The Letter Incident

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote a long and detailed letter to my daughter, A. She’s 22, living at home, and working instead of schooling. It’s all good stuff, but the day of the letter I was a little incensed by the state of her room; in particular, the number of water bottles accumulating beneath her bed.

Listen, the pandemic has done a number on our kids. I get it. I understand that it upended her college life–no more sleeping through classes, no more stumbling home from the bars, just boring, day after day, school from bed. A tends to be a little inward to begin with, so the forced exile from normal life has been a trial.

But seriously, why were there so many empty plastic water bottles under her bed? Had she forgotten where the trash can was? Was she sick in some obscure way that would cause her to defy the customary placement of used water bottles? I mean, wtf was I missing? I had to be missing something, and if not, it was simply rude.

Spinning. That’s where I was when I wrote the letter.

I like writing letters when I need to confront someone about their bad behaviors and offer a plan on how to fix them. It’s much easier than sitting down for a talk. I tend to get flustered during the conversation part. I guess I prefer dispensing wisdom to debating differing opinions.

So the letter. After a loving introduction to some of the problems (water bottles under the bed among them) I wanted to address, I offered up a five-point plan. Five detailed bullets I believed if implemented into A’s life would find her healthy, happy, and on her way to fulfilling spring and summer. I was rather proud of my work. A 54-year veteran of this confusing old world, I had so much good advice to to offer.

I immediately attached the letter to a text message and got back to work. I figured we’d have a lovely discussion when I got home–that we’d dive further into some practical tips to help A cultivate better habits. She’d be grateful and I’d be graceful. We’d sip cherry blossom tea and later we’d take a walk in the late afternoon sun.

She wasn’t happy at all. She didn’t want to drink tea and congratulate me on my well-thought out and easy-to-apply advice. Not one bit. In fact, she said, “You’re my mom. Not my doctor or my counselor.”

She went on to explain that the water bottles were not a sign of some unknown illness, but a symptom of laziness. “When I finish drinking one, I just sort of toss it over my shoulder and it falls behind my bed,” she explained while flipping her hand back to physically show me what that looked like.

“We’re all fucked up, Mom,” she said. “I mean, you drink too much. Dad’s got the pot thing. C only eats fast food. You’re right. I shouldn’t throw my water bottles under my bed. I’ll stop that, but don’t write me letters telling me all the things you think I should do. It makes me feel bad. It makes me feel like I’m NOT okay.”

I got hung up on the “you drink too much thing” for a minute (is a bottle of low-cal wine a day too much?). But then I thought about it for a minute.

Anne Lamott does this thing she calls WAIT. WAIT stands for Why am I talking? She says she uses it with her grown son. I think it’s a good one. I’m going to start using it too. A doesn’t want or need a bunch of unsolicited advice. And when I ask her a million times a day if she is okay, what else would she derive from that than I don’t think she’s okay.

She doesn’t need fixing. She’s not broken.

And there’s a silver lining to this story. I was talking to a dear friend about the letter incident, and she laughed and said, “The next time you feel the need to write A a letter filled with your precious advice, go ahead and write it, and then please, please, please, send it to me. I’m 54 years old, and I can appreciate a letter full of wisdom about how to live a better more fulfilling life. In fact, I want it.”

We laughed and laughed and laughed.

She didn’t know she’d be getting a letter the next day.