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‘Stronger When We Touch’: How two Ohio friends got through a pandemic with poetry

Two women pose next to each other. They wear brightly colored floral shirts.
Lynette Peck
Cathy Cultice Lentes and Wendy McVicker are the authors of a new book of poetry, "Stronger When We Touch." It's a collection of letters they wrote to each other throughout the pandemic.

Four years ago this month, the state of Ohio shut down in response to an unprecedented global pandemic.

A year later, two friends in southeast Ohio, former Athens poet laureate Wendy McVicker and Meigs County poet Cathy Cultice Lentes, started sending each other letters of poetry.

They recently compiled those letters and published a book, called “Stronger When We Touch.”

It all started with an epistolary poetry class the two women took the first full winter of the pandemic, which pushed them to regularly correspond through letters.

There was a lot of uncertainty at the time, McVicker remembered.

“It was very, very unsettling on every level,” she said. “There was the whole, huge worldwide health crisis. People were feeling very intensely about social justice and injustice, and all of that was battering at us when we didn't have many of our usual ways of trying to keep our balance.”

Missing You.mp3
Wendy McVicker and Cathy Cultice Lentes read the first poems they wrote to each other.

On top of that, like many Ohioans, Cultice Lentes was dealing with personal changes.

“I was caring for my 93-year-old father and trying to transition him from the home I grew up in to an assisted living situation when it was safe, and then, going through decades of things that have been saved in my childhood home,” she said. “So the past, the present and a possible future, at least for me, were all colliding at the same time.”

Poetry as a ‘lifeline’

To cope with the unprecedented time, McVicker and Cultice Lentes turned to poetry.

“That really did feel like a lifeline,” McVicker said. “It was a question of some kind of emotional survival.”

On the mornings she received a letter, she would make a cup of coffee or tea and read the poem on her rocking chair.

The book cover for "Stronger When We Touch" features a picture of trees reflected in water.
Cathy Cultice Lentes
The cover of Wendy McVicker and Cathy Cultice Lentes' new book, "Stronger When We Touch."

“When we didn't have much structure in our lives because we weren't doing our ordinary things, it gave me exactly the structure I might have wanted,” she said. “I felt that I could stay alive and keep growing during a time when that seemed very difficult.”

For Cultice Lentes, the poems were a form of connection, when contact with others was limited.

“I live on my own and I'm in the middle of woods,” she said. “And although those woods and those trees and the creatures that live around me are all a comfort in certain ways, it also increased my feeling of truly being on my own. So I think looking forward to Wendy's missives and her looking forward to mine, truly was a lifeline.”

‘Stronger when we touch’

Their book touches on the hardships of the pandemic and on the social justice struggles dominating the news throughout, but it also reflects on the peace of nature, bringing their southeast Ohio surroundings to life.

“I've always felt that nature was a balm to me,” Cultice Lentes said, “and particularly during the pandemic and the isolation and just the uncertainty of the time while we were writing this, nature was soothing to me.”

“It was heartening too, while all this chaos was going on in the human world, that nature was just carrying on, doing the things that nature does,” McVicker said. “I felt very bad for people who were stuck in cities during the pandemic. I was very grateful that I could walk out my door and be around trees and by the river. It was truly sustaining.”

Wendy McVicker and Cathy Cultice Lentes read the set of poems they titled their book after — “Stronger When We Touch.”

The trees were so sustaining, McVicker said, that they actually inspired the poetry book’s title: “Stronger When We Touch.”

Just like trees, she said, people do better when we touch.

Now that their book is published, the two women hope it inspires others to connect.

“We're often seen as solitary people, writing in our little rooms, but really language is for connecting with people,” McVicker said. “We each wrote a letter to the reader in this book, and we invite readers to start up their own conversations. We're all stronger when we touch.”

Erin Gottsacker is a reporter for The Ohio Newsroom. She most recently reported for WXPR Public Radio in the Northwoods of Wisconsin.
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