By Julie Markarian, MS, CCLS, One Summit Team Leader with forward and afterword by Maxwell Svec, One Summit Manager, Strategic Programs & Events
As our One Summit community knows well, we hold storytelling in high regard and appreciate it as an essential part of the journey toward posttraumatic growth. Telling our stories helps connect us as human beings through shared experiences, sometimes incredibly joyful, at times breathtakingly devastating, and all the emotions in between. Earlier this year, I heard about the release of a new book co-written by Brittany Snow (best known for her role as Chloe in the Pitch Perfect movie franchise) called September Letters: Finding Strength and Connection in Sharing Our Stories. Not only did the book’s content align with our values surrounding storytelling, but the title also seemed incredibly appropriate as we now find ourselves deep into September.
Team Leader and friend of One Summit Julie Markarian has been a certified child life specialist for over seven years and has worked in several Boston area hospitals, including pediatric oncology clinics and inpatient units. Her undergraduate degree in English literature paired with her career in child life seemed a perfect pairing to make her uniquely qualified to take over this month’s Resource in Resilience. She has been invited into the stories of countless patients and families throughout her career, a profound responsibility that she holds dear. Julie read September Letters in its entirety and took some time to do a little writing of her own, telling us more about this new book and the power we can all find in sharing our stories through letter writing.
“Our stories are proof that we were here in this world – that we lived, loved, fought hard, and showed up every single day. Our stories become our legacies. It’s important that we tell them” – Hannah Brencher
Does the month of September bring up nostalgic memories for you? Images of crunchy leaves, kids chatting with their friends inside big yellow buses, or, to quote one of my favorite films, You’ve Got Mail, “bouquets of newly sharpened pencils” pop into my head. While I love those long days of summer, fall can always be counted on to come around with its specific kind of warmth and charm. Fall also brings me back into the mode of curling up with a good book full of fascinating stories or writing down my thoughts. If you feel similarly, I hope you’ll consider diving into September Letters: Finding Strength and Connection in Sharing Our Stories.
The September Letters started as a “mental health awareness and letter writing” online community. Created and curated by actress Brittany Snow and activist Jaspre Guest, the website (and now the book!) includes letters written by strangers and familiar voices alike, connected by the common belief that “everyone has a story.” I love reading a good blog such as that, but there’s nothing quite like turning off my phone or computer and finding human connection through the physical pages of a book. September Letters is organized into six sections of emotions, and it can be read straight through or picked up and perused based on what emotions the reader wants to dive into that day. Each section is laid out in an aesthetically beautiful way, with calming images and various forms of letter content, which encourages readers to slow down and absorb each word with empathy and curiosity.
Section One, “Joy and Happiness,” begins with a typewritten response to a bullied young boy who wants some advice from America’s favorite Dad, Tom Hanks. Hanks signs his letter with a PS, “You’ve got a friend in me,” and... I’m not crying; you’re crying. If you can’t find joy and a renewed faith in humanity through Tom Hanks quoting his beloved cowboy character to a young person in need of some TLC, let’s talk.
Author and happiness expert Gretchen Rubin goes on to discuss why writing down our stories is such a powerful medium when it comes to processing and meaning-making in our own lives: “There’s a lot of research showing that when people write down what’s happening to them, especially if they’re in a difficult or challenging situation, they gain a sense of control – partly from that sense of perspective, and partly from the tendency to make meaning out of what’s happening” (pg. 30). This really rang true to me; it’s hard not feel a spark of joy when writing down little moments in my day that felt good, even if that day on a whole didn’t feel like the best day. Reliving my first sip of coffee, a laugh I shared with a friend, or a nice conversation I had with my husband as we put the dishes away at night are all moments I find myself journaling about that mean the most. Those little moments are what it’s all about.
Section Two, “Resilience and Healing,” includes an interview with Ana Tucker, a Board-Certified Hypnotherapist, Master Neurolinguistic Programming Practitioner, and Licensed Clinical Social Worker. “We don’t live our desires, we live out stories. That is because our stories are held within the subconscious emotional part of our minds… We’re all telling ourselves a story of some sort. Now this story may work for you…But often I see that there’s a part of the story that’s not working. To change that, we need to work within the subconscious mind, which is where every memory is kept, every emotion is held, and our beliefs about ourselves and about the world are locked down. Our stories come from our beliefs about ourselves and the world around us. So being able to identify and access those stories allows us to change them. In doing that, we change our relationship between our conscious and subconscious. We change ourselves and we change the world around us. The power of letter-writing to change your story is so incredible. Writing creates a direct path into the subconscious mind to say, ‘This may be the old story, but I am choosing a new story right here” (pg. 40).
This quote and, in fact, Ana’s entire interview made me feel so empowered. We all need a reminder from time to time that we have the power to rewrite our inner narratives and to know that we can find resilience in that process. The bonus with writing down our stories is that we get to revisit all we’ve been through and how much we’ve grown anytime we want. I may cringe a bit (okay, a lot) when I reread journals I kept in my early twenties, but I also feel such a sense of pride for the woman I am continuing to grow into.
Section Three, “Courage and Strength,” includes insight from Anna Quindlen, a novelist and journalist, about the art of slowing down and speaking from the heart. “We sometimes fail to feel connected to other people because we’ve let these technologies, which are fast and dirty and glib, take over our communications. Sometimes letter-writing can make all the difference in terms of how we connect with the people we love and also how that connection can prevail over the years. People circle back to a letter in a way that is impossible to do with a phone call. With a letter, we remember when we sent it or received it and it still feels so important and so good” (pg. 67).
This got me thinking about the box of cards and letters I have in my closet upstairs, filled with notes from family and friends who are still here, as well as those who have been gone for awhile now. I pull down that box and touch the handwriting whenever I want to have a little visit with loved ones who I miss or to reread the words of someone offering me love and advice during a darker moment in my own life. That box is my most sacred possession, and those letters encourage me to write and mail birthday cards, postcards, thank-you notes, and any other form of snail mail that I can to the ones I love for their own special memory box.
Section Four, “Love and Loss,” shares the thoughts of author, public speaker, and grief expert David Kessler. “The first thing is to know that we’re not meant to be islands of grief. We all want our grief witnessed. There’s research on mirroring neurons in babies. When the parent smiles, the baby smiles. I remind people we actually don’t grow out of that. We want our life, our pain, and who we are to be witnessed. We have a need to be seen (pg. 82).”
It’s such a simple yet powerful fact. Humans are social creatures; our need for connection and belonging never disappears. When we experience something that feels isolating, that is when we need one another more than ever. Whether we turn to writing, talking, or reading the words of others, we can find connection and community by sharing our stories.
Section Five, “Fear and Anxiety,” includes musings on the motivation behind writing down our stories for ourselves and for others from Psychotherapist and Author Dr. Mark Epstein. Writing “is both scary and courageous. And it’s also very rewarding. What you inevitably find is that as unique as your personal experience is, the deeper commonality among all kinds of trauma is that everyone feels alone in what happened to them” (pg. 114).
This got me thinking about the pandemic. I was working in healthcare at the time and was physically and emotionally isolated from my innermost community. I couldn’t hug my parents for almost a year. I didn’t have the energy or language to explain what I was experiencing daily to friends who had a very different pandemic experience than my own. And yet, I found that talking with my coworkers and friends in similar fields felt unifying; when I shared my own struggles and listened to the struggles of others, I could exhale. I was not, in fact, alone.
Section Six, “Friendship and Community,” includes wise words from Family Therapist and Author Allyson Dinneen. Allyson shares that a helpful tool for people when they’re feeling down is “To tune in to what you’re actually feeling. Acknowledge the truth of it for a moment. We have to let go of the habit of avoiding and numbing ourselves to uncomfortable feelings, like we were taught to. It sounds strange but people often don’t even know what they’re feeling emotionally. They might have a general sense of being sad or angry, maybe, but that’s about as far as they go with it because most of us have been taught to be ashamed of having feelings and that we should definitely try to avoid them. The thing is: emotions are your body and your nervous system telling you how you’re doing or what you need. You can’t know what you need if you don’t know how you feel” (pg. 129). What better way to round out this beautiful book of essays, interviews, and confessions than a reminder that we are all emotional beings. We need and deserve to feel the full weight of those emotions, and we are SO lucky to exist within communities of people who we can share our stories with.
At the end of September Letters, Brittany and Jaspre include a blank piece of paper on which the reader can write down their story. I haven’t decided how to start my own letter, but I’m looking forward to seeing my story emerge onto the page.
So, what would your letter say? With our deep love of storytelling, we want to invite our One Summit community members to share their letters with us. As the book explains, the letter could be written to someone in your life, a specific community or group of people, or even a stranger. It could be long with meandering thoughts and reflections, or a short truth jotted down on a Post-It note.
Perhaps you’re a parent or guardian in the throes of your journey caring for a child with cancer, witnessing how its impacts affect their siblings. Maybe you’re one of our little warriors with advice to share with other kids going through treatment. Perhaps you’re one of our mentors who believes your story of resilience might resonate with someone else. No matter what your letter may contain, it might just be the hope someone else is looking for.
“One day you will tell your story and how you got through it. That story will be part of someone else’s survival guide.” - Storyteller and author Brene Brown
Share your September letter with the One Summit community; you never know who it might help and heal. Connect with Max at email@example.com if you’d like to pass it along.