Photo by Carolyn V on Unsplash
On the one hand, he kind of broke my heart, during a cold and awkward goodbye dinner at a cheap Ethiopian restaurant in Philadelphia. On the other hand, he proved to me that the unicorn combo of good looks, sense of humor, and brains really did exist in the wild and that I wasn’t crazy to keep my standards high in looking for it.
The dude in question was a doe-eyed guy I briefly dated in college, and the reason I was thinking of him was that I was smack-dab in the middle of a project I undertook years later, to write thank-you letters to people who had helped, inspired, or shaped me up to that point in my life.
I’d knocked off the easy categories of “helping” and “inspiring” people first, writing a single one-page letter every week to family members, my closest friends, teachers, mentors, favorite authors.
I loved the whole process of writing those letters.
First, the time spent thinking about specific ways the next person on my list had buoyed me at a low point, or cheered me on with genuine joy when I had achieved a goal, or talked me into splurging on my favorite dress ever by using the weirdest math rationale you could imagine. Before I even sat down to write, I already felt better, reminded of how many people considered me worthy of their time and effort.
Second, by the time I wrote “Love, Nan” at the bottom of each letter, I felt like I’d been given a chance to discern exactly what kind of dilemmas would make me turn to that person in a Phone-A-Friend situation. In some ways, mailing the finished letters was just the icing on the cake of what I came to call my Thank-You Project; the mere act of thinking about all the ways I had been helped made it easier for me see more things to be grateful for, all around me.
Which is how the letters to my exes came in.
By the time I had reached Letter 27 or so, I had realized that if we’re going to talk about the ways we’ve been “shaped,” a lot of those lessons come from people whom we’ve cut loose from our lives. The friends who were disloyal and made us value our trustworthy friends more, the black sheep relatives who disappointed us and threw loving family members into sharper focus, the terrible bosses who helped speed up our transition to a different job or career. The nice thing about my Thank-You Project is that no one knew I was doing it, so I could choose to send or not send a letter and still get all those juicy gratitude/happiness benefits, either way.
So I added a few names to my list, the exes who had really impacted my life in a lasting way, despite whatever reasons we’d had for ending our relationship. There was the guy who helped me figure out how to file taxes and handle my mean landlady when I lived abroad in his home country. There was the guy who took an interest in my career and encouraged me to negotiate for more salary, taking a bunch of air out of the tires of my Imposter Syndrome in the process.
Sure, Guy 1 was also so uptight that he once asked for a fish knife at a tiny taqueria. And Guy 2 once said, “I used to think your eyes were too small and close together, but now they’re one of my favorite things about you.” Um, thanks? Oink oink.
But writing all these unsent letters to people with whom my final moments may have been spent feeling sad and/or angry gave me something magical: a chance to reframe my memories of them with tenderness, appreciating their better qualities.
And it wasn’t just about reframing memories of them, but of my younger self: it may have ended badly, but there had been something special about them at the start. I wasn’t crazy.
So there was I was, writing a letter I would never send and thinking back to this guy’s cold and impassive response to my frantic efforts to dissuade him from breaking up with me, over Ethiopian injera and terrible red wine on a rainy night just before graduation.
The rejection hurt at the time, but I recognize it now as an important stepping stone to where I am today: married to a guy with that unicorn combo of good looks, sense of humor, and brains.
Oh, and one bonus trait: he loves me right back.