I found a letter in my mailbox, my friend’s characteristic handwriting looping out our names in their appropriate places. I looked for all the “G”s; I always love to see how people write them, and she’s someone who has to write them as much as I do. To: GG, From: GG. I flip the envelope over and smile: she’s still a third-grade teacher. Stickers seal the back flap.
We’re not exactly what you would call frequent pen-pals. We never drop the correspondence, but letters tend to rest before their replies. Maybe even a month. I keep hers in my top-left desk drawer; I don’t know where she keeps mine in the meantimes.
We’ve stopped apologizing for delays—we’re both teachers, and we know that there’s a lot of life happening in between each postmarked date. And in its time, a full report will arrive.
I remember unfolding her last letter around Christmastime, sitting at a hotel lobby table next to a Christmas tree and fireplace. Snows blew outside. Her friendly tone traced the loops of her writing, neatly fitting the thickly dashed lines of the thin brown paper we both learned to write on. Another artifact of her teaching. I remember being amazed by her clarity, honesty, and depth of reflection—at the end of the long haul of the fall semester, her letter paired with the weather to bring me deep pause: Where am I right now?
I tried to reply in-kind, but before I could match her depth I had to match her stationery. I leafed through my folders and found just the thing. I flipped it over and started writing, stopping only to look into the fire or out at the snow. An hour later, licking the envelope’s flap and smoothing it flat, I reflected again—this was a heck of a semester.
And last week, about a month after I had responded to her last letter, here came the response, perfectly timed—again—at the end of a long day as I shuffled through the front door and past our community mailroom. Even before I took off my backpack, I tore open the end of the envelope and gently extracted the letter so not to hurt the fox and snowman stickers. Standing in the doorway to my room, I unceremoniously read the letter, start to finish, before setting it on my desk while I unpacked the day’s things. “i always delight in receiving your letters. i particularly enjoyed seeing how you wrote your last letter on the back of your bus driver certificate.”
My non-stop mind was stopped in its tracks. The compulsive activity of a January teacher retrying to build momentum after a long break: halted. I exhaled.
I used to have lots of ways to call time-out on life—to shepherd a month’s worth of experience into one flock for accounting, inspection, and appreciation. While I was in Minnesota, we had communal silent prayer on Sunday nights. While I was in graduate school, I took long runs on Sundays. Last year, I took walks through the nearby hills with a fellow teacher.
This year, it’s the letters.
And I love it. The handwriting, the envelopes, the surprising stationery, the silly stamps, the poems on the envelopes and the long delays. I love all of it. But, I think I especially enjoy the long delays, the pauses postmarked clear as day, the date askew in the top corner of each envelope. Inside I will find the latest exchange in a conversation delightfully out of date but also delightfully still relevant: I wrote and she listened. And she started her letter with her responses, her responses of understanding or disbelief, of congratulation or condolence, of affirmation or advice.
In this way, our letters are more than just updates; they’re reminders to the other of where they were when they last wrote. When Gretchen writes, I know not only how she is but how I was. I used to overlook this or take it as an awkward reminder of our sporadic writing, but now… now, I count this as a great gift.
Yes, I could go just back to my journals to remember how I was. I could read about the anxieties of last November and the needed recoup of December. I could peruse my entries over the New Year and then count the unexpected blessings of early January.
But, letters offer me something more.
There is a deep grace in hearing it all again, my victories and challenges not written in a journal but by the hand of a friend. A month removed, and too late to troubleshoot. A simple and compassionate naming of what it is that I lived without too much fuss. I sit content in the calm of this reminder then turn with her artful transition to where she’s been, our lives always seeming to somehow overlap.
And so it goes—she wrote and now I listen: soon it will be my turn to respond in-kind. But not just yet. I finish the letter, say a little prayer for her, and slide it into my top-left desk drawer for another day.
That day will come, perhaps a quiet Saturday or an emptied evening. I will sit down at my desk chair and open her letter beside the paper and pencil I chose.
My letter starts itself, with encouragement and affirmation springing to her tales of victory, gentle care to her honesty about the hardest things. And so it goes…
The cover image, from Flickr user Jeric Santiago, can be found here.