My friend Robyn LaRue read the above quote and insisted on making a quote photo for it. I’m both deeply honored and amazed that she thought anything I’ve written is worth quoting. But, seeing as she took the time to make it (and ever so kindly gave it to me to use), I figured that this is the opportune time to highlight the reason behind the quote.
You see, back in 2009, those were the first words of the first letter that I ever wrote to the person who would eventually become my best friend. (Robyn took the liberty of naming my letter collection — though I can’t say I’d ever publish them.)
As I highlighted with a poem, when people ask me what I write, I scramble to say something worthwhile. I’m working on a novel (two, actually). I write poetry. I’m an academic writer. I write short stories. I write blog posts and journal entries.
But what people don’t generally know about me is that what I love to write the most are letters.
Why letters, though? And Alesha asked me once, “Who are we writing to?” Which was an excellent question. All my life I’d been asking the same thing: Who am I writing to? But, more importantly, why? Why do I write these letters? Why had I spent my time writing blood down on the page, letter after letter, like spilled ink on the canvas of my life, awaiting someone who could understand it?
My answer was:
Letters themselves . . . to whom are they addressed? To me or to you? If they are indeed to you, then I am using words as a link, a bond, to bring you to my world for just a moment. I want to share something special — something I feel that you, and you alone, can understand.
But if they are for me, then I assume I am connecting to a world that I can only comprehend through my words. To the parts of me that I cannot physically hold in my hands. Thoughts. Ideas. Emotions. I wish to record that which I cannot touch, so that its presence remains eternal. A reminder of all I am, all I have been, and all I will become. A memory of me.
As I’ve mentioned before, I’m an INTJ. I grew up around extroverts, around feelers, around people who wear their hearts on their sleeves. As a child (and to some extent even now), these types of people never made any sense to me at all. I had a lot of trouble expressing how I felt, even (especially) to those closest to me. I’d get in trouble for my inability to show remorse, for internalizing my feelings, for being incapable of expressing my emotions. I got in trouble for my directness, for showing my displeasure if something seemed illogical to me, for saying things to people that were true but not polite. I was scolded when I couldn’t fake a smile, when I couldn’t feign interest in conversation, when I didn’t care how I presented myself to others — whether they liked me or not.
And so, to combat those feelings of isolation, writing was my haven. Writing was where I grew, where I confronted myself. Where I channeled my internalized perceptions of the external world and made sense of them.
At first, the letters I wrote were to no one in particular. They were, in many ways, mostly to myself, for myself. But as I grew up, gained more life experience, and met new people, I found myself writing to names, to faces, to the people who had started to matter.
To be honest, most letters never made it to these people. The written word, after all, in the wrong hands, is a powerful weapon, and I feared that someday someone would use my words against me.
But that changed, finally, when I was seventeen. My closest friend in high school was the kind of person that would do anything for someone she cared about. If I was hungry and didn’t have money for food, she’d share her lunch. If I was upset, she was the first person I’d call. We shared a common passion for horses, for telling stories, for dreaming of the future. If it hadn’t been for her, I would have been totally alone.
I spent our final year of high school writing a book of letters to her. Not because she was my best friend. Not because I knew our paths were diverging. But because I knew that I would never have another way of thanking her. This was the only way I knew how. Thank you, I said, my friend and my sister, for all you have done for me. I will never forget it. I will never forget you.
Words I’d never been able to say, to express — the side of me I could never show her — were all laid bare. Like musical notation. My heart, defined.
I wrote letters to other people who had helped me get through my formative teenage years, the few people who had effectively changed me. I gave them the letters. In farewell, in thanks, in memory. And it helped me let go. It closed one chapter in my life so that I could start anew. I moved away and was once again on my own.
And then I met Alesha.
For years, I had written out into the void, into the silence of words. For years, I’d received nothing but my own answering heart echoing upon the pages. And finally, finally, someone answered me. I am here, said her voice, and I think, for the first time in my life, the ink within me truly bled.
We eventually became roommates, after a year of letters, and so we kept the habit of writing to one another when we were living in different countries. This was liberating — to know that no matter where I went, I was never alone. Whether we were in Scotland or France or Germany, Estonia or the States. Even to this day, five years later, we write to one another. Not always frequently. Not always consistently. But there is no distance in words. No time. No matter where I wander, there is someone who can answer me in my world. And that has made all the difference.
Writing letters is a lost art, in a lot of ways, but it changed my life. I have forged friendships that can survive my wanderlust, my desire for change, my search for the unknown. I have forged these friendships by opening myself up, by trusting my words, by trusting that there is someone, somewhere, with the same passion, the same desire, the same understanding. Someone who can answer everything that I am.
Find that person, my friends. Find that person and write. Write yourself down in as many colors as you can. Write the shades and the shadows, the darkest hours, the moments of wonderment. Write these letters to the people who can answer you, to yourself, to somebody. Because I sincerely believe that for every letter we write, there is someone waiting to answer. And if you have one person in your life like that, one person who can answer you in words, who can answer everything that you are, then you have the world.
[They] ask me all the time why I like to be alone. “You have such a lonely air to you, Michelle,” they say. “You are walking into the future alone. Why do you insist on doing it this way?”
Every time they ask these types of questions, I think of you. And I know . . . I know I can never explain in a way that they will understand. I smile, though. I tell them, to the best of my abilities, that I am not alone. I have you.
And I am whole.
— Letter to Alesha, 2011
Alesha and I in Scotland