Are we more likely to read a handwritten than a printed letter? And if we read it, will it affect our opinions? That is, at least in part, the presumption of the Durham Letter writing campaign.
So I signed on to write 20 handwritten letters to registered women Democrats in Durham, NC, because North Carolina is a swing state and hence important for Hillary to win if we are not to become the Dystopia of Trumpistan.
In the past I have not been a political activist, unless you count lawn signs. But this project appealed to me because it could be done in a room, alone. It could be done wearing pajamas. It could be done at dawn or dusk while listening to opera, preferably Nabucco. Like green eggs and ham, it could be done in a box or with a fox. One reason I am a writer is that a prefer sitting alone with a blank sheet of paper while chewing my toenails to almost any form of human interaction. I would prefer surgery sans anesthesia to knocking on doors and speaking to strangers. So you can imagine my delight with the Durham Letter Project, the Power of the Pen.
I sat down at my desk with my favorite fountain pen and a pile of stamps. I had figured this was a good opportunity to use the enormous stash of commemorative stamps my mother amassed at the Orchard. That is what happens if you buy several sheets of every commemorative stamp issued by the US post office, and more than several if they feature architectural themes. In the Orchard basement, in her office closet, and in her desk, we found these stamps in drawers, boxes and folders. I calculated one pile to be worth over $248, but then I realized that unless they are used as postage, they really are worth nothing at all, because no one collects stamps anyone. I have 22¢ stamps of American mammals, the bobcat and the Black-footed Ferret; 25¢ stamps of Carousel animals, unicorns, reindeer and camels; 25¢ stamps honoring Polar explorers with ruddy cheeks against a deep teal background; 18¢ stamps featuring Edna St Vincent Millay looking poetic in an oval frame; 20¢ stamps of the Touro Synagogue in Newport, RI, the first synagogue in America and a must-see for architectural historians; 22¢ Folk Art stamps, celebrating the decoy with a Broadbill duck; 32¢ stamps honoring the Centennial Olympic Games with a drawing of a muscle bound naked discus hurler; 33¢ series of Insects & Spiders – who would not love a Spinybacked Spider or the Eastern Hercules beetle?; and the 15¢ Architecture series, picturing A.J. Davis’s Lyndhurst, just down the road, and Furness’s Penn Academy in Philadelphia. I could go on, but it gets tedious to keep having to hit the option key and the $/4 key in order to get to the ¢ cents sign. These stamps are so antiquated that they require actually licking, as in with an actual tongue and I have lost the inclination to lick glue with my actual tongue. But to entertain the recipients of my letters, and to elect Hillary, I will do it. I will do the math required to come up with combinations of 15, 18, 20, 22, 25 and 32 to achieve the required 47¢ for a first class letter. And I will consider whether the recipient would be more likely to appreciate architecture, natural history, poetry or sports. I will lick the stamps.
Then I started writing. The Durham Letter Project has sent us sample letters to use as templates. But they are all rather long and not especially amusing, and I have arthritic fingers, a weak wrist and a short attention span. So I constructed a shorter letter, which was still 5 paragraphs long; I had ample time, while writing those letters to the ladies of Durham, to consider my penmanship, and wonder what Sister Mary-Give-Us-Mercy would think of the evolution of what used to be my classic parochial school script, also known as the Palmer method. You could always identify someone who had gone to a Catholic school by their penmanship; there was something uniquely Catholic-school about it, a marker, like the APOE-e4 gene marker for Alzheimer’s. And that is why, after finally being sprung from St Christina the Astonishing’s School for Scrawny Girls, I did my utmost to alter my handwriting, in order to disguise my ignominious past. I like to think I have succeeded, while still retaining legibility.
Soon, such considerations and indicators will be a moot point, since many students are no longer taught to write in script. Soon, graphology will go the way of philately. [Insert de rigueur lamentations here.]
As I enumerated several good reasons to vote for Hillary (health care, reproductive rights, foreign policy. Plus, she is sane.) my mind wandered, as it must, from the quasi-barbaric pedagogic techniques of Sister Mary-Give-Us-Mercy, to the monkish scribes of the middle ages, spending their lives in scriptoria copying holy works by candle light. (By beeswax candles, made by virgin bees.) What happened when their fingers started twisting and gnarling like winter twigs? How did they keep their minds from wandering as they wrote the same martyrologies every day, the same virgins devoured by lions, the same saints roasted alive on spits? Aside from their fingers, what body part troubled them most? Saint Ferreol of Uzes, a sixth century bishop who was banished from his post for being too friendly with the Jews, wrote in the rule book for his abbey: “He who does not turn up the earth with the plough ought to write the parchment with his fingers.” And furthermore: “He who does not know how to write imagines it to be no labor, but although those fingers only hold the pen, the whole body grows weary.” He knew what he was talking about.
All I know about these women I am writing to is this: their names and ages. I want to glean some clue from their names, something to help me connect personally. Could Meisha-Gaye have an adventurous spirit that would appreciate Richard Byrd flying over Antarctica? Gail Ysraelle is a good name for a poet; was that her mother’s intention, 21 years ago? Would it be appropriate for me to say something friendly about their names? Would Minerva like to know that my latest granddaughter is likewise named Minerva, and that she is sometimes called Minxie, or Merv? Would Marquetta Leticia be interested in my trip 30 years ago to Leticia, Colombia, a small insanely humid town on the Amazon, where Colombia has a tiny finger of land stretching down to give it a sliver of riverfront? Would Bronwen like to hear about my travels in Wales and especially visiting Welsh Holy Wells, of which there are myriad? Because I assume she is of Welsh extraction, or maybe her mother just liked Dylan Thomas. Would a Hairy Jumping spider stamp on a letter to an arachnophobe cost Hillary a vote?
And how should I identify myself? A female fellow Democrat. A mother and a grandmother? I did include those qualifiers, but now I am concerned. Will my grandmotherly status be off-putting to a young woman? I think of grandmothers as inherently benign, but maybe that is not universal. Some grandmothers are witches, surely.
Word choices plague me. When I first used the expression “fear-mongering” to describe Trump, I considered it an accurate and useful term. After after ten iterations I began to doubt this: was it fear-mongering on my part to refer to Trump’s fear-mongering and bigotry? Was I engaging in the very activity I deplored? What about the expression: Get out and vote? Does that sound bossy, and even a little patronizing? Or is the whole project bossy and patronizing? How would I feel about getting a letter from an actual human being who knew my name, age and political affiliation? Or are my letter recipients – like too many of us – indifferent to the Big Brother apparatus that knows our shopping habits, our appetites and how often we clean our toenails? What word choices can make my letter seem less intrusive than the Google algorithm that produces pop-up ads eerily reflective of the book I just read, or the pink teddy I just eyed on the Victoria’s Secret website?
As I wrote for the thirteenth time, “Hello my name is Christine…” I considered the classic schoolroom punishment, of being sent to the black board to write 20 or 200 times, “I will not call the teacher fear-mongering ever again” or “Thou shalt not cheat on a math quiz”. The worst part of said punishment is not the sore arm you get or the chalk dust you inhale, it is the idiocy that takes over: by the tenth time you write them, every noun and verb can be twisted. By the 20th time, even the prepositions reveal themselves as multi-faceted.
The temptation to make small changes, to insert parenthetical jokes, even to use Queen Victoria’s creative punctuation can be overwhelming.
Blessed it is that, unlike the Irish monks of the 9th century, the communal memory of western civilization does not depend on the accuracy of my transcription.