Friday, May 18, 2007

To Have and To Hold

One of my Internet friends recently posted about her experience of finding a stack of letters that she had written to her grandparents when she was a little girl. Judging by the excerpts she offered, the letters were poignant, funny, very affectionate, and must have been a cherished treat for the recipients, who wisely and fortunately kept them.

Somehow I just don’t think a stack of e-mails would have meant as much as the pages and pages of scrawled handwriting from a 7-year-old.

You know you’re getting older when you start complaining about the lost values of the good old days, denouncing what society and time have done to our old-fashioned traditions and art forms. I guess I’m joining the chorus of people bemoaning the loss of the handwritten letter - even as I obviously have to reluctantly admit that I am almost exclusively a keyboard writer. It’s not that I don’t want to send handwritten letters - I wish I could. The fact is that after all the years I’ve been typing my correspondence, my penmanship has become virtually illegible! What is that saying? Use it or lose it? As part of that scenario, I have obviously learned to value immediate transmission over days of postal transit, clarity over character, and - my favorite - ability to edit with a few keystrokes over erasing, drawing lines through, or - horrors! - starting the whole thing over.

But in the process of changing the way I communicate, I regret what I have lost. I don’t have letters I wrote to my grandparents, but I have letters I wrote home from college, and letters my parents wrote to me while I was away during my one-year attempt at formal higher education. Around the time I first started this blog, as a part of our simplification process, I chose to go through all the things I had saved from my past to weed out what was not extremely meaningful, and I ended up posting about my dad’s letters to me. They were written on church bulletins, which, of course, lacked enough space to write a normal letter, so he would write in circles around the lines of text until there was no space left. (He was a choir director, and our lives revolved around church when I was growing up; he knew the bulletins were as much “news” as his circuitously written comments.) I get a thrill every time I see something in my dad’s handwriting. I recognize it immediately. He made every cursive capital “E” with somewhat of a flourish, and frequently he signed things with his initials, “iet” - then circled it as one entity. It’s hard to do that on a computer. On some of the bulletins, my mom even wrote a sentence or two, in her own distinctive handwriting.

When I was in the beginning stages of wanting to know everything about Abraham Lincoln (probably in junior high), I bought a reproduction of the Gettysburg Address in Lincoln’s now familiar handwriting. The printed version is just not the same. Ed and I watched a documentary on Mark Twain last night - and marveled at how centuries of authors have written their books in longhand, word after word, page after page. I can barely make a legible grocery list.

Today, I send e-mails (which contain information that can be saved, but not in an aesthetically pleasing way) and make phone calls (which are only saved if I leave a message), and, of course, I post in this blog, which is, in a paradoxical way, the most permanent and transient of communications. I type out my Christmas letter every year, and I have concluded that I stick a family picture in each envelope as a personal touch to lessen my guilt over the accompanied computer-generated correspondence. I make my own greeting cards, it’s true. But I make them with software and I print them off on my ink-jet printer. My real kudos go to people like my daughter-in-law, who does hands-on scrapbooking with paper and glue and - yes - real handwriting. There's something appealing to be able to hold a message in your hand, inhale its accompanying scent, run your fingers over the words, and maybe even to pick it up again and again to read with renewed pleasure.

Ed says every gift comes with a curse and vice versa, and herein lies the dilemma. I generate with care my blog posts every week, in the same old font, the same old format, with the only individuality being in the words and thoughts themselves. My handwriting is not involved. I don’t sign my initials and circle them, nor do I craft the eccentric capital E’s that occasionally I have done through the years, subconsciously as a tribute to my father. Nobody will print off my blog on pretty stationery and wrap its pages up in velvet ribbon and put it in their treasure chest for posterity. Yet, without access to this form of communication, how would I have had my words read in China by Doug? How would I have come in contact with some of my Internet acquaintances that I have met through this medium? Without the ability to craft essays with the ease of a keyboard and screen, would I have had the self-discipline to sit down and write my thoughts out in longhand on a regular basis? I think not.

I was asked recently if I anticipated that my blog would serve as a legacy for my grandchildren. I certainly hope so. But this week I'm wondering whether I shouldn’t throw a few handwritten letters in the pot, too. Now that's something to really "hand" down.