Every Sunday the Times Colonist features volunteer opportunities. Last month the Esquimalt Neighbourhood House asked for volunteers to offer community workshops.
I suggested a workshop on writing a love letter — or a loving letter — as a Christmas gift. A Christmas scroll, to be more precise.
They were interested, and on Thursday I met with people who wanted to learn how to create a unique gift. Participants left the two-hour workshop with a long white scroll wrapped in a red ribbon and it seems at least a few scrolls may be placed under the tree.
What could be a better gift than one wrapped in the language of love? You don’t have to wait in line at the cashier or have a fat wallet; but you do have to sit down and think about what you want to say.
The gift to yourself, of being alone with your thoughts, is what you need to draw on to be able to write a meaningful letter for someone you care about.
The cardinal rule in creating this gift: every word has to be true. You can’t tell someone you love their ruby red lips if they don’t have ruby red lips. If it is true, you can tell someone you have always loved their laugh, or their smile or the way they sing at choir practice or make the best brownies.
You can share a memory of what they mean to you. Recount a time you learned something valuable from them. Highlight an accomplishment you admired. List the adjectives you would use to describe them. Illustrate a theme or quality that runs through their life. Tell them how you feel about the impact they have had on your life. A key is to be specific.
“You created a stunning water feature surrounded by a hundred yellow tulips” is richer than “I like your garden.”
A letter to your partner, child, friend, parent, aunt, cousin, doctor or co-worker can take many shapes. Are you the hilarious type? A poet? A philosopher at heart? This is your opportunity to bring the real you — not the social-media you — to an open-hearted airing.
Once you have your final draft, you might want to do a simple exercise to determine the success of your letter. Give yourself one point for each word you are certain the recipient will appreciate. Words and phrases such as: their name, “you,” “your,” “your natural ability to shine when you do x…,” etc. A 10-point letter might be gold to the recipient. The point of the measure is to make sure your letter is not about you. i.e. “When I won the trophy and you were clapping I was so moved.” Minimize the “I”s in your letter.
And finally, find a roll of paper (rice paper from Chinatown?) and cut off a length of nine feet or so. Take a marker pen and copy your drafted letter in your best handwriting. Roll up the long letter and slip a red bow around the scroll.
One woman came into the class and said she was “not a letter writer and had no experience.” In the two short warm-up exercises she proved herself wrong. I asked each participant to write for five minutes after I gave them this starting sentence: “When I look back, you were by far my most important teacher. One reason was because….”
Of her Grade 1 teacher, the self-declared non-writer eloquently wrote: “… You are a person I still love today. You were always there for us. You made things easier to deal with….”
In the second exercise, as a group, we listed words to describe a living Canadian that we all admired. We settled on Bonnie Henry and the list went like this: “thoughtful, smart, calm, discerning, professional, patient, respectful of opposition, remarkable, playful, smiling, humble, relatable.”
Those words lead us to this first draft: “Dear Bonnie Henry, You are amazing. When you started us on this journey through the pandemic, I was scared. Young medical professionals in Italy were dying. Young doctors there had to choose to treat people under the age of 65. We were all scared, and you were the first anchor to help us understand and talk about what was happening. You gave us a lot of support in a difficult time. You were calm, reassuring, a scientific and kind voice. Your efforts helped us to live through a difficult time. I think about the sexism you faced, and the death threats that would have caused many to bolt; and yet you stayed and focussed on the relational aspect of our humanity. You reminded us to care for each other.”
And these are examples of thoughts written to strangers! Imagine what kind of a letter/scroll could be written to someone you know well. We might not be able to write a Harry Potter novel, but we can certainly write a loving letter.
If you have never considered yourself a writer, please reconsider and give this a shot. I am biased, but have found it a useful tool to be able to write from the heart. It is an opportunity to reach people in a deep place. To tell someone you treasure them is to be engaged in the world.
Your productive form of scrolling will not be judged. There will be no stats. No followers. No likes. No emojis. No comments. No Instagram or Facebook sharing. The gift-giving is a private communication between you and the person you admire.
I appreciate the Times Colonist for enabling local conversation and connections in our community such as the one I experienced at Esquimalt Neighbourhood House. I have benefited from many similar events in my 40 years in Victoria. In my opinion, social-media communication will never replace the countless gifts of face-to-face gatherings fostered by a daily newspaper.
>>> To comment on this article, write a letter to the editor: firstname.lastname@example.org