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“A Lost Art”

Sometime last winter I ordered up a copy of a book that caught my attention for an entirely different reason than what I present today! “A Private Spy: The Letters of John le Carre” edited by Tim Cornwell. Le Carre is the highly acclaimed author whose work, “A Spy Who Came in From the Cold” in 1963 changed our understanding of the world of espionage and set him on track to the publication of some 25 novels. Over nearly 60 years of writing he gave us stories of intrigue grounded in history. Le Carre is, of course, his pen name, born David John Moore Cornwell in October 1931, he left this life in December 2020. This collection I have been making my way through edited by his son is part biography, part autobiography, but very much a life story in letters. It is not the first of its kind, but in it is catalogued an eventful life through correspondence dating back to his youth and following his path through schooling, family, romance, work, travel, sickness, and pleasure unto the present. Written with a generosity of spirit, one recipient characterized his letters as containing, “such care and engagement,” “Kindly, sharp, detailed.” “You could almost hear his eyebrows rustle slightly,” he said. A courtesy to share so much insight and observation with someone. And this, perhaps, is why I keep reading, a little at a time, this window into the soul of a man, offered so forthrightly. And I think to myself, “What has ever happened to this seemingly lost art?”

From the time I could put pen to page I recall being sat down with notecards and envelopes following the Christmas holiday or my birthday, to write what seemed then like the obligatory ‘thank you note.’ It was a duty and maybe you can remember having been similarly trained – a product of our times. But over the years I developed a sense of its value, of gratitude expressed and connection continued. As a young woman many miles from home I corresponded with my old school friends and relatives suddenly on the opposite coast. Today I am the recipient of many holiday letters detailing the previous year’s adventures and hardships of family and acquaintances. I still send holiday cards with a note inside, and my husband is often regaled by his younger coworkers for the cards he sends marking important occasions. They of agile thumbs on tiny keyboards peck out quick notes to one another and to us, but we are of a different generation. And if you are a member or friend of the Meeting House and our Pastoral Care Team knows your birth or anniversary date, or if you have had a recent loss or illness, you no doubt receive a beautifully penned note acknowledging the milestone, thanks to our own Sue Bauer who keeps up this task. My sister-in-law goes a step further and some of the cards you see on the slides today are ones she has hand painted and then sent; loving notes contained within.

Herbalist and poet, Polly Hatfield, writes in a recent issue of Taproot Magazine,

“My great-grandmother Loubelle always kept a lined stationery pad, a box of envelopes, and a book of postage stamps atop her wooden desk nestled into the corner of the dining room. Anytime she had a small pocket of time amidst her day or maybe in the last waning hours of the evening, she would perch at her desk and pen a few more lines to her current letter. Each missive a form of connection to loved ones far-flung.”

Letter writing etiquette teaches us that the best of these share news and information, mixing the good with the not so much, responding to questions and news from the previous correspondence, and asking about the recipient. This last part strikes me as a key component in the maintenance of connection. This sense of genuine curiosity that builds upon relationships long held or just beginning.

Author, James Baldwin, writes,

“The longer I live, the more deeply I learn that love – whether we call it friendship or family or romance – is the work of mirroring and magnifying each other’s light. Gentle work. Steadfast work. Life-saving work in those moments when life and shame and sorrow occlude our own light from our view, but there is still a clear-eyed loving person to beam it back. In our best moments, we are that person for each other.”

There is a give and take here that lifts each participant. We want to know about each other, but more so we want to truly know one another more deeply and fully. We are made more whole by these exchanges, enriched in our living and being.

Once you cultivate a letter writing practice, you also become a recipient! I delight in handwritten notes received, moving them to the top of the pile of mail and, unlike Loubelle, who saves these to be savored later, I open them right away! There is something so special about these thoughts scrolled by the hand of another human, I am inclined to soak them up, breathe them in, knowing that other being’s presence in a way more visceral and authentic even in their absence. The ledge between my kitchen and dining room can be found to contain the most recent of these reminders that there is still care in our world, that we have one another, we are not alone.

Personal letters are a powerful tool in the recognition of our interdependence and connectedness. There is an underlying message in them – speaking to us of our value as persons. That someone would take the time to write to us – details, but a sharing of emotions, too – the joys of life and the tougher stuff – to be entrusted with another’s truths – from heart to hand to page – a piece of their lives made real for us as if they were right there before us.

In our reading this morning, Danusha Lameris reminds us that we have so little of one another now, removed from tribe and fire. We are ‘far flung’ as Hatfield says. Our world has enlarged over the centuries, and we no longer stay close to the home we grew up in with kin nearby. We move around for education or employment or love, plopping ourselves down in new territory with ease and wonder, leaving behind the vestiges of earlier days. And so, we have these small kindnesses, some of which are a holdover from times past, but brief moments of exchange. And I see our notes to one another as a piece of this whole, this cultivation of kindness a necessary practice in a world that feels so very angry and disconnected. What if, she asks, these are the dwelling places of the holy? These gestures, this opportunity to share our lives deepest meanings, express our gratitude, inquire into the life of another. These invitations to dance with what is Sacred in our midst – heart to heart, hand to hand.

So, I offer the idea today that a simple practice of note writing can be for us a spiritual practice as well. It is an opportunity to strengthen another being, to express compassion and generosity, authentically and with gentleness, brightening the spirit as we heard in our chalice lighting. We give from our inner stores, committing what we hold to paper, this making of it something more real and alive as it is shared. There is a joy in knowing that this simple act bestows upon another a sense of being cared for, of community and love.

Each of you received a notecard and a pen when you arrived today. And those participating virtually have been invited to have something similar handy. I want us to take a few minutes to write a note to no one in particular, but another member or friend of the congregation, ours here or yours wherever you are tuning in from. Just a brief note of gratitude or noticing or care. Tuck them into their envelopes and seal them up. We will collect what we have here and redistribute them at the close of the service. Perhaps our UUMH zoom participants might send theirs to someone else they recognize on the screen. And those of you in congregations beyond our walls might find a way to redistribute as well! So, let’s take a little time with this while Frank plays us some note-writing music!


Sue will come around with the basket to collect these and bring them up front.

My invitation to you this morning is to enter into a season of deep caring marked by simple acts of kindness and love. We need one another now, maybe more than we had in the past. We need to know that we are a part of something made whole by our presence to it, in it, with it together.

May these notes and this time we have spent in the crafting of their messages be blessed as they make their way into the hands and hearts of this community of care. May we take the time more often to engage in spiritual practices that lift the soul and in so doing lift our world.

Blessed be and Amen.

Rev. Tracy Johnson

UUMH Chatham, July 9, 2023



​Unitarian Universalist

Meeting House of Chatham
Sunday Services  10:30 AM

819 Main Street
All MAIL To: PO Box 18​​
Chatham, MA 02633
(508) 945-2075

Serving our Cape Cod Community in Chatham since 1986

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