Friday, November 15, 2013
Saturday, September 22, 2012
Friday, March 4, 2011
I’m in my little mountain village this month of February, 2011, and am feeling even more isolated than usual—for the first time ever, my Internet server is down—it’s been four days now without a connection. So no emails for four days going in or out—nor can I get news of the world via the NY Times site and others.(We do not have television in our cottage, we rely on the radio and the computer.)
It makes me realize—if I needed to—how dependent I’ve become upon my Mac and its magical properties of connecting me instantly to the world, how it has become my main means of communication. The first thing I do in the morning is turn on the computer and check emails.
It didn’t use to be like that of course. Before Internet (and before Jonchères), the first thing I would do in the morning, often even before a cup of tea, would be to go down my four fights of stairs to see if I had any mail. I often did have letters (being an inveterate letter writer myself) and would happily leap back up the stairs with a letter or two for breakfast. Turning on the computer has replaced that trip down my Paris apartment stairway.
Yesterday, the fourth day without Internet, I became anxious about what I might not be receiving (I was expecting a translation to do) so François and I drove down our mountain (23 curves, 400 meters) to the nearest town—Die (pronounced Dee, not Die!). I’d been told there was a café there where WIFI was available. The café is on Die’s main little street and is charming—an old café in wood and chrome—and was open. We entered. Four ladies were knitting and chatting at one table, among them the owner. We got drinks and I turned on my Mac, and presto—in flew my messages from the past four days. I quickly checked Facebook too and there saw a comment from a friend of mine—actually the younger brother of one of my closest friends since childhood. John was lamenting about Facebook (on Facebook!), and even about emails, expressing regret for the demise of letter-writing!
I have these same regrets and this is why I decided to go back to my “Net-less” cottage and contemplate the lost art of letter writing.
But first, I must write about a rather amazing communication I received recently. I have a blog called Guri’s Great Granddaughter:
(http://gurigranddaughter.blogspot.com). I don’t actually do regular updates on it as I had originally intended—it’s not an on-going “journal”—but I do post pieces periodically as the mood takes me to write about one thing or another—pieces which are then automatically downloaded onto my Facebook page. As most of my readers are Facebook friends, I get comments to my writings there rather than through my blog. But in early January I received a message via my blog from someone I didn’t know who had stumbled upon it in looking up Jane Austen’s Persuasion (mentioned in one of my pieces). My correspondent introduced himself as Paul, French, 15 years old. He had read my blog, found it interesting, wondered if he might correspond with me. Surprised, I replied at once, and again received a message from Paul—he would like to correspond but not by email, rather by writing letters! In addition he told me he was very interested in Mail Art and had a blog on the subject!
I love Mail Art too—the practice of decorating one’s envelope, of making “art” of one’s letters, and have practiced this over the years with my artist calligrapher cousin Diana. I have innumerable beautiful envelopes from her, many of which I have saved, some of which I’ve even framed. (Diana and I were once great letter correspondents—before email!)
But I was astonished to find a fifteen-year old boy who wanted to write “real” letters and loved Mail Art! Not to mention Jane Austen! Astonished and delighted. We have so far exchanged two letters with one another—and have discovered more than letters in common, but also a love of great literature. We’ve just exchanged our respective “lists of favorite books.”
So John’s comment about letter writing, and Paul’s appearance in my life have made me want to write a new piece, this one about letters—ah, yes, for my blog and Facebook! (We can’t get away from the electronic media, no matter what we do!)
I began my epistolary career very young and my first correspondents were my two grandmothers, Grandma Dill and Grandma Duncan. I wrote to them both all of my life, but Grandma Dill was my first great correspondent, replying with long letters. (Grandma Duncan always wrote back too, but her replies were shorter, often written on cards with pictures of cats—her name was Catherine and everyone called her Kitty. I should add that I also corresponded with Grandfather Duncan who had a beautiful flowing handwriting and did the bulk of the family letter-writing.) Both grandmothers saved letters, meaning that later I found many of mine to them from over the years, precious inheritance! Here is the first letter of mine that I possess, letter written to both sets of grandparents—the exact same letter! This is the letter which begins my Letters and Journals (which by now runs volumes!). I was seven years old.
October 1951: Dear Grandmother and Grandfather, Angus and David are fine. I am in Miss Howell’s room. I like school. I would like you to come here. I hope you had a nice birthday. David has two teeth. Mother is making a new dress. There are lots of birds in the back yard. Angus is playing a game with David. Daddy will be in court today. Love, Nancy Jane Duncan
What I found interesting in this letter is that it is not a thank-you letter for birthday or Christmas gifts as many of the following letters were—but seems to be a spontaneous letter written to give information about myself and my family. I was in the second grade. There were three children at the time, myself and my two brothers Angus and David. I find it also interesting to note that I give information about each member of the family. It’s a short but very compact letter! Little Nancy Jane (Guri far up in the future) was already tasting the pleasures of writing.
(Let me add that even at this moment as I am writing this piece about letters, there are lots of birds in my front yard and on my terrace at the bird feeders! Birds seem to have been a constant in my life from early on!)
The next few letters are indeed thank-you letters. In each of them, I thank my grandparents for the specific gifts they sent. But again I do not neglect the family, relating what each person also received and in one I proudly add that I got all “A’s and B’s” on my report card”.
If letters are a dying art, thank-you notes and letters share the same unfortunate fate. I am not resigned over this. Thank-you letters were something that in the past were a part of learning the rules of courtesy and politeness—one always gives thanks for gifts or services received. If I wrote many thank-you letters (preciously conserved by my grandmothers!), it was certainly because my mother taught me to do so. And I was taught also by her example, for she was an excellent and thoughtful letter writer. I remember Christmas mornings, how Mother had a notebook and pen and how she wrote down gifts received and who they came from—in the confusion of present-opening, this was important, to know who sent what! Afterwards, we would all write our thank-you letters. I don’t have grandchildren but I do have nephews and nieces. Some of them were taught to write thank-you letters, others were not. I always noticed who did and who did not. However short the thank-you, it was always gratifying, to have that childish scrawl acknowledging Auntie Nance’s gift and, like my grandparents before me, I have saved them all. Silence to a gift seems very discourteous to me. But young people are not learning many of these “old fashioned” courtesies, even as most will never know what it is to write a “real letter.”!!! The slow and courteous pleasures of life have been replaced by “fast-food” pleasures, haste and hurry, impatience and neglect.
The August I was nine, I wrote another letter to my grandparents Dill, and what is interesting to me about this letter is that I mention an event that happened when my family was camping in the redwoods, how Mother, my brother Angus and I got “lost” during the night in the campsite, event which a few months later became my first school composition. Subsequently, I had the thrill of having my teacher select my composition to read out loud to the whole class. Two things here: first of all, I wrote about the event first in a letter. In other words, letters as preliminary “writing”, informal writing leading to more formal writing. And second, the thrill of hearing my words read out loud sealed my destiny—I would be a writer!
Here is that little composition:
The weird darkness closed in on us. My Mother, Brother and I were lost.
The swift stream was on our right side, the darkness of the forest was on our left. We were camping out that night in California in their pretty redwoods. We had gone to the campfire circle and were now coming back to go to bed. All the people had found their way through the darkness to their campsites. Our lantern was out. Even the stars were blotted out by the drifting fog. The wild creatures were hiding behind trees when we walked by, making ugly noises.
We finally saw a light. When we got nearer, we saw it was a neighbor’s camp. He quickly showed us our camp. We were so glad to get back. We saw that our daddy was already in his sleeping bag.
From then on, I wrote not only letters, but I tried my hand at stories, essays, poetry, and journal keeping (beginning my first journal at age ten). My letters to my grandmother Dill got longer and longer. I could always be sure of a prompt reply—and letter writers know that the pleasure of writing letters is only equaled by the pleasure of receiving them. Grandma Dill was a modern Granny, often typing her letters on her typewriter. She wrote as she talked, so that when you got a letter from Grandma, her voice was right in your ear, she came completely to life through her letters. As I got older, as I moved from place to place, a constant was Grandma’s letters following me. When I went to SE Asia for two years, I knew that in every Poste Restante, I would have a letter from Grandma, or two or three. When we went to Japan in 1989—Grandma was 91 then and having more and more trouble getting letters written—she still managed to figure out the complicated Japanese addresses I had sent her, her letters still followed me. I kept all Grandma’s letters, and later, I typed them all up onto the computer, and made a book of them for the family, calling it In Her Own Words. The letters span fifty years, and form a marvelous portrait of that marvelous grandmother of ours. But for the art of letter writing, my grandmother’s life would have been lost to us—but thanks to those letters, it’s all there on paper, and her grandchildren and great grandchildren can go to that book, and—Grandma is there! It’s her voice, her humor, her liveliness—captured by herself in the steady accumulation of letters written to her granddaughter and her daughter.
For her daughter Marijane, my mother, was my second great correspondent and a great correspondent of Grandma’s too. My correspondence with Mom began later of course, given that Mother and I were not separated until I was older. The first letters I can find written to my mother were from the summer I was sixteen and was living my first adventure. I had saved my babysitting money and that summer, went out to Illinois by myself (taking a four day train trip from Portland to Chicago) to visit my grandparents and relatives there. I wrote from Rushville, Illinois, home of my maternal grandparents, the little town where my mother grew up and which she loved so much. My first letter is informative and also teasing. I write about meeting one of my mother’s old friends there.
“Liz told me to tell you that their minister met LEROY (your old boyfriend!) in California and he is a big-wig in the Methodist Church now. I have found out some interesting things about you from the grandparents about your teen-age life that will be of use to me in the coming year. Too bad you have such gabby parents.”
I write about how my grandparents are “spoiling me rotten” and how I love it there. I ask for advice too—I am being taken to New York by my grandparents, and I ask what I should do when I get back, saying the grandparents want me to stay longer, to go to Chicago, to see the other relatives. At the same time, I’m conscious my mother might need me—there are now six of us, including a little baby, Bonnie Dee, and as the eldest child, I helped Mother in managing the big family. (There will be one more little sister to come!) Of course Mother insisted I stay longer—I was gone most of that summer. My next letter to my mother was from New York City—I had fallen in love with the city, and describe my experiences there. And indeed, a few years later I found myself living in that grand city, attending NYU, and later Columbia.
Mother’s letters too followed me around the world. I think I can safely say that Mother’s letters and Grandmother’s helped sustain me once I had left home and country, first during my two years of traveling around SE Asia, and later, when I moved to France to live. Those letters were my lifeline home, they were my connection to all I had loved and left. At that time, people telephoned infrequently—it was expensive. We relied almost entirely upon letter writing. And in fact, when I first moved to France, we did not even have a telephone. It’s hard to believe, but it could take years to get a phone line at that time! I believe we were without a phone for the first two or three years I lived in Paris. And a few months after I had arrived in France, there was a postal strike. This postal strike went on for at least two months and it was horrible for me—suddenly, all communication with my family was entirely cut off. No more letters in my transparent red mailbox in the entrance of my apartment building—just transparent nothing. It was one of the most unhappy times of my life. I felt truly cut off then (unlike now when everyone is just a quick and easy telephone call away).
Both Mother and Grandmother wrote long generous letters, pages and pages, that I read thirstily, and then reread and reread. They wrote to me dependably, regularly, and I answered in kind, writing long letters back. Our letters were full of specific events and doings, as well as of thoughts and feelings. They were rich and satisfying letters, letters of mind and heart. When I came to do my mother’s book, My Mother’s Arm Swings the Broom with Mine, those letters of hers were absolutely precious. I had much other writing from her—she kept a journal periodically, and she had also written lots of short stories, essays and even a family history, but there was also much in those letters I could use to fill out the portrait of that wonderful, intelligent and tolerant woman who by the greatest of luck was my mother. I still have all her letters—even though most have been transcribed onto the computer, I cannot bring myself to throw away the originals—those “real” letters with the so familiar and beloved handwriting—I keep them tied up with red ribbons in one of my cupboards here in Jonchères. (And while putting together my mother’s book, I discovered in my father’s Chinese chest all her letters to him and many of his to her—that discovery was one of the thrills of my life! And of course I incorporated many into her book.)
It was certainly Mother and Grandmother who taught me letter-writing. And in going through some old letters just now of my grandfather Duncan’s I came across an old letter of his to my father in which he wrote, “We hear from Nancy frequently. She is the most punctual one of the family when it comes to writing.” I had, at twenty-two, acquired the art of letter-writing!
One of the things I quickly learned in life however was that not everyone likes to write letters, and that I was particularly lucky in my mother and my grandmother in that respect. For others, my friends, my siblings, my other relatives, letters were more infrequent, the correspondence was much sketchier. Nevertheless, I maintained a correspondence with many of my friends and my siblings—if I didn’t hear for awhile, I would write again to jog their memories—and eventually, the pressure of my letters and their guilt at not replying would force them to their desks to answer me! I also kept most of those letters—and just recently, saw again how precious such documents are, at least for a writer. When not long ago I decided I wanted to write a book about some of my high school classmates, I went back to the things I had saved (and asked classmates for anything they had saved as well)—I would not have been able to write the book were it not for my journal entries and old letters!! And letters I had saved from my first love affair I transmitted many years later to the daughter of that first love, and she, also being a writer, took inspiration from them to write a play! And my most latest writing project (about love, and gardens!), I wrote as a series of “unsent” letters
I have had, along with my mother and grandmother, four other great letter writing correspondents in my life, all of whom had the passion. Two are cousins, and sisters to each other. When living in New York, I spent a lot of time with my mother’s sister Betty’s family—a family of four girls. My first close friendship was with the second daughter Bonnie, and once I had left New York, she and I wrote long letters over the years to one another—her collected letters eventually filled three huge notebooks. (Now however she never writes letters—but is an excellent email correspondent). Later, I became very close as well to her younger sister Diana—she and François and I collaborated on some artistic projects together. Diana loves letter writing as I do, and for a number of years, we wrote long letters to each other every month—that’s when I got interested also in Mail Art. Unfortunately, with the advent of email, our letters began to dwindle, from one or two a month, down to a couple a year! Yet we both miss “real” letters. And I think also that we are getting tired of email communications, so often written in haste, and read in haste, always on a machine, without any of the tactile pleasures of letters. We don’t write the same kinds of things at all in letters as in emails—email communications are more down to earth, more practical, a quick recounting of what has been happening, or a transmitting of and requesting information. One rarely writes one’s thoughts and feelings in an email, or lets one mind wander from subject to subject as it will do in a letter. So Diana and I have decided to try to write less on the computer, and to go back to letter writing. Will we succeed? Letters take a week or longer to arrive, email is immediate. But we are trying. I have recently sent her two long letters, and I know that her reply is in the mail—every day I gaze down the hill at my mailbox to see if the red flag is up yet or not!
I had two other wonderful letter correspondents. The first, Clif, was a family friend. His family and mine lived on the same street, Terrace Drive, in Medford, Oregon and he was a lawyer like my father. I babysat his children sometimes. Later he was my father’s campaign manager for the political races, and Dad’s right-hand man in the congressional office and that is when Clif and I became friends too. Our letters began once I left to live in France, and our correspondence continued until Clif’s death in August of 2009. I had never imagined our letters ever ceasing—I had come to count on them, one of my last tangible links of epistolary friendship. Clif was an original soul, someone who definitely marched to his own drummer, and I loved his insights on life, politics, books, poetry, and also on me. He was absolutely supportive of whatever I did or thought—much like my mother and grandmother—someone you know is always in your corner, always proud, always glad, always there for you. In recent years, his letters were among the few I continued to receive in my mailbox—for he never wrote emails, didn’t like them, never really adapted to the computer. We saw each other every time I returned to Oregon, but I would say that our friendship was nourished and sustained by letters. It was a true epistolary friendship—without those letters, it would have been less intense, less profound.
The other great correspondent—and sadly, this too is in the past—was my friend Josh. I should say our friend, for François adored Josh as well. We met him a few years ago when we were traveling in the Philippines—Josh was the best traveler either of us ever met. He had been all over the world. He was the ultimate voyager. We traveled with Josh a little in the Philippines and then in Thailand, and after that saw each other in England, France, New York and San Francisco. In between visits, we wrote letters. That is, Josh and I wrote letters which François read. (He’s one of those non-letter writers!). Josh loved writing letters and they were imbued with his unique humor and vision of the world, both loving and sardonic! We also shared a love of books through our letters. Our correspondence endured until the very end of his life—my last letter to him arrived just three days before he died. I have kept all Josh’s letters too and intend to go through them when I am able to, when I can read them without too much pain. And perhaps, as I have done with other treasured letters, I may also put them onto the computer for friends and family.
I’ve written a lot about Josh elsewhere because he so marked our lives. When François and I went to Ethiopia in the spring of 2009, it was our first big trip since Josh had died (too young, of cancer). Always before, we wrote him from our trips as he did us from his. I still wanted to write him so I wrote my journal as a series of letters to him (posted later as Letters to Josh from Ethiopia on my blog). That is not the only time I have written letters to those who are gone. There have been times over the years since I lost my mother and my grandmother when I feel the need to write them—I have a series of Letters to my Mother, and have also written a few letters addressed to both my grandmother and my mother. They were my first correspondents, it was terrible to lose them both, and continuing to write them letters is a way of keeping them close to me.
I’ve touched a little upon the pleasures of letter writing—how one lets one’s mind wander down the page, how the quiet and silence of letter writing induces reflection and contemplation, and so leads one to topics one would never touch on in an email. There are also the tactile pleasures—what a joy to find a letter in one’s mailbox. To reach in, take it out, hold it, examine the handwriting, determine who it is from, tuck it in a pocket and go back to the house or apartment. I make a ritual of letter reading. I do not rip the letter open right away. I make a cup of tea—or I pour a glass of wine—and I find a comfortable place to sit, on the couch in Paris, by the fire (in winter) in Jonchères, or in the veranda, or, if it’s warm enough, on the terrace out in the sun. I open the letter carefully, protecting the stamps (which are a part of the pleasure of a letter, bright pictures bringing their color and tone to the missive). And then I read, slowly, savoring every word. I always hate coming to the end of a letter—and most often, I will go through it a second time right then and there. Letters are to be kept and cherished as well—not like email correspondence (although I admit, I do keep some emails—I have computer files for my major correspondents). But it’s not the same thing, reading through emails on the computer, and reading through hand-written letters). Writing a letter has tactile pleasure too—choosing the stationary, the pen, choosing the place to write the letter. Here too, if the weather is good, I often write outside in my garden. Or, again, by the fire. Or in my veranda, where I can gaze at the mountains and the cliff while writing. The tea or the wine goes as well with letter writing as with letter reading. And then, if one has the time and inclination, comes the decoration of the envelope, finding pictures or quotations with which to decorate it, trying one’s best handwriting, adding some block stamps, using color, imagination, whimsy.
But what do to when one isn’t getting any letters? Well there is always the option of reading other people’s letters. Published collections in other words. I’m very fond of reading about people’s lives and so letter collections, autobiographies and journals are among my favorite reading (along with fiction of course). Just now I am reading a book about Emily Dickinson which relies a great deal upon her letters—and in the pile of books under it, I have a book of her letters which I intend to read next. Whenever I read about letters of favorite writers having been destroyed, I feel almost ill, it represents such a loss!—and such is the case for many of Jane Austen’s letters and some of Emily’s as well.
I once told my writing class students about my great interest in letters and journals. I told them how I had had some years before a heated discussion with members of my own family, my mother and a couple siblings, about personal writings. I had told my family that if I came across someone else’s letters—or journal—I wouldn’t hesitate to read them! My curiosity would get the better of my discretion. My family was a little bit shocked. I remember telling them that if they didn’t want their papers read, they should be careful where they left them!
Sometime after that, one of my writing students (and a wonderful writer too), Carolyn Dupuis, invited me to lunch at her house. I arrived, and she seated me on the couch, and then excused herself to get lunch ready, and went into the kitchen, leaving me sitting alone in the living room. There was a table just in front of the couch and after a few moments, I glanced down at it. And what did I see there, first to my amazement, and then, to my high amusement? Several letters casually scattered over the table! I laughed out loud—Carolyn had put them out there especially for my curiosity and edification!
The computer and Internet are a wonderful inventions, do not get me wrong. Although they have helped kill letter writing which is a shame, it is also true that thanks to the Web and email, I am in touch with many more friends than I would be through letter-writing. I have found lost friends through Internet, and other friends who were never much at writing letters always seem to manage to write emails. I have an extended and rich correspondence via email and now Facebook. And I must mention one more great correspondent, although he is almost exclusively a correspondent via the computer, and this is my good friend Carl, friend who was lost to me for many years, whom I “found” again some six years ago now, and who is a marvelous correspondent, never leaving a message unanswered, replying thoughtfully and fully to everything. Had we not lost touch during the years after high school, I am sure he and I would have had a rich letter correspondence as well. But we found each other too late for that—we’re both locked into the computer now!
But nothing can replace letters. I should like to have both. And it seems I will continue to have both. Thanks to my new friend Paul, and my cousin Diana, I’m back into the mode of letter writing. Am rediscovering all its pleasures, and all its differences with email. Am acquiring some interesting and varied stationary. Getting special stamps at the post office. So if there are any others of you out there who want to try your hand at it, I will be more than happy to add you to my list of letter correspondents. The more letters in my mailbox, the happier that box is and its owner!
I purchased a wooden block stamp somewhere a few years ago—certainly after the inception of email—with a message that I often like to stamp onto the envelopes of letters I have written. It shows a hand holding a pen and underneath it says, “Revive a lost art. Write someone a letter.”