The Love and Salt interview: Why letter writing still builds friendship and unlocks our spiritual vision

Click the cover to visit it's Amazon page.

Click the cover to visit this book’s Amazon page.

Christianity was founded on letters. St. Paul’s letters carried the faith into the world years before the four Gospels were published. Much later, America was founded on letters, which is why John Adams is associated with the current National Card and Letter-Writing Month. In the civil rights struggle, a letter from a Birmingham jail 50 years ago ignited a national movement for justice. (Read more about the 50th anniversary of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous letter in a second story, today.)

Recently, two American women—one who lives in Illinois and one in Virginia—published a collection of their letters, spanning three years and some tumultuous changes in their lives. Their project is a unique window into the spiritual lives of American women—wives, mothers and professionals in their 30s. While American women are the greatest consumers of spiritually themed media—books, magazines and websites—they usually find publishers offering them a heavy diet of older male voices. Instead, Amy Andrews and Jessica Mesman Griffith wrote their own inspirational Christian classic from scratch.

At ReadTheSpirit, we are not alone in praising Love & Salt. Gregory Wolfe, founder of Image magazine and a leading talent in American spiritual letters, described the book this way: “There are a lot of good books about the spiritual life out there, but one of their drawbacks is that they tend to organize experience into categories and abstractions and steps. … What if a book about God was something more like a conversation between two thoughtful people recording the messy vicissitudes of everyday life, including marriage and children, circling around important topics without schematizing them, sharing what they observe and read and care about? That’s precisely what we get in Love and Salt.

TODAY, rather than tell you more about Love and Salt, ReadTheSpirit Editor David Crumm talks with Amy and Jessica. Much as they do in their letters, they are able to share personal insights into what makes their three-year journey both unique—and universal.

HIGHLIGHTS OF OUR INTERVIEW ON ‘LOVE & SALT’
WITH AMY ANDREWS & JESSICA MESMAN GRIFFITH

DAVID: Fans of TV series and movies about women will be surprised to learn that your letters rarely mention shopping; your letters contain a lot about relationships, but not about sex; and your letters spend a lot of time focused on something that is rarely mentioned in Hollywood—your spiritual lives. What’s remarkable is that you two chose that theme and stuck to it for three years.

Amy Andrews, photo courtesy of the publisher.

Amy Andrews, photo courtesy of the publisher.

AMY: The basic premise was that we were going to write letters, telling each other stories about the state of our souls—stories about how we came to that place in our lives, each day.

JESSICA: We certainly didn’t set out to write a book! Honestly, I’m shocked by this book every time I re-read it. We were just two people who started this conversation through letters. The providential nature of what we tried to do is shown in how important our friendship would become. We were serious about writing letters as we started out, but we had no idea what our friendship ultimately would mean to us—or how much our growing faith would mean to us.

We were surprised that that, all of a sudden, what we were doing in writing and mailing these letters became a really important part of our lives. Eventually, these letters became something we had to do to survive. You can see in our early letters that we were wondering about our faith, pondering some theological ideas—then, as time passed, we began living out our faith. I’m still blown away by how this story unfolded. I lived through it. I wrote half the letters. But it’s as though the book wrote itself through all we experienced together.

DAVID: We won’t include spoilers to this interview, but I can say that your phrase—“all we experienced together”—includes intense heartbreak at one point in the overall story.

Before we talk further about what happened, I’m sure lots of readers are going to want to follow your example. So, let’s explain how you did this: You two met in a writing workshop and you both were interested in the Catholic Church. Jessica already was Catholic; Amy was going through the process to officially become a Catholic. Jessica, you agreed to be Amy’s sponsor as she formally joined the church. As part of your dual journeys both into writing and into the church, you decided to write these letters back and forth starting in Lent 2005.

What were the first steps? Did you go out and purchase stationery? Were you interested in fountain pens? Old-fashioned typewriters?

LOVE AND SALT:
‘THE CONVERSATION WAS THE PRIMARY THING’

AMY: We never used email. These letters were either typed or handwritten and the majority of them were handwritten.

DAVID: Typed? I’ve been a journalist long enough that I actually started out using a typewriter like the drawing on the cover of your book.

AMY: No. We typed them on the computer, then printed them out before mailing them. But, we didn’t even want these letters to stay resident on our computers. Often, I got rid of the computer copies after they were printed. We wanted these to be physical letters, and we still have big boxes of them.

I was never enamored of beautiful stationery or special pens or anything like that. This was a big commitment to write so regularly to each other, so we needed to approach this like a workhorse. The conversation was the primary thing. I would grab whatever I could to write my next letter. I sent a few cards here and there but I often wrote on legal pads. Once, Jess wrote to me in crayon on some used construction paper, because she was sitting in her car and that’s all she could find.

JESSICA: I usually wrote on legal pads, too, because I had a stack of them in my office. When I started with this, I was a development officer at Notre Dame. I served as a ghost writer for the president in thanking various people who supported Notre Dame, and I wrote those letters first on legal pads.

So, it was natural for me to write to Amy that same way. Just reach for the legal pad. We agreed that this wasn’t a precious project. We didn’t choose special paper or fountain pens. We were so focused on the letters themselves that sometimes, yes, I did write on trash I had at hand.

At one point, my daughter was very young and had trouble getting to sleep, so like a lot of parents we would use the trick of driving her around until she would fall asleep. This was particularly true at naptime. One time I did that and was just sitting in the car, letting her sleep, and I found this old piece of construction paper. I didn’t have a legal pad handy, so that’s what I used for the next letter. And, no, even though there is an old-fashioned typewriter on the cover of the book, neither of us used one.

LOVE AND SALT:
INFLUENCE OF C.S. LEWIS AND THE INKLINGS

DAVID: Any of our readers who love Christian classics, including C.S. Lewis and the Inklings, will find kindred spirits in the two of you. Your book is a treasure trove of recommendations that you make to each other about terrific literary voices—mostly Christian writers. People will close your book with a wonderful reading list in hand from the books you two share. Here’s my question: Were you surprised to find the Inklings such an inspiration? I can’t imagine a more crusty bunch of older male academics. The Inklings were an honest to goodness “old boys club.” Yet, you two love these writers.

AMY: I grew up in an agnostic/atheist family, although my whole family now is Christian of some variety. One of the very important influences in my family was when my father started reading C.S. Lewis. I was then a senior in high school and he was reading Lewis’s The Abolition of Man. Then I became philosophically interested in C.S. Lewis, too. In college, I read tons of C.S. Lewis. I was interested in him as a thinker, then became enamored of all the Inklings. There was something so beautiful in these people coming together to talk about these ideas. These were Oxford dons who also wrote novels and children’s books for real people—not for other Oxford dons. They weren’t focused on small scholarship—they were focused on big ideas. I’ve referred to our exchange of letters as our own Oxford pub.

Jessica Mesman Griffith courtesy of the publisher.

Jessica Mesman Griffith courtesy of the publisher.

JESSICA: Yes, the Inklings are huge for us. They’re like role models. We want to be in that Oxford pub, talking about God and life and death and heaven and miracles. We crave that kind of serious intellectual engagement with faith that we see in the Inklings—and we also see their deep friendships. That was very appealing to us.

DAVID: I’m curious Amy, because you teach math now at Northwestern University, whether Lewis’s very logical style appealed to you. He has been both praised and criticized for the logic he tries to lay out in his Christian apologetics.

AMY: Interesting you would ask that. When I was in college, that’s exactly what I wanted: logic. I started out as an English major and then I began to study science and math and I wanted things to be rational. So, I would say, I used to love Lewis. But now I’m much more of a Tolkien fan. One of my favorite Tolkien pieces is his essay, On Fairy Stories. He essentially says: Ultimately what is true about life comes to us in story form.

DAVID: Yes, it’s a popular piece. As he reaches the end of that essay, he argues that the Christian message is such a vast, cosmic truth that the finite human mind is incapable of grasping the entire truth. So, we receive it in the form of stories. However, Tolkien says: “This story is supreme; and it is true. Art has been verified. God is the Lord, of angels, and of men—and of elves. Legend and History have met and fused.”

JESSICA: The Inklings were a mystical bunch. I enjoy the novels of Charles Williams and, among the Inklings, Williams was really out there. Just the other day, I was re-reading a portion of his Descent into Hell. Now, I’m not saying that I totally agree with everything Williams wrote, but he has a lot of interesting ideas. One of the ideas he writes about, and we see in the other Inklings as well, is this idea of bearing each other’s burdens. They were exploring a much deeper idea here of spiritually committing to help bear each other’s burdens. This idea appeals to me, because Amy and I don’t live in the same part of the country. So, how is it possible that we can try to bear each other’s spiritual and emotional burdens?

LOVE AND SALT:
CHOOSING TO FOLLOW IN THE STEPS OF RUTH AND NAOMI

DAVID: You also draw a lot from the Bible, including the central theme that runs through the entire book: “Where you go—I will go.” That’s the timeless line that comes to us from the first chapter of the book of Ruth. I mention this because, among the millions of small groups that meet coast to coast, many of them are “Bible studies” and the participants like to touch on biblical themes. Readers certainly will find that in many forms throughout this book. I could envision a really wonderful small-group series in which people would agree to read sections of your book, each week, and then prepare to begin writing letters as they complete the series. So, let’s talk for just a moment about Ruth and Naomi. You stumbled upon this passage of the Bible at the very beginning of your friendship and it has become an important touchstone throughout your friendship.

AMY: I’m very slow to say that anything is providential. But, it’s hard not to view our discovery of Ruth and Naomi at the beginning of our friendship as anything other than providence. We were walking around New York and talking. We wanted to find something to read together, so we stepped into a bookstore and we wound up with this story.

JESSICA: It was a gift. I don’t talk that way very often, but this was a gift—in some strange way we happened upon that story in that store full of books. We were walking around Manhattan and just enjoying talking with each other. We were not setting out to read the Bible together. But we were in this bookstore in Greenwich Village and she just happened to reach onto a shelf where there was a Bible. And, we just happened to end up with Ruth and Naomi.

It was only later that we even realized that reading scripture aloud is a traditional form of praying. We were just captivated by the story of Ruth and Naomi. We liked the idea of making a vow to each other as friends. The idea of one woman committing to a friendship with another woman is a very powerful idea. Then, as we went through this friendship—and encountered tragedy together—we would remember that day in the bookstore and it gave us a noble way of thinking about our friendship.

LOVE AND SALT:
‘WHERE THE REAL STORY BEGINS’

DAVID: I have to urge readers who have enjoyed this interview—and who click over to Amazon and buy a copy—to commit to reading the first third of the book. It starts slow. Your first letters are good reading, but those opening pages aren’t what would inspire someone to call a friend and start a discussion group about this book. It’s when you reach the middle of this book that you really see the larger power of this whole story. And, no spoilers here, but I have to say:

One of the big influences on my life is my late grandmother, Mabel Yunker, a towering figure of a churchwoman in northern Indiana. She had a saying that it took me well into my 50s to understand: “Pray when you don’t need it—so when you need it, you don’t have to pray.” I’d say that’s a central truth in your book.

AMY: I’ll be interested to see what Jessica has to say about this, because she lost her mother when she was 13 and grief has been a reality for her throughout her life. But for me, grief wasn’t so real. I had an awareness of mortality, but it was theoretical for me. As we started this friendship and these letters, it was a beautiful experience for us—but it was beautiful in a poetic, abstract way. We only realized later that we were doing all of this long before we understood the depth and the power of this practice. We didn’t know how much we would need this.

JESSICA: Yes, I appreciate your saying that to readers, David, because you have to follow this story and trust that the real story will begin for you, as a reader, where it truly began for us. Think of the opening portion of the book as our training for what would come later.

DAVID: And that’s a perfect set up, Jessica, for the final question: So, what comes later for you two in 2013 and beyond?

AMY: Well, I’m 42 and, yes, we have been writing letters ever since. But there are gaps in our letters now. Having small children around the house makes it harder to produce every day. Then, there was a nine-month period where we wound up living in the same place and it didn’t make as much sense to write letters. Will there be another volume of letters? Who knows. We had no intention of creating a book in the first place. So, I could say with fear and trembling: Yes, there might be another book of letters.

JESSICA: I’m 36 and I am a writer, and this is a weird position for me as a writer to be known for my letters. We wrote these letters without any intention of turning them into a book. That came later. But, as a writer, I don’t want us to become known as just “The Letter Writing Ladies.” I’m more interested in sharing our story and letting other people take inspiration and perhaps start writing themselves. We would love it if other people were moved to take up their pens, too.

Click on the book cover above to order a copy of Love & Salt.

(Read more about the 50th anniversary of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous letter in a second story, today.)

(This interview was originally published in readthespirit.com, an online magazine covering religion, values and cross-cultural issues.)

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