Ode to writing letters, and cauliflower soup

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I’m not going to deny it’s cold out there. The children race ahead of me to the playground, seemly oblivious to the biting wind, and the fact that there are scratches of frost amid the remnants of last night’s rain on the monkey-bars and the spinning tourniquet.

Their games start almost immediately and, to the soundtrack of their laughter, I find a section of bench that is seeing sun (or that might possibly see sun one day). I bring a little towel with me so that I can dry a space to sit down, and then pull out a note-pad and a pen, and ease my gloves off, one finger at a time.

And now, while the children swing and slide and leap and spin, I write letters. I write to strangers, I write to friends. I write to family, I write to my children’s teachers, I write to Instagrammers and podcasters I admire. I write about the produce I found at the market, about walks we take in the woods, about books I’m reading, cakes I’m baking, dreams I’m dreaming, and about the way time runs at a different pace in France.

I write until my fingers turn red from the cold, and then blue, and then wrinkle until they look twice my age. The children race past me, shrieking with laughter during some great game or another. I blow on my fingers, I shake them out, and then I write some more.

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Later when we are home, I pull out the pencils and paints. Trace around my trusty wooden envelope-template, and make up designs that I think people will enjoy, inspired by the world around me right now. A café in Paris where we drank hot chocolate and ate croissants. Sunflowers that I’d picked up at the market in London two days earlier. A castle in Bretagne. The picnic we enjoyed in summer at the ruins. Rosehips from the basket-full I picked from the hedgerows, the swan we admired in St James’ Park, my mother’s vegetable garden.

When I’m done, I fold each painting into an envelope that will carry these tiny moments and stories from our lives along highways and past mountains, across bridges and over oceans. From autumn to winter, or spring, or rainy-season, or dry. To vast cities and country villages, rural outposts and marshy islands.

All for the low, low price of two euros.

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Sitting in the cold playground and writing these letters, these long, rambling spillings-out of my days, feels like I’m returning to my roots. It’s not that I ever stopped writing letters, but the luxury of time to write in this way isn’t something I’ve given myself in many years. (Note that I say “given myself” rather than “been given,” because too many times I’ve claimed not to have time when, in reality it was simply that I chose to spend my time in other ways).

I’ve heard it said, and in fact I talk about it in my letter-writing course, that writing something down by hand (rather than typing) aids the memory. It’s something called “reflective functioning.” We feel the event or experience all over again as we write it down, and then reflect on it and make sense of it as we read it back. Perhaps by writing down the seemingly mundane but often precious moments of my days, I am helping to commit them to memory and heart, my letters becoming an act of mindfulness and gratitude, appreciation for the littlest of things that bring joy.

But I sometimes wonder if, in not only writing these things down but also sharing them with someone else, I am doing more than committing them to memory. Maybe I am giving them lives of their own.

What if, upon reading of the intricate romanesco broccoli I picked up at the market on Thursday, my correspondent is inspired to make her famous roasted cauliflower soup, and invites friends over to share it? The conversation and laughter last well into the night, and it is a simple experience of friendship and hygge. That wasn’t my letter, but maybe a letter could spark such a thing?

This is the power of words shared. They don’t stop on the page and, from the moment we drop our letters into that post-box, they no longer belong to us. To me this is a beautiful thing, and the fact that I can never know if or what my letter might spark in someone else does not make the imagining any less joyful.

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