The Letter I Never Sent

Posted on August 14th, 2013 by in Conscious Living

Letter_WriteBy Kim Childs, guest blogger        

In the field of Positive Psychology, there’s a famous happiness-boosting exercise called the gratitude letter. Designed by Dr. Martin Seligman, it involves writing, delivering, and reading a letter of gratitude to someone whose life enriched yours. When Tal Ben-Shahar, my teacher in Kripalu’s Certificate in Positive Psychology (CiPP) program, introduced this exercise, I immediately thought of an ideal recipient: my high-school English teacher.

I met Alice when I was a 15-year-old student in her class on the works of William Shakespeare, the literary love of her life. Alice would jump up on desks, gesticulating wildly as she acted out monologues from Hamlet, King Lear, and Macbeth. This tiny woman with the giant personality had contagious passion for the Bard, along with a wardrobe of distinctive belts, hats, and vests that could be called upon in a theatrical pinch.

But that was just the beginning of my friendship with Alice, who very quickly became a lifelong “believing mirror” for me—the kind of person who affirms what we’d most like to believe about our capabilities, talents, and significance. Alice told me that I was beautiful when I felt chubby and pimply. She encouraged the writer in me when I was more interested in being popular with boys. After high school, Alice cheered me on through college, career changes, and the adventures of being an independent woman in the big cities of London, New York, and Boston.

A trip home to see my family always included a visit to Alice’s house, where a sign on the front door read, “This door only opens for expected visitors.” Upon knocking, any lucky members of that group would be greeted by a hearty, “Well, hello, darling,” as Alice reached up to give the fiercest hugs and kisses I’ve ever received.

At Christmastime, we’d exchange gifts, and hers thoughtfully reflected my interests and pursuits, even when they were counter to hers. Although Alice never understood why I left a career in public radio to teach and write about “that yoga, new age stuff,” she once gave me a statue of a woman, seated in meditation, that now sits in the room where I teach “that yoga, new age stuff.”

In summertime, I’d chat with Alice in her backyard as she sipped Scotch and I drank iced tea. When Alice wasn’t listening to my tales, she was telling her own, including the one about how she met her husband during a business call, when his deep voice and charming wit compelled her to suggest that they continue the conversation “over lunch.” Thus began a passionate love affair between a four-foot-something teacher and a six-foot-something editor. Their marriage was cut short by his cancer, and I don’t think my dear friend ever really recovered.

Throughout the years, Alice was a loyal correspondent, sending cards full of news, musings, and encouragement that always arrived at just the right time. When my first story was published when I was 40, Alice wrote to me, “In my rank book, your story receives an unqualified A-plus. This is what you were born to do.” Later, she told me that she’d saved my letters so that I could “incorporate them into the novel you will one day write.”

The most memorable card appeared after the demise of a romantic relationship on which I’d hung very high hopes. I’d even brought my British beau to Alice’s for a Christmas morning visit, during which she turned on the charm like never before. When she later learned that Michael had abandoned ship, Alice wrote, “My dearest, I looked up the word ‘cad’ in the dictionary and, to my un-surprise, there was a picture of Michael. A second likeness appeared to illustrate the tenor of ‘despicable.’ If you are guilty of anything, my Kim, it is that, like Othello, you ‘loved, not wisely, but too well.’”

Once, Alice gave me a box of very small cards, each one containing a line from Shakespeare. Written on the cover were the words, “There was a star danced, and under that was I born …,” a line from Much Ado About Nothing that conveyed her deep affection and went straight to my heart.

I was devastated to learn of Alice’s sudden death this summer, and instantly full of regret that I never wrote my gratitude letter. When I mentioned this to a CiPP classmate, she said, “You can still do it. In fact, it could be a very powerful experience.”

I had a feeling she was right.

As I sat down to write my letter to Alice, the tears began to flow. I cried for the troubled girl that I was when I met her. I cried for the 50-year-old woman who’s not sure that she’s lived up to her teacher’s expectations. I cried because I didn’t get the chance to say thanks and goodbye, and I cried because there was now one less person on Earth who loved me unconditionally.

As I finished the letter and the tears abated, I felt a deep peace come over me. A month later, I shared my reflections at Alice’s memorial service, where several other former students told me that they, too, felt uniquely seen and cherished by this childless woman who adopted so many of us as her kin.

While I can never repay my dear friend for her generous love, I can pass it on by being a believing mirror for my own students, family, and friends. I can also live, as she most certainly did, by these words from Alice’s favorite author: “To thine own self be true.”

Kim Childs is a writer, editor, Kripalu Yoga teacher, and creative-living coach in the Boston area who leads workshops based on Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way and The Prosperous Heart. Kim shares life lessons in her blog, A Pilgrim on the Path, and can be found at her website.

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About Kim Childs

Kim Childs is a Boston-area writer, Certified Positive Psychology Coach, Kripalu Yoga teacher and facilitator of workshops based on The Artist's Way: A Spiritual Path to Higher Creativity, by Julia Cameron. She incorporates the teachings and practices of Positive Psychology, yoga and creative living in her coaching, writing, and workshops. Kim spent ten years working as a public radio reporter, newscaster and producer in New York and New Jersey before life called her in a new direction. In fact, it sent her to live, train and work at Kripalu for two years and she's very glad that it did.
  • Megan McDonough

    This is absolutely beautiful, Kim. So glad you wrote it, so glad I read it. What a gift and tribute to your teacher. Through your words, Alice continues to inspire, even though I never knew her. Thank you.

    • Kim Childs

      Thanks so much for your appreciation and readership, Megan.
      Yes, she inspired and touched countless people by being who she was and celebrating uniqueness in others. On Saturday, a bunch of us, her
      “kids,” gathered in her backyard to toast her and reminisce. I’m sure she
      was there, sipping her Scotch and smiling from above…

  • My Peace Of Food

    I’m sure I’m not the only one staring up at that same Shakespeare quote as I read this post, but…it haunts me. I don’t feel I always know who I am. When we feel forced to make difficult decisions, how can we trust ourselves? Or, rather, how can we rise above all that to actually understand the unravelling of the universe and be at peace with the unknowing? Gratitude can be difficult to practice when it’s probably needed the most.

    • Kim

      Thanks for reading and posting those good questions, which I also ask. And you are absolutely right about gratitude – difficult at times, and always necessary. As far as knowing ourselves, I think it’s a lifelong process and education…Blessings, Kim

  • Genie

    Dear Kim:
    How lucky we are to have an Alice in our lives. You enriched her life, I am sure, as much as she touched yours. Thank you for sharing your experience. It reminded me of something I sometimes seem to forget when things are not too clear. And now, I am going to reach out to my dear “Alice.”
    Genie

    • Kim

      Hi Genie – thanks for your readership and appreciation, and for those kind words. I am so glad you have an “Alice” in your life, too! Hope s/he knows what s/he means to you…Blessings, Kim

  • kate

    KIMMY!! You did it! Thank you so much for expressing your love and gratitude in this lasting ode and for sharing more of what a light Alice Williams was in this world. xox kate

    • Kim

      Kate – thanks for your appreciation…your family was so important to Alice. Thanks, too, for being another believing mirror in my life! Shine on, songstress…

  • Nancy

    thank you. what a moving essay, in every way.

    • Kim

      Thanks for your readership and words of appreciation, Nancy.

      All good wishes,
      Kim

  • Deb

    Kim – Alice would have been proud – Deb