Letter #1: Why the letters?
December 11, 2020
This letter is the first of what I believe will be a series of letters to you over the coming months. Most likely, you won’t read these until you’re a little older. But I want to write them to you now so that I can get all these words and emotions out as I am feeling them in order to ensure that my words are authentic, raw and real…to ensure that my stories and feelings don’t become polished, smoothed out or otherwise compromised as facts, feelings and stories tend to become with the passing of time.
As you read these words you are probably amused by the fact that I am actually writing you letters. In an age where communication often comes in the form of emojis, abbreviations that I still don’t understand (idk, ig, brb, kk, ty), 280 characters in a post, or a 15-second video, letters may seem completely archaic, or even absurd. We message our friends or each other with our heads down, staring into our phones — even when the person we are messaging is just upstairs or in the next room.
In our world today, we communicate with one another almost as quickly as we can think. In this time of exhilarating speed and rapidly-evolving technology, these letters will probably feel like a painfully slow, inefficient form of communication that interrupts your fast-paced life in a completely annoying, distracting manner. But that is the point.
My hope is that these letters are an annoying, distracting disruption that interrupts you for a time. I pray that they force you to stop for just a second, take a deep breath, and allow me to say things to you that I’ve wanted to communicate to you for five years now. My neglect in not communicating these things to you earlier is my failure as a father. I have been too wrapped up in myself and my own self-important busyness to share parts of me with you and let you know how much you mean to me. I hope to remedy that in part with these letters.
It was Mammy who first taught me the power of letters. She has written letters to me for years. In fact, as I write this, I am looking at a letter she wrote to your mom and me a couple weeks ago. Although at times, her handwriting is less decipherable than hieroglyphics, she always writes the best letters.
When I left our farm in West Virginia at age seventeen, she used to write a letter to me every single week. I’ll admit that in the beginning, I was pretty dismissive of these letters. I was too busy learning new things, meeting new friends and planning on ways that I would make my own impact on the world.
But over time, these letters began to be a comfort to me and a way to stay connected with my family as my adventures in life began to take me further and further away from home. The power of her letters reached their peak during my first combat tour in Iraq.
In the early days of the war, we didn’t get mail, but as the combat trains caught up, I began to get a steady flow of letters from her again. I’ll never forget the calming effect those letters had on me. After reading each one, I would sit with my back against the humvee tire and my rifle across my lap, tear off the cardboard backing of one of my MREs (the food you eat while you’re in the field during military operations) and write a quick note back to her and the rest of my family to let them know that I was still alive and kicking. These short, postcard-type notes never really included any serious reflections from me or description of what was actually happening, but I wanted to send a sort of “proof of life” back home to try to alleviate the worry that I knew everyone who loved me was wrestling with.
I specifically remember after one particularly difficult day, sitting in my shallow, hastily-dug fighting hole next to our humvee as I read one of her first letters. She was updating me on various challenges and victories in the lives of my brother and sisters. She talked about the farm, Dad, the chickens, and what they would be planting that year.
And then she wrote, “Today was a pretty good drying day.”
I pictured her out in the backyard hanging up the laundry on the clothesline as the wind gently rocked the black walnut trees back and forth over her head. I hadn’t slept in thirty-six hours. My clothes and boots under my chemical protective MOPP gear felt like they were literally rotting off my body in the hundred-degree heat. A sense of dread hung over the team as we thought about the next town we would be clearing ahead. But in that moment, as I read her letter, a peaceful sense of familiarity fell over me. Her words reminded me that there was a whole world happening outside of this war. That people were going about their lives back home and they would continue to do so after the war was over.
The words in Mammy’s letters grounded me and helped me get to know her and connect with her in ways I wasn’t able to as a kid growing up on the farm.
And that brings me now to why I am writing these letters to you.
In the letters that follow, I want to share with you who I am, what I’m all about and what drives me to do the work that I do. I’ve never been very good at letting people in, and over the last five years, I am aware that I’ve done a pretty crummy job of talking with you about my past, what I do, and why I do it. But I love you and your mom more than anything in the world, and that drives my desire to want to change. I want you to know and understand who I am and what makes me…well, me. Vulnerability is hard, but it is an important part of learning how to really love, and I promise you that I am going to do my best. To know and be known is fundamental in building trust and connection as a foundation for love to grow.
I want to share some lessons about life with you that were very painful for me to learn — pain I endured because I was blinded by arrogance, ignorance, or a harmful attitude of self-absorption. You will undoubtedly have to learn from your own missteps in your journey, but my hope is that you can at least avoid some of the traps I fell into along the way.
In these letters, I want to talk with you about the idea that is America and the promise that it represents. I want you to know the power of an idea to do good in the world. I want to share with you why I chose to fight for that idea — why I was willing to die for it. And I want you to understand this new mission that I am pursuing to help preserve and protect that idea.
It’s a confusing time in our country right now. It’s hard to figure out who to believe and who to trust. Misinformation and disinformation coming from all directions make it difficult to know what is real. In the middle of all that mess, I want to do my best through these letters to give you some anchors that you can hold onto.
I want you to see that truth is important — that finding it is hard, but worth the pursuit. Wrestling with what matters most and struggling to learn about, listen to and understand other people is how we grow and heal from wounds we inflict on one another.
I want you to know that real joy and fulfillment in life comes when we can put our own needs and wants aside and learn to truly love and serve others. Both fear and love are powerful forces at work in the world, but love has the strength to break fear and render it powerless.
I want you to know that America is worth believing in. We are in a tough, divided spot right now, but it is worth fixing — it is worth saving. I want to teach you that wearing the American identity isn’t just about a menu of freedoms and opportunities provided to us. Wearing the American identity also comes with a call and responsibility to help to preserve it, protect it, and do our part to make it better.
There’s so much I want to talk about and share with you. I’m excited to get started on this journey. Please have grace with me when I stumble and say the wrong thing (which I inevitably will). The ideas and issues I will talk about in these letters can be tough, but saying the hard thing and being open and willing to wrestle with ideas and perspectives that are different from my own is the straightest path to truth, growth and healing.
I am a flawed, broken man trying to learn to love you and your mom better each day. I will make mistakes, but I commit to growing through them along the way. Admitting our mistakes and learning from them is the first step in becoming stronger for ourselves and those we love. Thanks for your patience. Thank you for loving me, for listening to me, and for inspiring me to continue the fight for what is right every day.
And thank you for reading my letters.