but being positive about my present or my past is clearly not the purpose. The purpose of all my other writing is to put a magnifying glass to myself and point out my own flaws.
I would never do this to someone else. I would never write a letter merely to pick at a person’s faults and nag at them. I would never write a letter focused only on past wrongs. My letters are always full of warm fuzzies and high aspirations. I know very well that I am writing to complex, imperfect fellow humans who frequently disappoint and who often annoy the hell out of me, but I would never write that in a letter. I write to point out the positive, give honestly earned thanks, and shine a warm light on the best side of those I love. After all, there is enough criticism and stress in the world. A letter from a friend just ought to be friendly. I enjoy being friendly, but in person I am shy and awkward. I often find making friends and being a friend face-to-face to be a great challenge. It is easier for me to be friendly on paper.
Then, as I said before, almost no one ever writes back. The few people who have written me in return are all enshrined in my heart forever. It doesn’t matter to me how clever or creative the reply, any personal words sent earns my unending friendship. How extreme have I ever carried this? In the history of my life, only two people ever wrote me FIRST. They were both men I had not paid much attention to before I got their letters, and I ended up marrying them both (Though not at the same time, I assure you!). Letters hold great sway with me, and yet I receive them rarely.
Perhaps it is this rareness that drives me to write at all. I wonder if I write words to others not just to make them feel good about themselves. Possibly I write to make me feel good about myself. Maybe I write thank yous to others because no one is writing them to me.
I tend to be critical of myself. If I can see a positive in someone else, the process of writing about it may help me see that positive trait in myself as well. I tend to discount my own efforts. Yet, if I have been touched enough by another’s actions to stop and write a thank-you, then maybe I can believe that my actions are similarly touching others, even if they do not put pen to paper. When I write about myself I am always focusing on my flaws, but perhaps writing to focus on a friend’s strengths may serve to reflect a little much-needed light and warmth into my own mirror.
I don’t want to stop writing thank you notes, because I don’t ever want to stifle my own sense of gratitude and wonder at the amazing ways humans help each other in this tempest of life. Gratitude is the surest way to heal my own heart when it hurts. I don’t want to take kindness, generosity, compassion or honesty for granted. I hope to always revere these traits as echoes of the divine. But maybe, every once in awhile, I should stop writing others, at least long enough to write a quick note to myself. Heck, maybe I should start now.
Hey Becky, I just wanted to say thank you. I noticed how patient you were today, and I really appreciated your efforts. I’ve seen you striving to put aside the hurts of your past and to treat others the way you wish you had been treated. Your kind words and compassion have not been not earned, instead they are freely given. I understand how difficult it is to stay positive moment by moment, that the little things can be the hardest, and I want you to know how much I respect what you are doing. I heard you when you muttered about how strained you feel when your maximum efforts seem to barely meet others minimum expectations. Well, I want you to know that you have truly always exceeded mine. Thanks again!
Rebecca, It’s been five years this month. I know you don’t expect anyone to mark the day, but I wanted you to know that I do remember. Five long years, dear one, and you have been so strong and so brave. Forgive those who have forgotten, my friend, for you made it then and still do make it all look so easy that no one else could feel the weight of it. Five years of juggling fine china and it must seem thankless when no one claps! But they don’t know how sweaty your palms get, sweetheart. Those who have never had to keep a priceless heirloom aloft cannot comprehend that even years of practice won’t make this movement comfortable. They see a dry face and never understand that tears can’t fall when eyes are parched from concentrated unblinking effort. No one praises you because they simply do not understand how difficult this dance you are doing is. In the end, no one claps, darling, because you are so good that you have never dropped a piece. I want you to know that I, at least, am impressed. The rest of your audience may turn their attention to louder, bolder, more precarious acts, but I will always be here, on my feet, giving you a silent ovation of one. I hope in some way it helps.
Dear Reluctant Doctor, I want to remind you that your patients truly are thankful for all you have done. Recall the two times that patients paused to thank you specifically for the years of training it took to fit yourself for this service? Those words really meant something to you then. They still do. Medical school was terrible in so many ways. You were a fish so far out of water that you dried out to the point you lost even your own stink. Yet you used those hard years to put yourself in a position to constantly be a helper. Every time a patient calls you “Doctor,” they are in a way thanking you for those sacrifices by granting you a title of respect. I know your current practice is really hard on you. You are caring for the sickest, the outcast and the forgotten. Most of your patients will never know wellness again. The best service you can offer is to ease their dying with dignity; please remember that this is a worthy work. Every time a patient sighs in relief of pain, relaxes away from fear, or breathes quietly in a last peaceful sleep the universe whispers “Thank you.” Remember to stop long enough to hear it.
Ty’s Mama Mia, Your dear boy is the person whose opinion counts the most in your heart, yet he has no way to give you any useful feedback. Everything he says to you has such emotional weight, but with one so little, it is your confusing job to let both his praise and complaints equally roll off your shoulders so that you can make wise parenting choices in his life. I think you do this really well. You deal with all his moods with such steady kindness and empathy. You always put aside your own feelings to stay focused on his welfare. Let the strength of his growing character be your thanks, and take every complaint he levels at you be a badge of the trust he holds in your ability to listen with love. You are a good mama. I’ll say it again because I know how much you need to hear it… you are a good mama.
Note to self: Thank you! I really like it when you write to me. Save money on stamps and just send me a letter more often. Who knows… I might be the one to actually write back.