DENVER — Last year, I started writing handwritten letters because I was in a rut. I felt like I needed to counteract some of the immediate feedback loop created by social media. It was (and still is) fun to go on Facebook or Instagram and catch up on who is doing what. But I don’t feel like social media allows me to connect with the people I follow in a meaningful way. I also felt like I was checking off boxes for work, family, school and friends but none for my personal growth. There was a disconnect between the organized woman I appeared to be on the outside, and the unsure, harried woman I felt like on the inside. Women are expected to be so many things—mother, wife, professional, housekeeper, daughter, volunteer, friend, cook, athlete. I needed a way to articulate these feelings of disconnect and bring the inner me to a more peaceful place.
Over the course of a few months in 2016, I wrote to close friends, family, and even Michelle Obama. I chose people that in some way made me a better person by their example. Some letters were not easy to write as they brought up emotions and memories long forgotten. Some were written to people already gone whose impact on my current life was undeniable. I am forever grateful for the impact that my brother, who died when I was 16, had on my life. Writing him a letter was a way of sharing with him things I hadn’t said before he passed.
The specific act of writing letters by hand also reminded me of things that did not have anything to do with the people to whom I was writing. With a pen in my hand, suddenly, I was whirled back in time to elementary school, and I was a child learning to write in cursive all over again — focusing on the shape of letters, making sure that i’s were dotted and t’s were crossed. I brought those age-old lessons back with me to the present, and as I formed and connected letters to create the words needed to express thoughts, it helped me stay in the moment and became a form of meditation. As I wrote letters, I became curious about the benefits. I recently read an article that confirms handwriting is valuable for memory. Slowing things down and writing letters by hand made me think carefully about what I wanted to say and how I wanted to say it.
An unexpected benefit of handwriting letters was the gratitude that writing letters fostered inside of me. So as I wrote each letter, I made a point of identifying one or two things that I was grateful for about the recipient. In one person, I noted their great sense of humor, in another, humility, in another, an unapologetic approach to life.
Of course, there is also a scary side to writing these letters too. In putting pen to paper and actually sending it to the addressee, I felt vulnerable. By writing these letters, I was opening up doors that I tended to hold tightly closed thus making room for growth. My ode to the handwritten letter wouldn’t be complete unless I pointed out that in an increasingly electronic world, the very physicality of a handwritten letter is important. Paper is tangible. Writing down my thoughts and communicating with others in this way brought a permanence to my feelings, fears, and connection that I couldn’t find online. I have letters that were written decades ago by my parents and grandparents. These are pieces of history, artifacts that allow me to look into the authors’ lives and minds. Letters have been a way to hold onto the people in my life once they have departed.
My letter writing days have only just begun, and I keep a running list of people to whom I would like to write. As I get off course in life, as we all do, I intend to use this powerful tool to bring the focus back to the direction I want my life to take and hopefully make a few people feel good in the process. There’s nothing quite like knowing that someone is thinking about you.
Aree Bly lives in Colorado where she balances her roles as wife, mother, actuary, beekeeper, and human. She has written over 40 letters and is still going strong.