The Intimate Hand

Response to Daily Prompt: Handwriting

In these days of digital communication, it is a rare and joyous occasion when I receive a hand-written letter. It is far more personal than a typed letter of cold, perfectly-formed characters lying inert on stark white paper with a signature scrawled at the end. But even these have more intimacy than an e-mail or—worse—a  text message of ‘LOL’ or ‘OMG.’ No. Except for face-to-face, person-to-person conversation, handwriting is the only form of communicating that conveys the innate character of the other person as an integral part of the message.

I treat a hand-written letter, with its pen and ink, as a huge gift of someone’s time and affection. Such letters begin with someone’s desire to tell me something. Their heart’s desire becomes a thought, leading to an impulse to pick up a pen and sheet of paper. And then their fingers grasp the pen, their hand moves in obedience to the commands of their head and heart. Ink flows across the sheet of paper, across the watermarks, across time and space in distinctive cursive lines, a weaver’s tapestry embracing me in thoughts and emotions.

The joy of a handwritten letterl
The joy of a handwritten letter.

When the postman leaves the envelope in my box, I open it with feelings of expectation, of joy, a feeling of being chosen, special, because someone made the effort to write a message to me instead of banging it out hastily on a computer. Their fingerprints, their DNA, is on the paper, in the words as much as the ink. Handwriting is to the essence of personal communication what scent is to the identity of a flower.

Even without a signature, I know who wrote the letters in the family collection I curate for eventual donation to the historical society. My grandfather’s letters—hastily typed on cheap paper with two fingers of each hand—link skipped letters together with inked lines. His typed-over errors are interlaced with written corrections and annotations. Grandpa’s handwriting was as hasty as his typing because all must be done yesterday. He could never get to the mail box fast enough.

Dad's writing.
Dad’s writing.

My Dad wrote the way he walked, worked, and swam in strong, graceful pen strokes slanted forward along even lines. His autography has a rhythm as visually distinctive as his walk. He wrote factually, reporting, narrating and describing the look of things, the course of the action. His extroversion shone through with nary a trace of personal reflection. It’s a writing style he learned from his father, a newspaper editor, and then honed as a sports stringer in high school and college.

My mother's hand.
My mother’s hand.

Mom’s writing slanted back on itself in open loops. Her hand moved across the page in short bursts, pausing now and then to think, ponder, then back up and rephrase. She wasn’t given to reportage; she wrote repartee, playing with the ideas and words as if in direct conversation. That’s how her mind worked, that’s how she talked, that’s why people loved her. She often sprinkled French words and phrases here and there in letters to her brother and aunt. That’s the mark of an educated woman from an upper class family, ‘n’est pas?’

My uncle's autography.
My uncle’s autography.

My uncle—Mom’s brother—seldom penned a letter but when he did, he drew his words more than wrote them. He was an artist who held his pen between his thumb and fingers as if it were a brush and then dabbed the words on the page with a idiosyncratic calligraphy in keeping with his other eccentricities. Like my mother’s letters, he wrote informally, as if living in the moment, writing for emotional effect rather than merely relay information.

My brother's script.
My brother’s script.

Schools stopped teaching cursive penmanship several decades ago and contemporary college students don’t write cursive and many can’t read it. This is a problem for those who need to read handwritten documents. I learned to write cursive in grade school but my daughters didn’t. My eldest writes by printing in a distinctive style and so does my younger brother. My own writing has assumed a distinctive form and style over the years. Though distinctive it is legible—at least when I’m not in a hurry. Like my father’s hand, my writing slants forward, it’s patterns rhythmic but the letters are sharper and as much drawn as written.

In my work as a historian, I have read thousands of letters written by hundreds of people. No two scribblers have the same style. Each one has penmanship that reflects their personality—at least I associate the personality with the autography—which is how I know the deceased. And that brings me to what we are losing in the age of digital communication. (And you may say—oh, there he goes, talking about ‘the good old days.’) Communication written by hand conveys something that writing by a machine can never convey. When my Dad was a legislator, he often dictated personal letters out of convenience. The ‘personality; that came through dictation wasn’t the one I knew from handwritten letters.

My writing.
My writing.

When I want to express what is deepest inside, I must write in longhand. The kinetic connection of fingers, hand, arm, brain and heart releases whatever truth lies waiting to be told. Typing or writing on my laptop throws a veil over my feelings and my expression is weaker, more qualified, less true. Only in writing longhand can I write what is most true.

You may disagree but, before you do, try writing longhand and notice the difference in what you feel, and the power of the words you use to say it.

 

 

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Days of Giving Thanks

Late November. This is the perfect season for a day of thanksgiving – at least in Minnesota. Autumn is over, except on the calendar. The day for giving thanks comes at the end of harvest, as it should. Now the season’s harvest of corn, oats and soybeans – the fruits of considerable cost, risk, and sweat – was secure in the bins and cribs. Unless snow came early, we usually finished plowing most of the stubble. November days are cold, the sky is cloudy most of the time, occasional skiffs of snow blow through and winter lurks just over the western horizon. It’s the kind of weather that draws us closer to each other. Thanksgiving Day punctuated our year far more than did Christmas. Continue reading “Days of Giving Thanks”

In response to The Daily Post’s writing prompt: “Pens and Pencils.”

Nothing fills me with greater joy and anticipation that finding a letter in my mailbox, the kind of letter addressed by hand in ink, bearing the return address of someone I know. These days I see fewer and fewer of such missives and I wonder what will happen to the art of writing with intimacy. What will happen to the tete-a-tete created solely for the eyes and heart of another person?

My daughters are now grown, one lives in California, the other in New York, and they communicate mainly by text, e-mail, and cell phone. Yet no message from them gives me as much pleasure as a birthday or Father’s Day card with a handwritten note, often silly, telling me how much they love me, and how happy they are I am a part of their lives. Although I wouldn’t doubt their love if they typed the messages, yet the expression would lack the intimacy, the personal touch of a hand holding a pen, a hand on an arm that is moving carefully to express what is beating in the heart.

As our family’s historian, I work my craft by reading other people’s mail. The oldest letter in our family collection dates from 1847. All are written in ink of various shades, some dark, some faded, laid on paper by different hands. Some of the family wrote with harsh, forward-leaning slants; others wrote with short rounded loops, and still others wrote stems on their letters that rose high and dove low. I have spent many evenings with these letters until I know each writer just by looking at their cursive.

Reading my parents’ letters written in New Jersey just before World War II, I know them anew from their penmanship, the length of the letters, and how quickly they answered them. Mail traveled faster in those days with twice-daily city deliveries. As young adults in love, they wrote constantly, feeling anguished when a letter wasn’t answered within a day.

My mother wrote personal, idiosyncratic letters that was repartee on paper. There isn’t much reportage of the ‘news’ as much as it was a conversation. Sometimes she laced her billets-doux with French phrases. A week after my mother and father met for the first time, she wrote a friendly note describing her ‘new cream gray 1940 Plymouth sedan’ and urged him to ‘come up soon and see it, if not me. I think we could have fun. Forget about the fact that I’m two years older than you are,’ she continued, ‘and you don’t bore me, so there!’ A year later, shortly before their engagement, she wrote what became a prophetic letter to my father while visiting in Minnesota: ‘Being out here is certainly wonderful and it’s really pretty in June. I’ve been thinking I’d like to move out here someday. Maybe I’ll buy a farm and adopt a couple of kids and just move in.’ Seven years later, we moved to a Minnesota farm.

Dad’s family, on the other hand, wrote letters reporting family ‘news’ the inverted paragraph style that read like the copy my grandfather edited as a newsman. These ‘family letters’, typed in quadruplicate with carbon paper, contain only ‘the news fit to print’ for a dispersed family. Even when grandfather wrote a personal letter, he typed it (his handwriting was illegible), much drained of any emotional content.

Among the oldest letters in our family are those written by Samuel Searl, my great-great-great grandfather, an itinerant Methodist minister and a farmer. Largely self-educated, he wrote well-turned phrases in a firm, flowing hand in dark blue ink. In his words I sometimes think I hear him in the pulpit; at other times I’m deeply moved by the intimacy of his letters to Herman, my great-grandfather, who was then a rebellious youth. He began by saying he wanted to devote ‘a few hours of leisure to another chat with you’, and asked Herman ‘what do you mean to do or mean to be, a man or a mouse, a knave or a fool, what heights does your imagination climb to?’ Writing to Herman’s mother, he commented on the boy’s photo, remarking – prophetically as it turned out – that his ‘countenance carries the mark of bold and daring speculations and enterprises that build high castles without climbing the hill of science’.

On my desk I keep a small, note written by my father during the last months of his life. His once strong, and distinctive cursive had shrunk to feebler characters bearing only a faint resemblance to the hand I have known for decades. He closed his short note with: ‘Like the color of this paper, I’m beginning to fade, too.’ His approaching death wasn’t news to any of us. We had talked about his prognosis many times and knew what he wanted. We all knew his death was a matter of a month or two. But the hand-written note, the scratchy lines written in an unsteady hand, spoke volumes and revealed my father’s spirits in ways that words alone couldn’t if written on a keyboard that would have all but wiped away his personality in his last month.

E-mail is a blessing, my Twitter account is interesting, I use Facebook to post pictures, but I feel no genuine emotions emanating from an emoji or thumbs up, or text shortcuts like LOL or OMG. None of these convey the heart of the person who sent them. They are too impersonal and the emotions behind them must be inferred. My point is: When we move away from the pen as the means of personal communication, we place an impersonal veil between us and the person we are reaching out to.

Letters are particularly human creations, and personal, hand-written letters are infused with a tender human quality. It is the tenderness of the heart flowing through the body to the arm, the hand, and finally to the pen as it moves across the paper. Putting pen to paper is to put our hearts on display. Each stroke of the pen reveals the writer; I reveal my personality, state of mind, and the sentiments in my heart that go beyond words. I know my correspondents by the kind of pen, the size of the nib or ballpoint, the type of paper, its color, and texture, and the style of their cursive. Pen and paper and ink are choices the writer makes, and they add detail and texture to how we know each other through letters. These physical characteristics of our correspondence are manifestations of ourselves. They are the human touch.

In response to The Daily Post’s writing prompt: “New.”

Before going to Mexico in October, I started a blog of my experiences rather than keep a journal. Instead of writing privately for myself, I posted my experiences and reflections publicly as if I were a ‘foreign correspondent’ to my readers. Every author loves to be read, and writing for others invites their reactions. Writers love readers’ comments just as actors and musicians live for the applause. The responses keep me going.

My blog – ‘Adventures in Midlife Spanish’ – is aimed at adults who dream about learning Spanish but believe it’s too late to start; that they’re too old to learn. I show them they can learn and offer practical suggestions to accelerate or encourage their learning. Language and culture are inseparable, and my posts reflect on aspects of Mexican culture from the standpoint of a norteamericano with a foot planted in the cultures on either side of the Río Grande.

While in Mexico, I wove together themes from the history, customs, and meaning of El Día de los Muertos or Day of the Dead, the celebration of Independence Day and its links to the on-going political protests, the role of the Virgin of Guadalupe in Mexican identity and a note of praise for the ubiquitous but essential tortilla. From Mexico it is easier to better understand my native culture when I see it from a new perspective. From there I am free to consider beliefs I haven’t questioned before.

After returning from Mexico, I started a second, concurrent blog called ‘Loose Leave Binder – Reflections on Thoughts, Words, and Deeds.’ The title reflects its looser, more eclectic themes. This is where I post pieces not related to learning Spanish or Mexican culture. It is a place where I can try out ideas and see what others think of them.

Now retired, I’ve returned to writing the way I’ve always wanted to write: To write for the pleasure of individual readers rather than to advance the causes of institutional employers. After thirty-five years of writing impersonal ‘white papers’ and ‘issue briefs’ for various corporate and government organizations, I’m free to write personally without an impersonal mask of dispassionate omniscience. Blogging invites a more immediate, spontaneous style of thinking and writing; it’s a style I had to re-learn in the place of habitual objectivity and self-censorship.

Words are like a mob of extroverts; once I put them down on the paper or screen, they immediately invite other words to associate with them. Then this gang of associated words take me to places I hadn’t thought of going to. That’s the thrill of writing, I don’t know what I’ll produce until I’m done. Blogs seem to write themselves and I’m simply a channel.

Blogging is my discipline. With every post, there are decisions to make that will shape my work. How often to post? What subjects to cover? Should I create a connected series or follow my whims? What is my ‘tone’ of voice – didactic, conversational, or meditative? These and other questions shape my writing, provide continuity, and set a standard against which I measure my work.

The joy of blogging is like going to a high school reunion; it’s a party where I encounter the English language again as I would a boyhood pal, we are new to each other, and yet, we are familiar with much to say.