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 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.)