For Valentine’s Day, 2016: Sit Right Down and Write Yourself a Letter

I’m gonna sit right down and write myself a letter
And make believe it came from you
I’m gonna write words, oh, so sweet
They’re gonna knock me off my feet
Kisses on the bottom
I’ll be glad I’ve got ’em

I’m gonna smile and say “I hope you’re feelin’ better”
And sign “with love” the way you do
I’m gonna sit right down and write myself a letter
And make believe it came from you…

(“I’m Gonna’ Sit Right Down & Write Myself a Letter,” lyrics by Fred Ahlert and Joe Young, 1935.)

Two weeks ago, I browsed the greeting cards at a local shop.  It wasn’t a letter to myself I was thinking about.  I deliberated over the array of red hearts and written sentiments before buying a  handful of brightly colored envelopes, red and pink, for the three young grandchildren who occupy a big place in my heart.  Then for good measure, I added cards for my daughters and their husbands to the stack.  I put two cards aside, both for my husband to be placed on the kitchen table early Valentine’s Day morning, one from me, and, because she’s family, one from our little dog, who dotes on the two of us.

It’s been many years since I gave my very first valentine to a friend.  I was in kindergarten, and excited for the Valentines’ Day party, I rose early and enthusiastically addressed two-thirds of my packet of cards to my very best friend, who happened to have the same first name as I did, a name I knew how to spell.  My mother was horrified, discovering my careful—and indelible—work just before school.  It was too late to buy more cards for the rest of the class.  I still remember how Mrs. Newton, my teacher, knowingly smiled at me every time she pulled a card for the other Sharon from the class valentines’ box, saying, “Why here’s another card for Sharon H.”  My best friend got quite a few cards from me that day.

I’ve sent valentines and many greeting cards to friends and family ever since.  Purchased or handmade, expressions of sentiment in cards, lines of verse, letters or even postcards are a way to communicate.  A way to say “I appreciate you,” “I’m thinking of you,” or “I love you.”  The act of sitting down to address a card is something we do less often in this rush-rush, technological world, but when you do take  the time to jot a note, send a card or even give a call to those you care about, it’s  a great gift.  What’s more, you don’t have to wait for Valentine’s Day or another official holiday to do it.  The simple act of pausing to remember those we care about or those who have cared for us in times of struggle, hardship or illness, reminds us of what matters most in our lives:  people, friendship, love.

But this morning,  I realized I was guilty of a double standard.  I might be pretty good at letting  people in my life know I care for them, but I’m not as diligent at caring for the one who stares back at me each morning from the bathroom mirror.  I will confess she’s not perfect–far from it.  She’s often struggled, lost but sometimes won, grieved but often rejoiced, loved, lost and loved again.   Her body has weathered major surgery, early stage breast cancer, heartache and heart failure but most days, it still serves her fairly well, even though her joints broadcast her age whenever she  attempts a new yoga pose.  Yet it’s not infrequent that her image is the object of an exasperated sigh, even an occasional negative word or two, when she sees it in the mirror, especially that darned magnifying one she needs to apply even the slightest bit of mascara or blush.  She’s guilty of other inconsistencies too.  Despite her supportiveness for her writing students, she quietly succumbs to the harsh words from her internal critic, letting it trounce all over her writing or sketches at regular intervals.  She forgets–wait, who am I kidding?  I forget to express gratitude for that woman staring back at me from the mirror:  my face, my body, and all its evidence of a life fully lived.

The time will come

When, with elation,

You will greet yourself arriving

At your own door, in your own mirror,

And each will smile at the other’s welcome,

 

And say, sit here, Eat.

You will love again the stranger who was your self.

Give wine.  Give bread.  Give back your heart

To itself, to the stranger who has loved you

 

All your life, whom you ignored

For another, who knows you by heart.

Take down the love letters from the bookshelf,

 

The photographs, the desperate notes,

Peel your image from the mirror.

Sit.  Feast on your life.

(“Love after Love,” by Derek Walcott, in Sea Grapes, Noonday Press, 1976)

Writing Suggestion:  Sit Right Down & Write Yourself a Letter

Each of us needs a reminder at times, especially after cancer or other hardships, to express the gratitude and compassion for ourselves and our bodies.  Valentine’s Day is tomorrow, a day many of us traditionally express love and affection to loved ones.  Why not add yourself to your valentine’s list  and “sit right down and write yourself a letter?”  Give yourself a valentine or write a gratitude letter you can re-read again when you’re feeling down on yourself..  Let it be a reminder of the gratitude and compassion you have for all you have endured and the person you are.  As Derek Walcott advised, “Sit.  Feast on your life. “

Happy Valentine’s Day!

About Sharon A. Bray, EdD

Best known for her innovative work with cancer patients and survivors, Sharon is a writer, educator and author of two books on the benefits of expressive writing during cancer as well as personal essays, a children's book, magazine articles and the occasional poetry. She designed and initiated expressive writing programs at several major cancer centers, including Breast Cancer Connections, Stanford Cancer Center, Scripps Green Cancer Center and Moores UCSD Cancer Center. She continues to lead expressive writing groups for men and women living in the San Diego area and teach creative writing workshops and classes privately for UCLA extension Writers' Program. She previously taught professional development courses in therapeutic writing at Santa Clara University and the Pacific School of Religion, was a faculty member of the CURE Magazine Forums and at the Omega Institute in 2014. Sharon earned her doctorate from the University of Toronto and studied creative and transformative writing at Humber School for Writers, University of Washington, and Goddard College.
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