“Words words words.”
William Shakespeare, Hamlet
“My bursting heart must find vent in my pen.”
Letters. I love Letters; both writing them and receiving them. There are many types and varieties, but the ones I want to address in this post are those that come from the heart. They are the personal kind. Personal letters are pretty special for a few reasons.
1) Letters connect us. When someone we love is absent from our immediate presence, we want to lessen the gap. We long to link. Share thoughts, laughter, experiences, and love. When someone we love is distant, our heart yearns to express and reach out, and, in return, receive. Letters are a way of connecting the distance.
2) Written words fill a void where verbal expression falls short. The writer usually takes time to thoughtfully articulate matters of the mind and feelings of the heart.
3) Seeing it in writing adds meaning: a thank you note, a love letter, an apology, an “I miss you.” Writing it down gives words vibrato and longevity.
But, letters, as wonderful as they are, seem to be a dying art. Wouldn’t you agree?
Letters, a Dying Art
I’m afraid our sophisticated era of instant messaging has reduced us to an abbreviated and acronymed society (shall we call it AAS?). We scramble to pseudo connect as we rush around with phones in hand, touch-screening and thumbing verbal incidentals as fast as we can, about every minutia we can, all the while missing the more important connection – the meeting of mind and heart. Letters used to be the way of doing this.
There is just something about letter-writing that all the insta-gramming stuff misses. Letters reveal stuff: Who we are, what we think, how we feel. When one puts pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard), a certain wellspring arises and, with thoughtful composure, idea and emotion freely articulates.
Writing does not have to be incredibly witty. It doesn’t have to be Einstein-smart, or even exceptionally eloquent to be valued. Simply writing observation and feeling with honesty is enough.
And, writing seems to make us braver than we normally would be in a face-to-face encounter. We are freer on paper than we are in person. Then again, maybe that’s just me. I can be downright chicken in certain one-on-one conversations. I often walk away from important encounters wishing my brain were quicker, “I should have said this or that,” or, wishing my mouth had an edit button, “I’m such a moron. Why did I say that?”
But letters give us the luxury of taking time and being a little more thoughtful to choose the right words and craft the sentence just-so. I love letters – both writing them and receiving them.
And, there’s no better example of letter writing than John and Abigail Adams.
Let me tell you a bit of Abigail Adams, wife of John Adams (2nd President of the United States), and mother of John Quincy Adams (6th president). Abigail was an amazing woman: brilliant, educated, politically savvy, and every bit her husband’s equal.
In fact, throughout her marriage to John Adams, this intellectual powerhouse refused to settle into the role of simple homemaker. A voracious love of reading and access to the finest libraries in the state gave Abigail a never-ending education and range of knowledge which sharpened her edge in conversation and debates with John. She used her smarts to both challenge her hubby and champion him.
“It’s never too late to get back on your feet though we wont live forever, make sure you accomplish what you were put here for.”
Abigail to John
“Great difficulties may be surmounted by patience and perseverance.”
Abigail Adams, 27 November 1775
During a period in which a woman was considered nothing more than a her husband’s property/shadow, this was quite an achievement on her part. But, I’ll be honest, what I find most endearing about this couple is their adoration for each other expressed in letters.
Because John Adams’ work as a key player in the war for Independence took him away from home for months and years at a time, Abigail’s correspondence with him gives us a meticulous record of history and a heartwarming peek into their relationship.
Throughout the couple’s courtship and marriage, the two exchanged a copious number of letters (1,160 of which survive today) in which they discussed intellectual, social, and political subjects as well as matters of the heart.
Consider, for instance, the nicknames they adopted. John referred to Abigail as his Diana (the Roman goddess of the moon). Abigail gave herself the added pen name, Portia, after the wife of the great Roman politician Brutus. John’s nickname was Lysander (after the Spartan admiral who defeated Athens in the Peloponnesian War).
His letters often address her as “Miss Adorable,” or, “My Dear Portia,” or, “Dearest Diana,” while Abigail always referred to him as “My Dearest Friend.” To understand the love embodied in that phrase, read her words below.
“You tell me that you sometimes view the dark side of your Diana, and there no doubt you discover many spots which I rather wish were erased, than conceal’d from you. Do not judge by this, that your opinion is an indifferent thing to me, (were it so, I should look forward with a heavey Heart,) but it is far otherways, for I had rather stand fair there, and be thought well of by Lysander than by the greater part of the World besides. I would fain hope that those faults which you discover, proceed more, from a wrong Head, than a bad Heart. E’er long May I be connected with a Friend from whose Example I may form a more faultless conduct, and whose benevolent mind will lead him to pardon, what he cannot amend.”
Abigail to John, 12 April 1764
Here’s one from John to Abigail.
“My Dear Diana…
Oh my dear Girl, I thank Heaven that another Fortnight will restore you to me – after so long a separation. My soul and body have both been thrown into Disorder, by your Absence, and a Month of two more would make me the most insufferable Cynick, in the World. I see nothing but Faults, Follies, Frailties and Defects in any Body lately. People have lost all their good Properties or I my justice, or Discernment. But you who have always softened and warmed my Heart, shall restore my Benevolence as well as my Health and Tranquility of mind. You shall polish and refine my sentiments of Life and Manners, banish all the unsocial and ill natured Particles in my Composition, and form me to that happy Temper, that can reconcile a quick Discernment with a perfect Candour.”
Believe me, now & ever your faithful
John to Abigail 1764
Tell the truth, you’re endeared by them too, huh. The beauty. The honesty. Theirs was a connection of both mind and heart. And, we have this preserved because of letters!
Let’s be honest, though, no one looking at a picture of John and Abigail exclaims, “Now that is one hot couple!” But exteriors and peripherals didn’t matter to them. To each other, they were Diana and Lysander, a Roman Goddess and a Spartan Warrior. The epitome of feminine elegance and masculine prowess.
A beautiful truth emerges from that kind of whole-souled love. A truth for which many spend their entire lives searching. No wonder historians have made sure to preserve their letters for so long.
And, it’s a wonder that so many letters survived. The extraordinary difficulty of travel and communication in the 1700s – difficulty that is almost incomprehensible to our generation of jetliners, instant messaging and email, made the practice of sending word slow and inefficient at best. Adams’ diplomatic assignments in Europe took him away from Abigail and the children for lengthy periods of time, and the vagaries of war and trans-Atlantic travel only meant that many letters never even made it through.
“I am sometimes quite discouraged from writing… So many vessels are taken, that there is Little chance of a Letters reaching your Hands. That I meet with so few returns is a circumstance that lies heavy at my Heart.”
Abigail to John 1778
Yes, it’s a rarity that so many letters survived, but perhaps even rarer still is the deep love this first political power couple shared.
Thank you, Mr. and Mrs. Adams. You not only gave us an important historical record detailing an 18th century America in gestation, but you also provided a treasury of love letters revealing an ever flourishing partnership.
Letters. I’ll tell you, nothing beats a good letter to record the musings of the mind and the matters of the heart. The Adams’ will tell you, there’s nothing better to keep in touch, or bridge the gap, or mend the fence, or soften the heart, or keep the flame lit than a personal letter. There’s power in the written word.
Tell them Today
So, won’t you be inspired along with me? Pick up the pen or nestle-up to the keyboard and write a letter to someone who needs to hear from you. Someone you know needs to learn of your love, obtain your forgiveness, receive encouragement, hear the explanation, or be given gratitude. Don’t wait. Tomorrow may be too late. Tell them today.
Write it down
Put it in words
Let it be said
As John Mayer puts it, “Say what you need to say”
The Greatest Gift from his Dad
One friend said his dad had written him a letter (a rare occurrence in his family), recounting memories and expressing feelings. He said it was the greatest gift his father had ever given him. Not only did his dad say the things he longed to hear, but, because they were written down, he could read the words again and again as often as he needed to “hear it” from his dad. It wasn’t long after he received that letter that his dad passed on. “The greatest gift I ever received from my dad,” he said, “was his written words.”
An awesome teacher at Westmont High School would echo that sentiment. My kids’ English Literature and Journalism teacher, the incomparable Mr. Andy Evans, always told students that the best gift to give him was words. Write it down.
Our country’s forefather and mother got it right. In a time and circumstance that might have otherwise divided and destroyed their union, their reach with words, generous and honest, both challenged and championed one another. And, in championing one another, they rose to champion a cause that changed the world around them.
Our words can do the same.
They have set the bar high, folks. But it’s not out of reach. No one in the 21st century can use the excuse that they haven’t the time because we are certainly spoiled with time-saving technology. So, take note from John, guys. Sit down and write her a letter. Gals, we can take a pointer or two from Abigail. Let’s all get into the habit of writing letters (or email if you must) – and I guarantee your Diana or Lysander will appreciate it.
I leave you with one of Abigail’s letters of encouragement to John.
“It is not in the still calm of life, or the repose of a pacific station, that great characters are formed. The habits of a vigorous mind are formed in contending with difficulties. Great necessities call out great virtues. When a mind is raised, and animated by the scenes that engage the heart, then those qualities which would otherwise lay dormant, wake into life and form the character of the hero and the statesman.”
19 January 1780
Massachusetts Historical Society
My Dearest Friend: Letters of Abigail and John Adams, edited by Margaret A. Hogan and C. James Taylor
The New York Times: Books, As a Nation was Born, they Wrote and Wrote, Michiko Kakutani, 11 December 2007
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