The Friday Fave: Writing Letters


I am an only child, and when I was growing up there were only a couple of other kids my age in my neighbourhood, so I spent a great deal of time playing on my own. One of my odder games was to sit down with one of my mother’s old fountain pens and pretend I was writing letters, immensely long sermons of letters in copperplate, the way I saw people doing in the costume dramas my parents watched on Sunday nights. The only problem was I couldn’t write in cursive at that point, let alone copperplate, so I mostly just scrawled loose lines of spikes and loops over good printer paper that I probably hadn’t bothered asking permission to use. I’d like to say I was three or four years old during these escapades but I was probably old enough to know better.

When I was in second grade my teachers announced that my class would be doing a pen-pal project with another second-grade class in Burkina Faso. I was captivated. Not only would I finally get to write a real letter–not just a Christmas card to a family member–I loved the idea that something I was going to write would be sent to someone on the other side of the globe, whom I’d never met. (I had it in my head that we would each be paired off with one other student in the other class–it didn’t occur to me that the other class full of students was likely much bigger than ours, and whatever we wrote and received would be shared by all the students.) When the planned exchange fell through due to political events, I was terribly disappointed–I’d been practicing my penmanship and studying Africa on the globe for weeks. I still wanted a penpal.

I got one eventually, later the following summer, although we only managed one letter each. I remember that her name was Chrissy, but not much else–I have entirely forgotten how I made contact with her, what state she lived in, and who found her address for me, but I still have her letter.

After that, letters were the part of summer I most looked forward to. I gave up attempting to make my handwriting look like copperplate, at least for the time being, but I wrote as much as I could. One stretch of two or three weeks was spent writing tortuously long recaps of All My Children episodes to one friend spending the summer in New York, because I was certain she wasn’t able to watch it where she was. I don’t know where I got this idea. Another summer was the year of a postman in Florida assuming that I was my best friend’s “little boyfriend” because I had taken to plastering stickers all over the back of the envelopes.

I started collecting volumes of letters by my favourite writers and artists. One Christmas my mother gave me the Oxford Book of Letters, still a favourite possession, to which I started adding hand copies of letters from other volumes when I found that it didn’t include Sullivan Ballou’s last letter to his wife. I was about sixteen, and took this as an almost personal affront, being convinced that it was the loveliest letter ever written.

I met Margaret by chance at my senior prom, and we hit it off instantly. I was due to leave for Scotland in a few months: transatlantic phone calls being both impractical and prohibitively expensive, and email being a thing but Internet access being unpredictable, letters were our only reasonable means of keeping in touch and getting to know one another better. So I started writing more letters. Lots and lots of letters.

Letter box
Some of Margaret’s letters to me

I don’t imagine they were particularly good, my imaginative life at this point being dominated by equal parts Shakespeare, Emily Bronte, Matchbox 20, and Sarah McLachlan. There were tearful letters and homesick letters and plenty of angst about boys, in between being breathlessly enchanted by living in such close proximity to the North Sea and plenty of Mediaeval ruins. There were also, later, drunken letters, which must have been dreadful to read. Sometimes I still want to go back and read these; the rest of the time I think it’s much better for my present and future state of mind that I never do. I’d probably die of embarrassment.

I lost a great part of my will to write at the end of 2001, so addled by anemia that I usually lacked the energy to concentrate. I started relying on email and phone calls more, and lost the discipline to make it to the post office when I did manage to finish a real letter. I made sporadic attempts and recovering my old drive to write letters over the next several years, but it didn’t come back properly, not like it was.

Writing Desk 1

After my mother died I lost most of my interest in writing any sort of personal document at all; whatever inspiration I had went into fiction, where I didn’t have to think about my actual situation and surroundings. I still haven’t resumed my journal, but a couple of months ago my itch write letters came back with a vengeance. I took possession of my parents’ old escritoire–it had been used for storing excess stationery and dried-up pens for most of my life–and all the good writing paper my mother collected but never used, and returned it to the purpose it was designed for. The hutch is still home to some of my mother’s favourite china, but the desk is all mine now, one place to keep my pens, journals, and letter paper and nothing else. It is the nicest place I’ve ever had dedicated solely to writing, and has done a great deal to re-ignite the joy I once found in focusing on what to say to another person.

We are in danger of losing letters as an art form, but I don’t think the rise of email and social media is the culprit. It started to decline at the same time that reading challenging novels and poetry for enjoyment did, which occurred long before we all got access to the Internet. Letters are so much more than a means of transmitting information; for the writer, they can be exercises in introspection, a means of illuminating how we feel about an event or another person, for ourselves as much as for our correspondent; for the reader, they capture something of the writer’s spirit that can’t be communicated over the telephone.

They are also invaluable documents of the past, both in the sense of our shared cultural and national histories and our own personal and family histories. Even the most trivial of comments shed light on the personalities that wrote them. In going through my family’s collection of photos and letters, I found a postcard that my grandfather wrote to his mother when he was away on a scouting trip, aged perhaps 13 or 14, about a century ago now. I never got the chance to know my grandfather well, and fragments like this are invaluable to me.

There’s a great trend these days for devoting all one’s disposable income and time to experiences rather than things, but it bothers me that along with the laudable impulse to be less materialistic we’re forgetting all sense of permanence. One tenet of the anti-immigration argument is that a high number of immigrants inexorably and irretrievably changes our culture (as though time and innovations in technology don’t alter anything). We inexorably and irretrievably lose our culture and our past because we don’t read enough of it, not just recent commentary on previous centuries but the letters and records that have survived. One of the Internet’s greatest blessings is how easy it has made it for us to rediscover and access those documents. Letters are one of our richest resources for learning about where we came for and growing as individuals, and I still continue to hope that it never quite goes out of style. So write a letter. Write to your family the next time you go out of town, in addition to the necessary emails that you’re alive and well. Write to loved ones who live out of state or across the country. If you are so moved, you can take part in awesome projects like this and write to random strangers. Also, there’s nothing quite like finding a handwritten letter in the post, amongst all the sales catalogues and bills.


The Friday Fave

I had a different Friday Fave planned for this week, but recent events have kind of derailed me. I’ll have my breath back next week. In the meantime, this is one of the two poems that stays in my mind every time we have to endure such events as the several that occurred over the last week.

September 1, 1939

W. H. Auden, 19071973

I sit in one of the dives
On Fifty-second Street
Uncertain and afraid
As the clever hopes expire
Of a low dishonest decade:
Waves of anger and fear
Circulate over the bright 
And darkened lands of the earth,
Obsessing our private lives;
The unmentionable odour of death
Offends the September night.

Accurate scholarship can 
Unearth the whole offence
From Luther until now
That has driven a culture mad,
Find what occurred at Linz,
What huge imago made
A psychopathic god:
I and the public know
What all schoolchildren learn,
Those to whom evil is done
Do evil in return. 

Exiled Thucydides knew
All that a speech can say
About Democracy,
And what dictators do,
The elderly rubbish they talk
To an apathetic grave;
Analysed all in his book,
The enlightenment driven away,
The habit-forming pain,
Mismanagement and grief:
We must suffer them all again.

Into this neutral air
Where blind skyscrapers use
Their full height to proclaim
The strength of Collective Man,
Each language pours its vain
Competitive excuse:
But who can live for long
In an euphoric dream;
Out of the mirror they stare,
Imperialism’s face
And the international wrong.

Faces along the bar
Cling to their average day:
The lights must never go out,
The music must always play,
All the conventions conspire 
To make this fort assume
The furniture of home;
Lest we should see where we are,
Lost in a haunted wood,
Children afraid of the night
Who have never been happy or good.

The windiest militant trash
Important Persons shout
Is not so crude as our wish:
What mad Nijinsky wrote
About Diaghilev
Is true of the normal heart;
For the error bred in the bone
Of each woman and each man
Craves what it cannot have,
Not universal love
But to be loved alone.

From the conservative dark
Into the ethical life
The dense commuters come,
Repeating their morning vow;
“I will be true to the wife,
I’ll concentrate more on my work,"
And helpless governors wake
To resume their compulsory game:
Who can release them now,
Who can reach the deaf,
Who can speak for the dumb?

All I have is a voice
To undo the folded lie,
The romantic lie in the brain
Of the sensual man-in-the-street
And the lie of Authority
Whose buildings grope the sky:
There is no such thing as the State
And no one exists alone;
Hunger allows no choice
To the citizen or the police;
We must love one another or die.

Defenceless under the night
Our world in stupor lies;
Yet, dotted everywhere,
Ironic points of light
Flash out wherever the Just
Exchange their messages:
May I, composed like them
Of Eros and of dust,
Beleaguered by the same
Negation and despair,
Show an affirming flame.

I’ve run out of words…

Woke up this morning to news of another mass shooting. I hate that we have become so accustomed to these incidents that the news really didn’t take over the media until it became known that this is the worst mass shooting in U.S. history–again. Thinking of all those who now have to struggle with the loss of their loved ones.

Updated 6/14/2016

Fortunately Lin-Manuel Miranda did not run out of words, and I hope he never will. If you didn’t see the Tonys on Sunday night, his first acceptance speech was a sonnet to his wife and son and to the victims of the Orlando shooting:

“My wife’s the reason anything gets done
She nudges me towards promise by degrees
She is a perfect symphony of one
Our son is her most beautiful reprise.
We chase the melodies that seem to find us
Until they’re finished songs and start to play
When senseless acts of tragedy remind us
That nothing here is promised, not one day.
This show is proof that history remembers
We lived through times when hate and fear seemed stronger;
We rise and fall and light from dying embers, remembrances that hope and love last longer
And love is love is love is love is love is love is love is love cannot be killed or swept aside.
I sing Vanessa’s symphony, Eliza tells her story
Now fill the world with music, love and pride.”
If you are so inclined, you can watch the live reading here.
I am done with moments of silence. If anything is to change, we need more noise, enough to make the NRA and other gun rights fetishists take notice instead of pivoting the conversation. If you wish to write to or call your representatives and senators in Congress, you can find contact details and a form letter here. I don’t think gun ownership needs to be prohibited to prevent the absurdly high incidences of accidental shootings by children and massacres like this–we just need better gun laws. The second amendment is quite specific in its wording–“well-regulated.” Nowhere does it say that everyone in the U.S. can and should have as large and sophisticated a personal arsenal as they can afford.

The Friday Fave: Hamilton!

As a few of my friends already know, I have Hamilaria. (I don’t randomly break into song, I promise. I do find the tunes popping up in my mind at inopportune moments.)

I was late to the party when it came to discovering Hamilton. I tend to resist anything that feels over-hyped, usually certain that it will turn out to be at best shallow and at worst–unintentionally or not–deeply offensive to one or more segments of society. Or just awful and inexplicably popular. (Still mystified why anyone bothered to read Fifty Shades of Grey. If you’re into pornographic novels, surely there are better-written examples lining the shelves of the Romance section–ones that don’t glorify manipulative, abusive, and controlling relationships. Surely.) Occasionally, however, I have come to regret this tendency. It was about four years into the show’s run before I watched Buffy the Vampire Slayer out of boredom, mostly because I remembered Sarah Michelle Gellar from Swan’s Crossing and All My Children and I was convinced she couldn’t possibly have become a good actor. (I was being a snob. This was stupid of me.) The same happened with the Harry Potter novels, which I regret a bit more, because the first editions of those first few novels must be worth quite a bit now.

Hamilton cast
Image © Mark Seliger

When mentions of Hamilton suddenly started popping up on just about every media platform I read and watch, I didn’t pay much attention, because a) I haven’t really enjoyed many musicals written after the 1980s, and b) the idea of adapting the life of Alexander Hamilton and the American Revolution struck me as excessively odd. I thought the multi-racial cast was an awesome idea and was interested by the use rap in the music, but I just couldn’t get my head around the idea of writing a musical about the American Revolution. The outcome was a great thing, but living through it must have been a harrowing experience for most of those involved. It’s not a subject that lends itself to comedy, and the notions of comedy and musical theatre are inextricably linked in my mind. I really ought to have known better–Miss Saigon was my favourite musical prior to this, and it isn’t as though there’s anything saccharine about Rent or Gypsy.

Oh me of little faith. There are some moments of humor, to be sure–many provided by Jonathan Groff’s deliciously camp King George III–but Hamilton is decidedly a drama, not a comic opera. I finally decided to give it a listen when I heard Leslie Odom Jr. sang the part of Burr–I’d been waiting for his reappearance since Smash was cancelled. One afternoon when I finished work early I pulled up some of the songs on YouTube (most, although not all, of the soundtrack is available here).

I was hooked after about three songs, and overwhelmed when I was finally able to listen to the whole album all the way through. This is not just a good musical, and a useful hook to get high school students to pay attention in history classes: it’s one of the most impressive and important cultural works of the decade. There is so much more going on in the songs alone than just well-rhymed lyrics and excellent delivery. There are references to other significant works of musical theatre, and direct quotation of the historical figures embodied in the characters. There is also a constant theme throughout the story that while avarice and arrogance usually bring ruin, intelligence is the most valuable of a person’s assets, something to celebrate rather than quash. The musical presents us with a new view of the American Revolution: familiar topics such as Washington’s genius as a commander and Jefferson’s libido are addressed, but so are the seeds of the movements and arguments that we are still living with today–the continuations of the Civil Rights and women’s rights struggles, and the question of what it means to be American. Are you born one, or is it something you choose to become? This is something I think about a great deal, being a first-generation American whose right to be here has never been questioned because I happen to be Caucasian and able to alter my accent if I choose. I witnessed perhaps a handful of occasions where people were rude to my mother because she was so thoroughly not from the U.S., but for the most part those who noticed that she was English were either indifferent or interested in that fact–we were never told that we should go home if we couldn’t adapt and become “real” Americans. This has always highlighted for me that the bitter fight over immigration to this country is about race and ethnicity–I am accepted as part of the status quo, while people whose forebears arrived here decades and centuries before mine are still told to “go back to” Africa / Mexico / wherever. This is why it matters so much that well-known historical figures are performed by people of colour in this production–aside from the unprecedented audience engagement this has spurred, it creates a layer of meaning that would not be present were the performers all white. (If that bothers you, blame Shakespeare and Ben Jonson–they started it when they began to question the limits of gender in plays such as “As You Like It” and “Epicoene”.)

I am thrilled to bits that Miranda, Thomas Kail, and the magnificent cast are winning *all* the awards for their work, and are getting so much exposure for their other creative work. I cherished a hope for about half an hour that I’d be able to see the play with the original line-up at some point this year, until I saw the prices that tickets were going for and that most of the performances until the end of next year were pretty much sold out last February. Now I’m just holding out hope that there’s a full taping of an early stage performance somewhere and they’re just sitting on it until the national tour ends.

I was going to write about Miranda himself as well, but if I do this post may never end, so I’ll save it for a later post. (He is awesome in all kinds of ways, and I can’t think of any other public figure to have spent so much time engaging with his audience on a personal level just being nice. Check out his twitter feed some time.) The Tony awards are on this Sunday and will feature a live performance of a song from the show, for all the fans like me who are desperate to see as well as hear the real thing.


Happy Birthday, Federico García Lorca

Federico Garcia Lorca signatureOne of the writers who made the deepest impression on me growing up was not a novelist, but a playwright and poet. At the point in my education when I was actually good enough at Spanish to sometimes think in it, and could read it with some facility, I fell in love with Federico García Lorca. His poems (especially in Spanish) had a rhythm and a power to them that transmitted much more than the words on their own. In this way he reminds me of Dylan Thomas, who frequently sublimated syntax and vocabulary to the pure sound of language.

   But above all I sing a common thought
that joins us in the dark and golden hours.
The light that blinds our eyes is not art.
Rather it is love, friendship, crossed swords.

May fingerprints of blood on gold
streak the heart of eternal Catalunya.
May stars like falconless fists shine on you,
while your painting and your life break into flower

– Federico García Lorca, “Ode to Salvador Dalí”, trans. Christopher Maurer et al. 

The piece I learned almost exclusively because of how it felt to say it aloud in Spanish was Lorca’s famous elegy for a bullfighter, “Llanto por [Lament for] Ignacio Sanchez Mejias”. It draws heavily on musical forms–Lorca’s first area of study in the arts. Below is a recording of a gentleman who vaguely resembles Sean Connery reading it aloud; even if you don’t understand Spanish, it really sounds gorgeous. Leave it on in the background while you go look at Facebook for a few minutes, then check back.

I didn’t know anything about Lorca when I fell in love with his writing. (I generally don’t research authors–I figure I learn everything I need to know about them through their writing, unless I’m actually studying them.) But he was an interesting man in interesting times. He wrote in Spain in the first half of the twentieth century. The country was heading towards civil war. He was passionately involved with other men, had an unrequited love for and close friendship with Salvador Dalí, studied in Spain as well as at Columbia, was dedicated to bringing art to the underserved.

He was assassinated when he was only 38 years old.

But his sleep now is unending.
Now mosses and grass
pry open with practiced fingers
the flower of his skull.
And his blood now courses singing,
sings through salt marshes and meadows…

Federico Garía Lorca, “Lament for the Death of Ignacio Sánchez Mejías”, trans. Alan Trueblood

The Friday Fave: The Internet Archive

Internet Archive

When I was about ten a friend of my father’s noticed my obsession with the queens of England throughout history, and gave me a couple of volumes of Agnes Strickland’s Lives of the Queens of England. He offered the entire set, but my father refused to let me have them all, for which I’ve never quite forgiven him. I was entranced–not only were they books on one of my favourite topics, they were old books that looked like they’d come out of a Victorian library somewhere. I think until that point the oldest books I’d been allowed to get my grubby hands on probably dated from the 1950s. I was hooked, both on Strickland and antique books.

I wanted to complete the set, but none of the second-hand bookshops I looked in had even heard of Agnes Strickland–she’d been out of print too long, and while entertaining, the books aren’t of much use to serious historians today. A local antiquarian bookseller had a full set, but they were in better bindings (and much better condition) than mine and cost upwards of $12,000, which to me was a fantastical amount of money to charge for a handful of books, even if they were a hundred years old. I kept hoping I’d find a library that had a set, but never did, even when I got to St. Andrews where the library and bookstores had an abundance of old books to browse through.

I finally discovered the Internet Archive in 2007 after I’d returned to Atlanta, and to me it was like stumbling into wonderland. It had pdf copies of every volume of Strickland’s series, and I didn’t have to pay to download a copy. Aside from that, there were scans of books on just about every obscure topic I could come up with. The Paston Letters. Biographies of lesser-known figures from the French Revolution. A collection of the music scores owned by Jane Austen’s family, in case you were wondering what they played on the pianoforte when they got bored. The grammars and exercise books for French, German, Latin, and Greek used in schoolrooms in the UK over the past two or three centuries. Several of the books and pamphlets on abolition and the law cases referenced in the film Belle.

Once I’d downloaded a ridiculous number of texts, I started looking at what else was available, and realized just how impressive a resource the Internet Archive is. There is just so much here. Dozens of silent and black and white films, including She Done Him Wrong, starring Mae West and a young Cary Grant–not his first film, but it was only his second year as a movie star. His Girl Friday and Night of the Living Dead were also available the last time I checked (which was a while ago, admittedly). Reefer Madness is in there somewhere, too. The Librivox collection is now hosted on the site–a public effort to collect readings of every book no longer in copyright. (If you have any interest in building up a portfolio as a voice actor, this is a useful thing to do. If you’re a listener, it’s a bit hit-and-miss–some readings are excellent, some not so much, but it’s an amazing effort on the part of the contributors, and like the Archive, there is no charge for the downloads but donations are appreciated.) There’s a collection of old radio broadcasts, from the original Gunsmoke to Winston Churchill’s speeches. They have a collection of geneaology resources that you don’t have to pay Ancestry’s silly membership fee to access. There is also a huge trove of audio recordings of rock concerts–loads of 90s indie rock, as well as better-known bands such as the Grateful Dead, Led Zeppelin, etc. The archive also includes a repository for software, but I have yet to explore that corner of the virtual warehouse, so I don’t know what treasures it might be hiding.

The part I’m currently spending my spare time exploring is the set of scans of documents relating to the American Revolution provided by the Boston Public Library. This includes papers relating to well-known events such as the Boston Massacre and formal letters between commanders and the like, but there are also muster rolls, receipts for deliveries of supplies, court-martial records, and personal letters that detail what life was like for non-combatants at the time–the people who weren’t famous, whose letters have never been collected into convenient volumes for easy reference. I get that the technological revolution of the last two decades has brought its share of attendant evils and I am a strong believer in continuing to buy paper books and supporting independent bookstores (and your local library!), but this kind of access to our past is only possible thanks to the recent advances in communication technology. Collections from numerous libraries in the U.S.–and even a few international ones–have been digitized and uploaded or linked to the site. For history buffs, film fanatics, anyone with a consuming love for rock music–this site is a gold mine. Check it out sometime, when you have an afternoon to spare.

The Archive relies on donations to survive. If you are so inclined, you can support them here.