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.