Letters Mingle Souls

I first encountered these two Floridians in 2020, during the early days of the shutdown.   The three of us happened to enroll in an online class titled “Deepening Your Connection with Nature”, in which our instructor, who also resided in Florida, offered a series of assignments designed to help us look more closely at our surroundings and then write about them.  Videos and handouts with ideas and suggestions for focusing our attention on a scene, a walk, or some other aspect of the natural world were emailed to us.  

I was in California at that time, and a bit homesick for Michigan, so I chose a sturdy tree with a large canopy that reminded me of the Leelanau. The tree was grand, a presence; its smooth grey bark connected with the turf like the foot of an immense elephant.  Sitting in the shade of my “elephant tree”, I wrote prose and poetry while becoming more familiar and fonder of this magnificent specimen as the days ticked past. 

When our online course ended, we students were eager to continue, so our instructor obliged us with another class, offering us a deeper dive into our individual artistic pursuits.  This time we were to use whatever kind of artistic expression we wished.  Once each week, we participants met online to share our work and our journeys.  Our conversations involved not only writing, but other artistic processes.

One student in these classes, Lynda, was a watercolor artist, among her many artistic interests and talents.  During one session, she shared the story of a letter writing group she was involved with called the Tampa Bay Letter Writers.  Lynda created artist stamps and illustrated letters for the TBLW and she shared with us pictures of a zine she’d recently made for the TBLW that was full of ideas for coping during the pandemic.  A Michigan friend of mine was, at the time, struggling because she could not spend time with family and friends.  I asked Lynda if she would snail mail me a copy of the zine to share with my friend, thinking it might help, and she agreed to put one in the mail.

A few days later an illustrated envelope arrived in my post office box. Inside was the zine but in addition, there was a handwritten, personal letter from Lynda.  As it turned out, after I’d requested the zine from Lynda, I’d received a difficult health diagnosis: I was also suffering with my own pandemic fatigue.   So when I saw this beautiful, handmade, tactile expression of kindness from Lynda, I was moved to tears.  I resolved to answer Lynda’s letter and that day began investigating the possibility of promoting a similar letter writing group in Michigan.  A few days later, the Leelanau Letter Writers was born.

Dani was also one of the students in these classes. Over time, I learned she was a retired businesswoman, a life coach, a Francophile, a wonderful collage artist, and also a generous spirit.  During one online gathering, she offered me some wise advice so I wrote a thank you note and mailed it to her.   Then it turned out that Dani and Lynda, who were already friends, lived near one another in Florida; they sometimes met at a park to chat and paint. They also met monthly on Zoom.  When they contacted me and offered to include me in their online sessions, I was eager to join them.  As we became closer, our online meetings became longer, sometimes lasting two or three hours; we found we had much to discuss.

Meanwhile, our handwritten letters to one another continued. We shared titles of books we’d read, art techniques, resources, general information, and personal stories. Dani surprised both Lynda and me with one-of-a-kind books she created using photos, quotes, collages, and pieces of art that captured the interests and passions in each of our lives.  I felt comfortable enough to share copies of my unpublished novel with the two of them.  When we began exchanging a traveling letter, we decided we needed a name for our trio and soon after we began referring to ourselves as “The Soul Sisters”.

Finally, inevitably, we began to talk about meeting in person.  Since the two of them lived in Florida and I was then in Michigan, it was decided I would fly to Tampa for a visit.  Dani met me at the airport and drove me to Lynda’s home where I stayed for six wonderful days.  The two of them had planned surprises and outings that would make my visit special.  We visited the Dali Museum (where there was also a Picasso Exhibit) and had selfie cubist portraits made.  We sketched, journaled, enjoyed watercolor instruction from Lynda, ate beautiful and tasty meals, talked, shared, opined, drank wine, and even met our online instructor for an outdoor lunch along the Intercoastal Waterway.  It was a magical time and I smile whenever I think of it.

And as an added bonus, during my visit to Tampa, I was able to attend an in-person gathering of the Tampa Bay Letter Writers, which, even though my participation is limited, I have joined.  The TBLW April gathering took place on the porch of The Paper Seahorse, a converted bungalow in downtown Tampa that’s home to a unique and inspirational shop focused on letter writing.  

The weather that Saturday morning was ideal; tea and banana bread were offered, and members who had not been able to meet in person for months talked, hugged, and shared stories.  I was warmly welcomed as we swapped letter writing and art mail items members of the group wanted to pass along.  I also got to meet the woman who, along with the owner of The Paper Seahorse, started the Tampa Bay Letter Writers.  Tammy’s unique combination of enthusiasm and imagination, plus her friendly manner, are infectious and a continuing inspiration to this special group.  Unfortunately, a broken foot kept Tona Bell, owner of The Paper Seahorse from attending the gathering but her husband Randy opened the shop for us so I was able to look around and purchase some “much needed” supplies for my own letter writing.

I’m home in Michigan now, having exchanged one bay in paradise (Tampa Bay) for another (Grand Traverse Bay).  I think back daily on this journey of friendship with my two Soul Sisters, Lynda and Dani.  We met online but we really began to connect through that first letter Lynda sent me, that single missive that changed my life, making it richer, filling it with art and poetry and, mostly, encouraging me to embrace my creative side and, as a piece of that, to start the Leelanau Letter Writers.  

Letters Mingle Souls?  I’d say that phrase says it all.

I’d also say you should never underestimate the difference a handwritten letter from you might make in someone’s life. 


Like many people, I entered the reawakening following the COVID shutdown with a long list of people I wanted to see, hug, and enjoy in person.  I’m still not caught up, but during the last couple of post-vaccination months, instead of writing letters, posting blogs, or preparing the latest LLW Zine, spending real time with friends and family was my priority, along with a large project here at our home:  reworking our tired perennial and herb gardens.    

The entertaining part was fun, easy, like getting back on a much-loved bicycle. The garden project was a whole lot more work. I’d neglected my perennial and herb gardens the past several summers and, coupled with this year’s unreliable Leelanau spring weather, updating them proved to be quite a challenge.  

I began planning the modifications during the winter months. Sitting beside our fireplace, gardening books and magazines on my lap, I studied soil types, growing zones, composting, and, of course, plants. But I soon became overwhelmed by the amount of information and recognized I needed the help of someone who had expertise in the world of horticulture. I searched online and eventually hired a garden designer to suggest an overall layout (because we wanted to add a gravel patio and path) and offer a list of plants he thought would work.

The actual preparation of the beds didn’t require a lot of expertise, just a willingness to get the job done. I was determined to handle this work myself. I spent days ripping out matted Cedar chips and pulling what seemed like miles of roots that had taken hold beneath the wood. Some days as I toiled, I needed a wool stocking cap and heavy denim jacket to protect me from the fierce winds.  Other days, salty sweat stung my eyes as I worked in the blistering sun.  My husband hauled rocks from our fields to define the edges of these beds and I worked with a second landscaper to select a revised list of plants hardy enough to withstand the conditions on our ridge.  

It became my mission to resurrect these gardens.  Always, after I finished my day’s garden work, I came inside the house dirty and tired.  Often the muscles in my hands ached so much that holding a pen would have been a challenge.  But as I began to see progress, the refreshed landscape reflected my own spirits. I found myself growing increasingly excited as the landscaper laid out the paths and patio and began moving and adding new plants to the surrounding dirt.  And after many weeks of planning and many long days of hard work, the garden I envisioned is now complete.

The air is close this morning, humid, and I’m settling into a calm space in my head, a reverie, admiring the gardens: the purples and yellows and pinks and whites, the spiky Russian Sages, the Lavender shrubs, the bushes of Baptisia, and the Catmint whose purple fronds explode like the final fireworks display at a Fourth of July celebration.  The fragrances of these plants are subtle, grace notes that float past if I’m not paying attention.  

Sitting in my rattan chair on our screen porch with a mug of tea ( 2/3 English Breakfast and 1/3 Earl Grey) on the glass table beside me, listening to the chirps of birds and the buzzing of insects from the nearby meadows and woods, along with the occasional hum of a motor as a car passes on M-22, I’m also holding my fountain pen. A pad of paper is on my lap, and I’m ready to resume my blogging, to work on the next LLW Zine, and mostly, to get back to handwriting letters. It’s time.

“Never Let a Good Crisis Go to Waste”

‘Never Let a Good Crisis Go to Waste’ was the theme of my priest’s sermon during yesterday’s Zoom church service. The saying is attributed to Winston Churchill and before that, Mark Twain, but I’d been thinking, even before I heard her sermon, about when we will begin to emerge from the pandemic and more important, what I will bring with me and what I will leave behind when I do.

I’ve had my shots, thanks to the Benzie-Leelanau Health Department, and many of my close friends and family members have as well. Although we don’t know yet what is the safest course of action for ourselves and for others going forward, we continue to learn and consider as we come squinting out of the darkness into what feels like bright sunlight.

I realize there will be no return to life as we knew it. Too many of us have lost loved ones or know those who have, we’ve lost countless opportunities to spend time with family and friends, we’ve cancelled much-anticipated travel plans, and postponed funerals, weddings, and other gatherings. Even during our own medical difficulties, we’ve sometimes found ourselves more worried about being exposed to COVID than getting the treatment we needed.

When we experience a difficult time, it changes us.

The question I’m asking myself these days is whether and what I’ve learned from this crisis. Whether the slower pace of life I was able to experience was a positive by-product of the pandemic or whether, when I’m able, I’m going to jump back on the horse and gallop ahead at full speed like I used to do, missing the scenery and the insights that come with a more relaxed way of living. Whether the class I took on Zoom or the books I read (all the novels of Jane Austen, among others) because I was stuck inside the house enriched my life enough to make me want more of those experiences.

Sure, those of us who admit to being introverts had an easier time during this long shutdown than the extroverts who need to be around other people to recharge their batteries. But no matter which slot you fit into on the Meyer-Briggs Personality Inventory Test, I invite you to make the time just now, while you’re pondering what happens next in your life, to examine what you’ll take from the crisis we’ve all experienced and what you’ll happily leave behind in the darkness when you emerge.

I already know that on my list of what I’ll carry forward is letter writing. I don’t want to lose the benefits offered and received when I make the effort to slow down and share my thoughts on paper. Writing and sending letters to friends, family, and those of you who also found value in the art of slow correspondence has become a treasured part of my life and I’ll definitely be taking this habit with me.

But what about you? What will you bring with you into the light? What will you leave behind?