Tag Archives: friendship

The Letter I Never Sent

In the field of Positive Psychology, there’s a famous happiness-boosting exercise called the Writing letter to a friend.gratitude letter. Designed by Dr. Martin Seligman, it involves writing, delivering, and reading a letter of gratitude to someone whose life enriched yours. When I heard about this exercise from Tal Ben-Shahar, my teacher in the Kripalu Center’s Certificate in Positive Psychology (CIPP) program, 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 member 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 tragically cut short by his death from cancer, and I don’t think my dear friend ever fully 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, Alice wrote to me, a then 40-year-old woman, “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.

And so 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 beloved 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.”

(This essay was written for Kripalu’s blog, Thrive, and also appears here.)

I’m Jealous of Oprah (It’s Not What You Think)

Oprah Winfrey and I celebrate our birthdays just a few days apart. She has zillions in the bank and can spend her special day anywhere on the planet with 200 of her favorite people in tow. I have, well, less money in the bank and often spend my birthdays with a handful of friends in or around my neighborhood. But Oprah’s incredible wealth, access and adventures are not what make me jealous of her.

Nope, it’s the fact that she has a best friend named Gayle King whom she calls every day. From what I can tell, Gayle and Oprah do pretty much every meaningful thing together and rehash it on the phone.

I often wish I had a Gayle King.

Kim and Lisa

Lisa and I goofing around, late 1960s

As a little girl, I lived next door to my best friend Lisa. We hung out in each other’s homes making Easy Bake Oven cakes, watching Mr. Rogers, and playing dress up. We also spent hours setting up elaborate apartment complexes for Barbie, Ken, assorted doll friends, and my brother’s GI Joe (for added intrigue). Often, just as we put the last piece of cardboard furniture in place, one of our moms would disrupt the whole scene by shouting, “Dinner!” We didn’t really care, though, because we just loved being together.

A few years later, my dad moved our family to another state and I tearfully said goodbye to Lisa. Little did I know that it was the beginning of a pattern.

At this point in my life I’ve moved about eight times and moved on from several jobs, leaving countless friends and communities behind. I tried to stay connected to high school and college friends, but those ties weakened as our careers and lives blossomed in different cities. In my 30s I lived my own version of Sex and the City with gal pals Julie, Alice, and Liz amid cocktails, cigarettes and debauched nights in Manhattan. When that lifestyle took its toll, I left my party pals to reclaim my soul in a yoga ashram. Two years later I moved to Boston.

And so it went for decades, these departures that left me with dear friends in faraway places. I, too, have been left behind by girlfriends who’ve been called elsewhere. Despite our good intentions, months and years can pass without a call or visit, and so Facebook is where we end up hanging out. I have 600 friends on Facebook and, while they give me a much-needed sense of community at times, I’d trade most of them for a nearby BFF.

Which is why I’m in awe of Oprah and Gayle who, after three decades, seem closer than sisters (something else I don’t have). I’d love regular check-ins with a girlfriend like that to relay the fascinating details of my fascinating life. I used to pay my therapist for this privilege and now I force my husband to listen, but it’s really not his forte. While he’s loving and devoted and willingly does the dishes, he rarely asks about the right details or wants to hear about my feeelings the way girlfriends do.

People like John Gray warned me about the whole Mars/Venus thing.

A friend of mine jokes that she processes her day with her cats each night. While my cat is a really good listener, she rarely gives feedback, poses leading questions or affirms my fabulousness. Except when she wants something.

I know that I’m not unique in wanting more meaningful and consistent relationships in my life, and I sometimes wonder if loneliness is an American epidemic, despite all the tweeting and texting. A yoga student of mine confesses that her loneliness sends her to the kitchen for beloved companions like Godiva chocolates and Ben and Jerry. The problem is, they don’t really love her back.

My husband is from Senegal, where people hang out together all the time and steady human companionship is a given. His favorite American TV show is Seinfeld, because Jerry, George, Elaine and Kramer remind him of his mates back home and make him laugh after a day of commuting and working alongside New Englanders who avoid eye contact.

“I’m used to it,” he says, about the isolation he feels in this culture, and that makes me sad.

It takes real effort and determination to maintain friendships in this age of transience, social fragmentation, and over committed lives.

Proximity helps, too.

As I write I’m heating up a pot of homemade lentil soup, thanks to my neighbor Ellen, who supplied the recipe after I enjoyed some at her house. Ellen and I are cultivating a friendship via email, Facebook, phone calls and, yes, face-to-face visits, and “Hey, got any bay leaves?” moments across the fence. It’s the perfect fusion of modern and old-fashioned relating, and it makes my world feel cozier.

I just hope neither one of us moves anytime soon.