Issue June 7, 2011

Epistle

On a long stretch of road in southern Indiana a few years ago I happened upon the mangled form of a hawk that had been struck by something large.

I have a thing for hawks, and this indelicate mess seemed an unjust end for such a noble creature. I stopped for a moment that its untimely death not go without notice, and decided to take some feathers from the bird.

I cleaned them and gave a few to friends for whom the notion of dead-bird-feather-as-gift would not seem strange. I kept one for myself and cut it into a quill that I used to write a few letters. I can’t recall for whom they were written, or if they were ever sent. I’m sure I used the most aged, brittle paper I could find, sealed them with wax and stamped them with a signet. I’ve gone through this complicated little routine a few times, and, while the end product is undeniably cool, it’s also a little silly that such artifice is required on my part to complete what is, alas, a very simple task. Writing letters does not come easily to me.

Of all the finely crafted regrets I’ve collected in my life, one of the most intricately contrived is the regret I feel for not writing letters often enough. I mean to. I want to. I don’t.

It’s always been this way, and on the rare occasion I find myself actually writing a letter, I am, for some reason, compelled to engage in rococo theatrics like drinking port by candlelight and scribbling away with hawk feathers as a means of motivating myself to do what, in times past, was as normative as putting on one’s pantaloons in the morning. From whence this mental stonewalling against something so simple as writing a few lines to a friend or loved one?

I usually blame my handwriting, which embarrasses me to no end. When stripped of the clean, formal veil of Times New Roman, I am quickly exposed as a coarse, if not slovenly, penman. I write in all caps that refuse to be confined by lines, and the words themselves appear, to the untrained eye, a unique pidgin of Koine Greek and mustard stains. It’s difficult to communicate any subtlety in a hand that seems suitable only for grocery lists or intelligence communiqués that require the highest degree of cryptography.

But that’s just a cop-out, and I know it. The truth is I am susceptible to laziness, and I’m often spread pretty thin. I’ve become too comfortable with the occasional quippy, earnest e-mail, or short dirty-joke text message to convey my affection. And even those are hard for me to manage sometimes. I don’t think I’m the only one who has found written correspondences greatly reduced in priority and who longs for their renewal.

I worked for six months on a cargo ship in 1999, and in that time received a truly memorable series of letters and even telegrams from my friends and family back home. When our ship came into port and we were given our mail, I was always overwhelmed by tenderness and abiding affection at the sight of the delicate red-and-blue airmail envelopes and small, thoughtful packages from home. They were meant for me. I could hold them in my hand and know that because half a world away someone had written my name on an envelope. It’s a very simple kind of happiness, and I hope that I can return it, in kind, to those folks — if I haven’t already.

Enough has been said at this point about the apparent decline of, and abuses visited upon, the language by a culture that seems content to lay back and enjoy an evening boat ride down the river of linguistic devolution. And oh the things you’ll see; Orwellian text-message-speak used in high-school essays and judged acceptable by the administration, horrifying punctuation (I am fortunate to have editors), and worst of all, the many-headed Hydra of usages like Kountry Koach, Krispy Kreme, Kart Kountry, etc. ad infinitum.

The letter doesn’t need to be the kind of grand, eloquent gesture whose manic authorship is accentuated by timpani drums in period romance films (not that I watch those). A legal pad, a white envelope, a stamp and an hour or so is all that’s required.