The first letter
London, 10. January 2020
Dear reader of this letter, and, hopefully, writer of another,
I hope this letter finds you well. When we last spoke, I promised to send you some more detailed notes on the dementia letter project I am envisioning. Perhaps you remember; I came across a book called Titaantjes waren we, comprised of 75 letters of Dutch authors to their younger selves. The letter collection holds personal stories, reflections and ways of dealing with regrets, time passed, and knowledge and consolation imparted backwards through time. Besides finding it an immensely inspiring read (which I wholeheartedly recommend to all those who read Dutch!) it led me to dream about its twin: a book of letters to a future self.
Letters are, of course, quite a specific genre of writing. A letter as I see it is both a part of, as well as making a relation; a carrier of messages, of emotions. Some letters have started off being personal, and ended up as a historical document, or even as poetry. A letter is like a container of solidified thoughts, which may (as evidenced in the box in my mother’s basement full with letters that my grandparents wrote to one another over a lifetime) long survive their author. Letters bridge and fold time – the time of writing and the time of reading, sometimes again and again.
Having worked in the field of dementia for six years, I got excited by the idea of a collection of letters to future selves with dementia. I know – not the most appealing thought, our own future with dementia, but that is precisely the point. In my PhD research I found that ‘our’ society (I say ‘our’ from my vantage point as a Dutch and German national, but I find it holds true more generally; it certainly includes the United Kingdom and America) lacks positive imaginaries of a life with dementia. In other words, in our collective imagination a future that is good that includes dementia is unthinkable. And thus, although people generally know that, at least to some degree, we are all privy to developing dementia, it is easier not to think about it. That is why I feel that a collection of letters to our future selves with dementia may not be an easy one to compile, but an urgent one precisely for that reason: it could open up ways of thinking about the future without wishing dementia away. It shall be a collective effort of ‘thinking the future with dementia in’.
When I say ‘thinking’ I explicitly mean this as not limited to thought experiments alone. I feel strongly about the effects of words, stories and imaginaries of our everyday lives, and indeed, our future. ‘We have an obligation to speculate’, said a call for papers in my inbox this year… While I don’t mean to oblige you at all, I do want to ask you: would you be willing to write a letter to your future self with dementia?
I promise you to find all answers understandable! When I asked one of my friends whether he would consider writing a letter, he was reluctant until I assured him that, of course, his future self with dementia is just one of many possible future selves. In no way do I wish to condemn him, or you, to writing a letter that makes you feel like this particular future is now unavoidable. Having said that, perhaps there is something to gain. My friend and PhD student Els Roding, whom I subjected to this experiment early on in the process of conceiving it, told me how writing the letter allowed her to be kind to herself: ‘Who could be mean to an old lady with dementia?’ she asked rhetorically. And my colleague and friend Hannah Cowan said the free writing generated inspiration for her: “It hit so many good themes!” she wrote after writing her letter.
So, hoping you will consider writing one too, I will now attempt to write up the brief you’ve asked me for when I first told you about the project. I have been thinking a lot about what such a brief should say. The truth is, the more I think about it, the less I know what to tell you. What length does a letter have? What should it say? If I stipulate a length and requirements for its content, would it retain the openness that separates a letter from an assignment, an essay? If I say what I envision the content to be, would it not steer you too much in one particular direction, specifically the direction I would write my letter into? Would I end up with too many similar letters, or is that not possible, and am I overthinking it?
However, I also feel that choosing to therefore not tell you anything at all would leave you with all the same uncertainties you have asked me to take away by writing a brief. So I shall go with practical reasonings, hoping you’ll read them as guidelines, and never as limitations.
I will start by saying something about who I envision our readers to be. Unlike standard letters, perhaps, which are commonly addressed to a particular person or group of people, I will hopefully make our letters accessible to a wide readership – ranging from academics interested in dementia, time, futures, hope, possibilities and potentialities, speculation, selfhood, storytelling and a whole variety of topics we will discover through writing and reading the collection, to people whose lives are touched by dementia in one way or another, family and professional carers included, and all others who are simply interested in reading them.
Initially - and only, of course, with your permission - I will post them on a website that I will set up for the project. Once there are a few, I hope to convince a publisher to turn the collection into a book, perhaps with one or a few added (academic) reflections on aforementioned and new themes, perhaps with lessons for dementia care practice, or perhaps with a simple introduction that will explain the origins of the project to a lay audience, but leave the letters to speak for themselves.
Writing for such an audience means that the letter should not be too long. Does three pages sound reasonable as a maximum? Again, don’t let this keep you from writing a letter comprising only twenty words, or no words at all. Sometimes things do not need so many words, right?
Writing for an audience beyond the receiver - your (future) self - also means that some of the most intimate details may not find a comfortable place in the letter. Please share only what you are comfortable to share with a wide readership. If you wish to challenge yourself, you could ask what the reader could take away from your letter, but that, too, is optional.
Regarding the content, I stick to wanting to say as little as possible. I tried writing a letter myself – I found it hard to start it, but then I found a way. Saying what that looked like here, I feel, could orient you too much to the themes I encountered, and thus foreclose your own. But perhaps I can share that I found joy in playing with words, and with temporalities, while also feeling productively confronted with uncertainties and anxieties that are so core to why I feel this project is relevant. So by way of trying to say nothing more, I encourage you to ask yourself: what would you like to tell your future self? Can you imagine being that future version of yourself, and what you would like to read then?
Then: bear in mind it is a letter. This frees you of the usual conventions that plague academics, and probably other professionals alike. There is finally no need for references! But of course: if you want to use references, feel free.
Lastly, I think it’s important to say that what I am asking you to do, is an impossible task. So please, do not take it too seriously. Experiment. Fail, and try not to mind too much. Have fun. Ultimately, a letter is something personal, and therefore there is no right or wrong way to write it. I sincerely hope you will find the same joy in writing as I did.
As for the collection: Every time I try to delineate who the authors should be of the letters in the collection (dementia scholars, disability scholars, anthropologists working on ageing, social scientists or even academics more generally, care professionals, teachers?) I come up with reasons why yet a wider ‘writership’ (as a twin to the collection’s broad ‘readership’) would be better... So I asked myself, and I now ask you: would it not be wonderful if as many people as possible were to write a letter to the version of their future self who lives with dementia? To that end, I would love it if you were to send this letter on to others who you think would be interested in engaging in such letter writing. Let’s see where that takes us!
I look forward to hearing from you.
All the very best for now,
P.S. I am happy to correspond about any doubts, concerns or ponderings you may have.