Writing Letters, Going Deeper
A few weeks ago, I filled a Mason jar with water, for the hydrangeas I snipped from our front yard. The hydrangea bush holds so many flowers it looks like it’s burdened with weight, so I didn’t feel too bad plucking a few to bring inside. I set the Mason jar on the grass, crossed my legs and sat down, and with a pair of gardening scissors, cut them from their stalks. It felt good to sit in the dirt, to touch the flowers, to arrange them in the jar. I’ve been meaning to decorate our house with hydrangeas. Every day I think to do this, but then I get sidetracked or decide there’s something more important to do.
This morning though, I was reading The Last True Poets of the Sea, a young adult novel by Julia Drake. In the scene I read, Violet, the main character, writes to her brother, Sam. The letter takes a long time to write, in fact, it’ll take Violet most of the book to write her brother. Violet has to live for a while before she can write. And live she does. She makes some glorious and passionate mistakes that maybe aren’t mistakes at all, or, if they are, they’re the sort that hold treasure; the sort that are necessary because they help her to emerge.
This is a scary concept for a mother to wrap her head around, and I am grateful to be able to do that, or begin to do that, in the safe and wild place of a story.
I liked that it took Violet time to write to her brother, but I also like that she didn’t stop trying to write him. I thought if I were teaching this book, it would be fun to use this as a writing exercise. I’d call it, “Letters of Three,” and I’d have my students write someone a letter three times, each time going deeper into what it was they are trying to express. We’d annotate Violet’s letters to get ideas — how they started off short, how she relied on humor, how a lot of what she lived didn’t get into her letters, but helped her to write them.
One evening the year we first lived in this house, I stood in front of the hydrangeas on an autumn evening after I’d come home from work. It was clearly dead or dying — the petals were a crispy brown, and their stalks looked like I would snap them in two if I sneezed. I remember telling Jesse, rather frantically, that we had to do something about the hydrangeas. I remember I’d gotten home when the sun was still out (a first, I think) but the light brought me no joy. Its golden glow seeped over and through everything in our house, casting long shadows over everything I looked at.
Harper was on the back porch in a ballet costume and sweatpants, making a house for a fairy she hoped would decide to live there because we’d learned fairies lived in this town. “When she gets here, I will name her Lavender,” she told me.
Hadley was at the dining room table with a stack of Percy Jackson books and a notebook. She was interested in starting a blog about how to pick out a good story. Her first entry went like this: “If you’re going to read a book, first you have to know something about yourself: Who am I? What do I like? These are questions that will help you pick the right story.”
“They’re dying,” I said to Jesse. “Or they’re already dead. Shouldn’t we do something?”
He put a plate of food next to me, but I pushed it away. I was starving, but I had a constant stomachache and I was afraid to eat. I was afraid of everything.
Jesse said he knew about the hydrangeas and thought to do something about them too, but then read that for a certain species you aren’t supposed to tend to them because there is something in their death that the flower needs in order to grow again.
“So we’re supposed to just leave them alone?” I choked out, my voice cracking from a sob.
Hadley stopped writing and looked at me, and here is where I think of Violet and the living she needed to do before she could say what needed to be said. It was living that was messy and heartbreaking and romantic, the way it is in a good story, not sentimental, though there is that too. Parts of Violet had to rest so that other parts could come back.
I wondered then, and I wonder now, what did both of my daughters know about themselves in order to be at home with fairies and Greek gods and goddesses? Or was it that they wanted to know something? Did they want to hold their lives up to what was magic and see if there was anything in common? Did they believe their lives are magic too? And do they now?
The hydrangeas are still green since I brought them inside. Not one petal has fallen. My girls are headed to middle and high school in a few days, and I think we’ll never really know everything about who we are, what we want, or what we can do. I think there is magic in not knowing, and in being willing to stay curious and discovering ourselves anew. I think that’s the real adventure, and I think it’s waiting for us as long as we’re alive.
This week, write a poem (or a letter, if you wish) for someone you would like to express something to, but do it three times, each time writing more, writing deeper, writing truer, than the time before.
Thanks to everyone who participated in last week’s poetry prompt. Here’s one from Megan Willome we enjoyed:
Don’t Let This Rejection Put a Damper On Your Weekend
(a found poem)
This sucks they killed your poem everyone
loved it until it wasn’t a
go they pivoted I’m sorry
this is so difficult
such good work
Browse other poetry prompts
If you have ever been in 8th grade, fallen in love, had a best friend, or loved reading, you will love this book. As the mother of an 8th grader, my other genuine hope is that my son will one day have a teacher as gifted as Callie.