Or What I Learned Writing Over 100 Love Letters to Friends and Strangers
Three-and-a-half years ago my marriage was ending, but I didn’t know it yet. Everyone kept telling me to take care of myself, but all parts of my life—financial, personal, medical, parenting—were stretched and fracturing. I made sure to swim, to cry privately, to make sure everyone got fed and bathed and to bed. Self-care was the everyone’s mantra, but I couldn’t afford a massage and no bath bomb was going to fix what was wrong. My therapist at the time told me I didn’t just survive trauma, I thrived in it, but I didn’t want to anymore. I’d spent so many years of childhood and young adulthood staying calm in a crisis, rescuing others. I thought of the Li-Young Lee quote: “what kept you alive/all those years keeps you from living.” And I wanted to live.
I don’t remember how the idea arrived, but I decided I would write love letters for advent. I posted on social media that I wanted to write letters to people and asked who wanted one, and because I didn’t know how to say no, I wrote almost 60 love letters for the 24 days of advent. It emptied me in a way I needed emptying. I read articles on love, books on love, watched movies about love. I thought about what it meant and shared that with friends and strangers. So much that seemed tucked away or unspoken came out. It felt good to love others and to have that love appreciated.
The advent after my marriage ended, I was better at keeping the boundary where I needed it—at one letter a day—though not by much. I still wrote 40. I found myself revisiting some ideas from the previous year, seeing if they felt different. I watched more movies, read more books. I thought and felt, and I wrote to friends and strangers and some wrote back. Someone asked if I poured that much into other people so I wouldn’t notice no one loved me like that. I didn’t know.
This past year, I asked people to nominate others to receive a love advent instead, and I stuck to my boundary of 24 people (okay, I admit it, I did 25). And although it was my smallest list since I began, it was the hardest to write. Someone asked if it was because the letters were to strangers. In some ways intimacy with strangers was easier. I could say things and no one would remind me of it later or ask a follow up question. I thought that perhaps since I’d healed, I didn’t need to give love so desperately. I’d found ways and people to love that didn’t make me feel insufficient at love. I wanted to offer a gift of love but wanted something left of myself too.
Someone suggested that I write myself a love letter at the end, but by that time, I was empty again. However, after the new year began, I started making little love notes to myself. This year, by the time advent arrives, I hope to have written 24 small love notes and to open them as I write to others. To look back on a year in which I loved full-hearted, but not desperately. To give to myself the kindness I want to give to others. To open those little doors for love’s arrival and find the generosities of the year again, to invite them in, to celebrate that I can survive, but now I get to live.