When I was in college, I went on a retreat with the others in my dorm. Most of the weekend wasn’t my style. There were a lot of “icebreaker” games and dance parties.
But at a quiet moment on the second day, the leaders passed out sheets of paper and asked us to write letters to our future selves, the people we would be near the Christmas season.
I took the assignment seriously, thinking about the circumstances I knew about and what I was hoping for, as well as what I was dreading.
I started my letter with Dear future Cara…
I wrote with grace and love for myself.
You are lovely and loved very deeply, everyone is proud of you, even me (if that’s even possible).
I turned in my letter at the end of the weekend and forgot about it.
As the year drew to a close, I got my letter back and opened it. Though it didn’t seem like much time had passed, a lot had changed in the months between early fall and the heaviness of winter.
My own words were just what I needed to hear, almost overwhelmingly so.
I spoke right into my heart with uncanny accuracy, bringing encouragement to places that had me worried, stressed or confused. I spoke words of love into my own heart in a way that was specific to my self-knowledge.
I was hooked.
From then on, I’ve always had a letter waiting for me in the future.
Although I’ve journaled for most of my life, I’ve always struggled with audience. I’ve wondered if I’m talking to those who will come after me, finding my words among the other possessions I leave behind. I’ve thought about them as a prayer, or a direct message into some kind of void.
When I started writing to a future version of myself, I unlocked something in the process.
For the past few years I’ve written letters when I’m experiencing turmoil or pain. I’ve written letters brimming with joy. Most of the time, I write in the midst of uncertainty, or before a momentous event. I’ve written at the beginning (and endings) of relationships, as I graduated from college and started new jobs. I’ve written about friendships, illnesses, and when I started teaching writing classes.
When I write a letter from the future, I assign it an opening date, usually not more than six months in the future. Sometimes, I’ll write multiples, as inspiration or need strikes.
Unlike a journal, which I would write in and seldom revisit, I looked forward to my letters and to seeing the ways that the path had smoothed since I’d written. The self-imposed time limit gave me perspective in ways that none of my other writing has.
Now, as I write in my more traditional journal, I find myself writing to myself, instead of to an unknown reader. I write through the stuff of life that stands out so that when I look back, I’ll see progress, growth and, perhaps, patterns.
Sometimes, as with my letters, I throw in kind words to me, the reader. When I come across these phrases, those times that I remind myself that I am human, beloved and in process, I feel a little thrill. I know that these words are for me.
You’re smart and I trust you to make good decisions. You know what you’re worth and I’ve seen you act on it.
It’s easy to think of writing, even very personal writing, as for someone else. Even when I’m writing for my own peace of mind, to get something out, or because I want to remember something, I’m usually not just thinking about myself. I want to get healthy, to move past my trauma or pain so that I can confidently relate to the world.
The writing becomes a needed process, a release, not a joy and certainly not a spacious place in which to play, cry and discover. My journal is two parts tearful and one part a list of things I want to remember when I tell the story to others.
But as I’ve walked this path, I’ve learned to guard my letters, and now my journals, like treasures. They are for my eyes only.
I have chosen to believe that I am worthy of being the only recipient of certain words, not because they are not good enough, processed enough or together enough to be seen by others, but because they belong to the same family as sweet messages written by a lover or close friend, or whispered in my ear in the moments before sleep overtakes me.
These letters stand with the rays of light that come with extravagant intimacy into my evening walk, the hugs that come in dreams from those who are out of reach, and the pages of a handwritten love-letter.
Keep your eyes open and be ready to see what God has for you next. I know that He has big things for you all over your life. Pay attention to what He’s doing.
They bring about hope, healing and joy. They chronicle pain, longing and heartbreak.
But I have learned that, like me, they stand on their own, apart from what they do.
Header image by John A Ryan Photography
Letter image by Lenna Young Andrews