The Art of Letter-Writing

There are few things that bring light to my day like a good letter. When I was little, I had two pen pals – my cousin who lived in northern Maine and my neighbor’s granddaughter who lived down in Virginia. We were very dedicated little writers; I remember getting envelopes stuffed to the brim with things like stickers, little plastic toys, homemade bookmarks.

I keep all of them in my great-grandfather’s old briefcase, the one with the gold clasps.

The one on the bottom has all my old manuscripts – all the horrible plays and short stories I wrote before I became self-conscious. The middle one is my great-grandfather’s, the leather handle almost broken off.

Almost every letter I’ve ever received (along with birthday cards, letters from my sponsor child in India, little notes I used to pass in class) is stuffed in.

The top one holds my letter-writing things: stationery, cards, my old wax and stamp kit, my address book (yes, I have an address book).

I probably never would’ve stopped writing to them, but middle school does different things to people.

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Letter-writing is very personal. It’s like a journal, only in some ways, it’s far more vulnerable. You’re opening your thoughts, your life, to someone else, trusting him or her to guard it, to read a part of you without judgment.

It’s personal, and yet there are so many beautiful, meaningful letters to read. My uncle told me about this website (“Catherine, you’d love this.”), Letters of Note, and I’ve poured over it.Steinbeck’s letter to his son about love is one of my favorites – honest, straight-forward, understanding, loving.

And while my letters will most likely never be read by anyone other than the intended recipient, I still like the idea that I join a long line of people before me. Thinkers, lovers, readers, writers, artists, theologians. People who stopped, saw the beauty around them, and then made that beauty palpable for those they loved.

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This week I got a letter from my world-traveling friend. I read it once, twice, disbelieving of the beauty of my friend’s artistry, both in word and paint.

Switzerland is far away, and even though I miss my friend dearly, letters like this help make up for it.

The Four Loves and Kindred Spirits

 I have been avoiding C.S. Lewis for awhile now, ever since I attempted Mere Christianity with little progress. He seemed dry and dull and far too intellectual – nothing like my experience with faith. But after prodding from a dear friend, “Give it a try, Cath. Trust me. It’s one of my favorites.”, I picked up the beautiful copy of Lewis’s The Four Loves that had sat on my bookshelf, unnoticed and certainly unloved.

There is nothing better than a beautiful book beside your bed, waiting for you to put the day aside and enter into someone else’s thoughts, even for a little while.

Here was a man I felt I had met before. What could a balding Anglican Brit have in common with a young American woman from the twenty-first-century? No longer did he seem like an emotionless intellectual, but he wrote like someone who had struggled with the same things I am working through. Lewis doesn’t leave his intellect behind in The Four Loves, but he uses it to delve into the human experience and show the manifestations of God’s love here on earth. He divides love into four categories – Affection, Friendship, Eros, and Charity – and shows the different aspects of God’s character in each. Of course, I enjoyed some more than others (who doesn’t like a good discussion of eros?), but the truth is, all four are interconnected. They overlap and share some of the beautiful qualities that make each one worthwhile, each one important to our fullness. “We need others physically, emotionally, intellectually; we need them if we are to know anything, even ourselves,” Lewis says (215). This acknowledgment of our need, rather than making me actually feel needy, allowed me to breathe more deeply. So this desire I feel for communion, for friendship, for relationship with others, is good? It isn’t (necessarily) misplaced need? I’ve known for awhile that we were created to be in communion (who has spent any time at a Christian university WITHOUT hearing that?!), but here, now, finally, I can see why. A reflection of the Trinity, yes. But a window to the self, as well.

Pope John Paul II, in his “On the Dignity and Vocation of Women on the Occasion of the Marian Year” reminds us:

For every individual is made in the image of God, insofar as he or she is a rational and free creature capable of knowing God and loving him. Moreover, we read that man cannot exist “alone” (cf. Gen 2:18); he can exist only as a “unity of the two”, and therefore in relation to another human person…Being a person in the image and likeness of God thus also involves existing in a relationship, in relation to the other “I” (III.7).

So I’m getting it from all sides, this interconnectedness, this relationship. I watched “Anne of Green Gables” last night, and I was immediately transported to girlhood. I remember longing for Anne’s idea of a”bosom friend,” a “kindred spirit,” and even now, as I watched and nearly quoted each line as it came, I realized that that is still what I seek. The difference is, though, that there are more kindred spirits than I thought (Anne says the same later on). I’ve found some in the strangest places – growing up down the street, studying the perplexing subject of English (what in the world is its use?!), living in my surprise apartment senior year of college. I even found one working at the tea shop.

I guess all that to say, love and its many forms continue to fascinate me. Affection and Eros, Friendship and Charity, they have such possibility, such potential to bring peace and hope and comfort. Kindred spirits are hiding just down the street, just at the next table, sipping their own cups of coffee and smiling to themselves as they read. They could have written books over fifty years ago, only to be discovered and appreciated by you so much later. They could also be burning their own granola.

To always be looking for those kindred spirits. That sounds like a good champagne toast to me.