Tag Archives: Letters

Scriptio Inferior


A college course called “Meaning and Value in Western Thought” was my first exposure to palimpsests, ancient manuscripts washed or scraped to make way for new writing. I don’t remember what specific meaning or value survived well enough for scholars to find it later, but I do remember my professor using the occasion to develop a metaphor that, since then, has become familiar.

The past is a palimpsest and so are we.


Apparently, my grandfather excelled at angry letters. I never knew him, but my father described him sitting at the kitchen table in his underwear, scratching out cutting phrases with a fountain pen and planting the seeds of deadly subtext. My father said he worked and reworked these letters for hours, pausing only long enough to chuckle at his handiwork.


The pre-computer age required much more handwriting, and I enjoyed the negotiation of long-hand. Carets and cross-outs overwhelmed the text. Arrows led to sentences in the margin, and, at the top of the page, I questioned choices, determined to return to them later.

The effort transformed these drafts into holy objects I lacked courage to toss. Even after typing the final composition, I saved them. Some still lurk in my files, their cramped elaborations and digressions winding like varicose veins.


We’re told now to wait before sending sensitive emails. We’re supposed to let them sit, or write them to get our true feelings out. Then, we must delete them. That process should create a more circumspect and neutral message… or a promise “to talk.”


My father, like his father, wrote angry letters, but where my grandfather’s targets were columnists, politicians, and public figures, my father aired gripes about ball-point pens that failed before they expended all the ink in their barrels or coffee filters that weren’t sealed properly and left grounds in his morning cup.

He too delighted in his craft. He also received many unctuous replies and a lot of free shit.


The expense of parchment made of lamb, calf, or goat skin (then known as pergamene) was a big reason palimpsests existed. The page was costly and hard to get, so no surface could be cast off or relegated to an archive. It needed reuse, and reuse required erasure.

Or so they thought. The underwriting or scriptio inferior persisted and could be recovered through various chemical processes—and now ultraviolet light.

What would the authors think? Would it feel like being caught talking to yourself?


I do most of my drafting in my head now, revising and re-revising even as I speak. I mean to say just what I mean and express it just so. Magma-like anger does roil inside me—more than anyone may realize—but the few times it gets out in conversation, it immediately turns to steam amid raining apologies.

Confident people revel in righteous indignation. I ruminate over extenuating factors and my role in every galling slight. I swallow my angry letters.

Or write them to myself.


Once, while I was directing a play in my first teaching job, I had to purchase a hammer before a set construction session. I kept the receipt and filled out a reimbursement complete with—the eighties—three colors and carbon paper between them. I needed the signature of the art department chair, and, hunched over his desk while he was away, affixed a post-it note to the form and scrawled, “I don’t know WHY they don’t trust me, and you have to verify I really bought a hammer, but here…”

My pique passed through every color and the carbons. The next day a smirking note arrived explaining proper procedure.


This weekend, a situation at work required the most consequential form of charged communication. I felt ill-used and thought about retribution. In my imagination, either they would pay or I’d make myself heard, the bile inside voiced. Like colleagues who have real convictions and real gumption.

I wrote several drafts instead.

And—you can tell—I’m confessing nothing about the true subject.


There’s a moment in Athol Fugard’s “Master Harold… and the Boys” I particularly appreciate. Two servants to Apartheid-era Harold have suffered such devastating slights and deliberate stabs from him, ending with Harold spitting in the servant Sam’s face. Sam turns to his co-worker Willie—in Harold’s presence—and asks, “And if he had done it to you, Willie?”

Willie replies, “Me? Spit at me like I was a dog? Ja, then I want to hit him. I want to hit him hard!… But maybe all I do is go cry at the back. He’s little boy, Sam.”


The dissatisfaction of silence hasn’t kept me from tasting it constantly.


In my pretend dialogue with my grandfather I ask if his conscience ever told him to restrain himself and say nothing and, if so—angry letter unsent—did he feel defeated?

I want to ask, “Where do feelings go when they go nowhere at all?

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Then Silence

two_shadows“Silence propagates itself,” Samuel Johnson said, “and the longer talk has been suspended, the more difficult it is to find anything to say.”

When I’m sleepless in the middle of the night, I think about lost friends and wince over unreturned phone calls, emails, and letters, all the thank you notes, flowers, and thoughtful gestures I meant to make to show affection. Most of the people who haunt my insomnia have likely forgotten me or think no less of me for drifting on, but life would be richer with their continuing company. I find plenty of time to work, to engage in activity I forget a few days later. I put tasks before people, and, if I could reverse that, I might sleep better.

I enjoy company and find sympathetic souls everywhere. Only recently, though, have I tried to cultivate and keep friends. Carl Jung said the meeting of personalities is like a chemical reaction—both personalities are transformed by contact. His statement only makes sense if you and the other personality are reactive, if you’re willing to venture outside yourself. Most of my life I haven’t been willing. It’s easy to converse, to slot in personal stories your listener doesn’t yet know. You rifle through relevant and appropriate remarks and, like a good raconteur, offer your most skillful talk. Or you can take the more secure stance of bouncing everything back to the speaker. Now you see. I’m well-practiced at the familiar and accepted steps of civil discourse.

But careful and polished steps aren’t dancing. Dancing is chemical and requires more than keeping up.

One of my first real friends welcomed me to his lunch table after I’d been exiled from another. Middle school cool failed me, and my usual companions froze me out. My new friend barely knew me, knew only that I had nowhere to sit and invited me over, but vulnerability proved a good place for us to start. His kindness endeared him to me, but hurt created our relationship. No purpose in pretense, we began with honesty instead.

His family invited me on vacation, he ate over my house whenever I could make him stay, and, even after I moved away, we exchanged antic letters full of imaginary schemes for becoming treasure hunters or famous tag-team auctioneers or dueling butter sculptors or engineers specializing in converting schools to bumper cars. We laughed, I think, because we knew we needed to. We were seldom comfortable except in the company of the other.

Some people believe no true friendship can ever cease, that, even after years of neglect, friends feel the same old understanding and affection. That thought consoles me at 3 am—though, in most cases, I can’t verify it. I wouldn’t know how to start looking for many of the people I’ve lost. In some cases, I remember how I felt with them and not their names. And though we might achieve familiar rapport if we were thrown together, what I’ve missed would be just as telling.

Next weekend my younger brother is going on a golf outing, and some of the people are part of a group of friends he sees frequently, old friends from high school and college he’s seen through every stage of life. I don’t care about golf—it’d be horrifying to even try playing—but I’m jealous. My oldest and best friends are, right this second, elsewhere, expecting and accepting the usual distance between us. We will talk when we talk. His friends wouldn’t let him neglect them. He wouldn’t allow it either.

After receiving a commission to West Point, my friend came home in three weeks. He wrote a letter that was meant to be funny but threw me. I wasn’t sure how I felt, how to console him or whether he wanted consolation and can’t recall now what I did say to him, if I did. Some nights I can’t convince myself I wrote back. I continued to hear reports of him—he went to college locally and then law school, he excelled in moot court and sang in his church choir. He married and had a daughter.

But by the time I looked for him—finding him was why I joined Facebook—someone told me he was gone, killed in a traffic accident a couple of weeks before. I read the obituary and thought again and again of writing his widow, his daughter, his mom. Perhaps he mentioned me. They donated a bench in Central Park because he liked to visit New York, and I could find it and sit on it.

I didn’t. I haven’t. It isn’t just that my right to speak seems lost, and that every day pushes him and our history further into the past. I’m beginning to think the best way—the only way—to honor him is to try harder to be an actual friend, the sort he was to me.

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Thoughts After A Busy Day

thomas-hawk-blurry-street-ipad-wallpaperThe teacher moved from table to table releasing ink into still glasses of water with an eyedropper. She’d taught the word “diffusion”—a big word—but it said little about the bloom of color stretching into blue smoke and disappearing as we watched. We were to guess what could cause such a thing, and some classmates did. I only wanted more ink.

Diffusion reveals greater implications as its literal meaning stretches into the figurative. Ideas are diffused into society, and prose can be diffuse when a lot of it says little. When light comes from everywhere and nowhere, it’s diffuse. Just about anything you would like to isolate and identify but can’t has diffused, is now invisible in its homogeneity.

My life is often diffuse too, spread through different roles over varied terrain, and, sometimes, daily color loses any locus. Routine isn’t vivid enough to be memorable, and time passes in a fog of activity:

I answer email and prepare for class, make my bag lunch, stuff my backpack with ungraded papers and fold up my computer, pull the graded papers from my bag and pass them out, unfold my computer and plug it in to make it visible on the smart board, pull my pen and glasses from my pocket to read and mark text in tomorrow’s assignment, laugh with colleagues over gossip so similar to last week’s, last month’s and some years’ gossip, eat my lunch at my desk, the parts disappearing before I remember to enjoy it, walk to class, wait for stillness, remind students of homework and arrange to meet one or two to go over questions or comments on their essays.

The essays follow as deep a pattern as leopards in the shadows of a rainforest. Only some are dramatic enough to be seen. The world leans toward entropy. It means not to be noticed. It means to escape recognition.

I can’t recall whether diffusion is active or passive. My teacher taught me something about the agitation of molecules, and I pictured them rubbing ink out, so maybe seven-handed multi-tasking explains it. Every second, cyber-demands reach with the promise of accomplishing more with just a bit more time and effort… until all activity, buffeted by vibrating time, blurs to static.

Alternately, maybe it’s perspective—a lazy mind losing the habit of differentiating. Pale hours are seconds and minutes that make less of an impression. Days are a colorful caravan of hours passing unbidden in twilight. Back in school my teacher came around with a sheet of paper, and, against a white field, the ink stretched like faint nebulae. They may still, if I’d see them.

The word “diffusion” itself fades with use—say any word enough and it will—but I feel it just the same, know what I can’t explain, sense its meaning as it happens again right now.


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25 Unsent Letters to My First Best Friend


My first thought today brought back Bolivar. When I stayed with you there, foghorns on tugboats pushing barges lowed in the Intracoastal Waterway. Even when I didn’t hear them, I held them in my head like thoughts loosely tethered together.


If we saw a butterfly, bird, snake, or insect, one of my brother’s books would identify it. We leaned over the pages as if we were looking into a deep hole. We didn’t mind touching. The object of our search didn’t always appear, so we whispered to catalog everything we had seen, pointing and saying when and where we’d encountered it.


Early on, I thought of friendship as gathering together-stories, the time we shot a mocking bird with your b-b gun and buried it so the police wouldn’t discover we murdered the state bird, or the time we cut sections of grape vine to smoke and coughed for a week, or the time we soaked your sister’s underwear, froze it, and returned it to her drawer.


In my memory you never ask me to go to your house after school, never show up at my door to ask me to play, never say “Best Friend.” Our parents negotiate our visits and sleepovers. We have no plans. We account for time by being together.


Mom says the school must have separated us because we’d be trouble together. You may recall that after first grade, we never sat in adjacent desks.


Concentrating, I can bring back your scent. It hits me just as the first whiff of your house did when I walked through your door.


Do you remember all the accidents I witnessed? I was present when you spilled boiling water on your chest, cut your foot jumping out of the window over your garage, split your knee open as we skim-boarded after a morning thunderstorm. Your mother was so calm. She sent me home as if we both needed soothing.


I don’t do friendship well anymore, as it requires leaving the room of myself, something strangely challenging. But our hours seemed easy, as neutral as the sun’s indecisive attention to shadows on a cloud-crowded day.


We must have fought but I don’t remember apologies.


People in the neighborhood often mistook me for you, partly because we were the same size but mostly because we shared the same first name. Did you know when they meant me? Did you correct them?


The depression in the center of your chest troubled me. Where my sternum was straight as a last yours seemed to leave no room for your heart to beat.


During all the weekends I spent with your family in Bolivar, the house remained unfinished. When we returned from roaming the salt marshes looking for Jean Lafitte’s treasure, empty cans of Falstaff and Lone Star gathered near sites of fitful labor.


Mom says your dad was one of the most handsome men she’d ever seen. She thought you and I looked alike, but I wasn’t sure she approved of you. Sometimes you can tell when, inside, someone sneers.


When people use the expression “Something came between us,” I imagine a scary story you made up once about a husband and wife waking with a corpse.


We saw the moon landing together. Of everything I’ve reported, I’m sure you don’t need to be told that.


Later we shared friends. They were your friends first, then mine. Being with them when you weren’t present felt like winging around in a looser orbit. One punched me in the face when I beat him at basketball. Another invited a girl over so I could learn how to French kiss. One day, out with one of your friends, we broke into an empty house to smoke cigarettes and the cops came. You may actually have been there too. It feels like it.


You convinced me to explore the network of cement storm sewer tubes crisscrossing under our neighborhood. You kept saying how surprised people would be when we suddenly appeared somewhere else. Girls would be impressed, you said.


I just remembered the summer I invented a language you refused to speak.


There must have been a day I stopped calling you my best friend.


Maybe memory stumbles here, but I connect every friend to you. Not directly, because all those separate steps disappear, but in character—as if they stood in the same circle of smoke blowing from the same fire.


When people run into other people who know people they know or are people they know, they say, “It’s a small world.”  Maybe that’s the biggest change since last we met. It hasn’t felt small enough for me in quite some time.


One of my college roommates regarded friendship as a test. If you passed, you couldn’t un-pass. He took you on forever, though not really. I expected to finally relax but never overcame feeling indebted. When I tried to explain my discomfort to another roommate, I used you to demonstrate proper friendship. I’m ashamed I’ve exploited your memory for such petty causes.


The summer I left our hometown, I imagined saying goodbye to you, but, by then, we barely knew each other and practicing our conversation was like talking with a ghost who’d left the attic long before.


People brought me news of you after I moved away—some of it horrifying and heartbreaking—but those accounts were as fanciful as games we played as boys, when it was fun to imagine the neighborhood as a harsher, less forgiving landscape.


I’ve never reinvented you as a character in a story. The few times I’ve tried to describe you in writing before now, the prose slipped from my grip like a kite that slackened and fell as soon as I stopped tugging.

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News From Elsewhere

This is my letter to the world,
That never wrote to me,–
The simple news that Nature told,
With tender majesty.
Her message is committed
To hands I cannot see;
For love of her, sweet countrymen,
Judge tenderly of me!

These days, I don’t write many letters, but when I did, news wasn’t my style. And people seemed to meet my letters with apprehension, skim them, and then put them aside for consideration later… which often turned into much later. On more than one occasion, someone I saw after a long absence formed a mildly sour smile and tipped his or her head in silent concern and embarrassment. “Your letters….” I heard those expressions say.

We’d start talking instead of writing, and friendship returned in moments. It helped to stay away from anything seen on the page.

In graduate school, one of the lecturers discussing Emily Dickinson’s correspondence addressed how challenging it must have been to be her friend. As brilliant as she was, she was, in seventies-speak, “Intense.” Her first letter to Thomas Wentworth Higgins sounds demure enough—she asks, “Are you too deeply occupied to say if my verse is alive?” However, her aesthetic meditations quickly explode into real crises, and she steps close enough to the edge of obsession and mania that the bottom of her dress gets wet.

She also tells Higgins, “When I state myself, as the representative of the verse, it does not mean me, but a supposed person.” Many of my students like to believe Dickinson wrote for herself, and of course she did. But she also desired an audience, or she never would have bothered to write Higgins in the first place. Her “supposed person” may also have offered a degree of protection. Though she said “That’s not really me,” the neediness of her letters to Higgins accelerates quickly, and soon she’s telling him she has no “Monarch” in her life, and “cannot rule myself; and when I try to organize, my little force explodes and leaves me bare and charred.” She begins to beg him to visit, and, when he says he can’t, she delays her reply, “Not because I had none, but did not think myself the price that you should come so far. I do not ask so large a pleasure, lest you might deny me.”

I’m no Emily Dickinson, but I sometimes wonder if these posts are my letters to the world. My crises are more visible here. In my real life I appear placid. Here I share doubt. In real life I’ve learned to disguise my quiet desperation, but the desperation hasn’t really changed. My mind can turn a broken shoelace into a personal apocalypse. Even good news can arrive like a page soaked in the most sulfurous molasses—sweet, yes, but with bitter promise.

And I’m in the odd position of having a few readers now. Where before I could regard this blog as a laboratory, a chance to sort out thoughts and formulate theories, now some people know my pronouncements. Once I might safely quote myself, now I feel how odious that is. Yet, as the different seas of my life begin to mingle, I wonder if some people will come to regard me as my returning friends did. I’ve experienced that state often enough with other people—there’s so much I know about them that I don’t discuss, so much I see as our intimate knowledge and don’t address. After being immersed in darker or more forceful currents, you can have trouble resurfacing.

I confess a few moments of embarrassment when someone mentions reading my blog or says me back to me. Naturally, I think, “Should I have admitted that?” or “Am I going to get in trouble?” or “Is it okay to feel as I do?” and “Oh, what did I say?” I’m no exhibitionist. I’m an intensely private person, so this urge to expose myself mystifies me a bit. Emily Dickinson’s desperation is in me too—we aren’t truly writing for ourselves, but for some company.

I tell myself it should take courage to write. Writing without risk hardly seems like writing at all, and, seen from a written or spoken perspective, I am one person. I tell myself that, if I begin by saying none of us are what we seem, I have a better chance of reaching readers and giving something greater than self-absorbed news. I tell myself I have to be vulnerable to touch anyone.

Then I think about Dickinson’s power—her loud voice blasting from her private world—and hope writing really is truth and not perpetual embarrassment.


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Those Letters

463px-symbol_thumbs_downsvg.png A statement students never hear—our disappointments and not our triumphs make us.

In the next few weeks, some seniors at my school will learn colleges they want do not want them. For a few, it will be the end of desperate hope they tried not to feel. For others— having already seen themselves as part of a school through fandom or family— the rebuff will require redefining themselves. For most, it will be their first serious rejection.

As everyone is away on spring break, the seniors will tend their own wounds, but, even if school were in session, they would have to reconcile themselves. It won’t help to tell them, as my colleagues and I often do, that if we were applying to our alma maters in the current admissions climate, we might not be accepted. It won’t help to blame the system, though colleges’ relentless marketing superheats the process and sets students up for disappointment. We can’t evoke fate and any sort of meant-to-be’s, nor offer stories of how this moment won’t seem so important ten years from now, nor can we cajole them to reject a school that, up until that letter arrived, they’d esteemed highly.

And, frankly, I’m not sure any of those consolations should work. You can convince people how to think, but has anyone ever succeeded entirely at convincing someone how to feel?  You have that argument with yourself, and winning or losing it is far more consequential than any momentary reassurance.

Of course, not all the news will be bad. Some students will see hard work rewarded or unlikely hopes fulfilled. We shake their hands and slap their backs. College decisions, like another stage of a rocket, may blast them into new territory and a new sense of themselves. We know what to say to them. Nothing could be easier.

No one would think of telling them that disappointments and not triumphs make us. Reminding them they will not always be so lucky would be in terribly bad taste, and who, at that moment, wants to be reminded this result is really a new trial, another task at which they can succeed and fail?

But I confess I’m tempted.

I often find myself admiring the rejects more. If I can’t congratulate them, I can at least commune with them. They come to understand what I’d consider reality—that it’s not what we’re given but what we do with it that counts. Everyone my age has experienced disappointment or tragedy, and, speaking for myself, I’ve grown stronger through those experiences. Knowing no setback is final fills me with genuine optimism for seniors who don’t get their first choice. Successes born of discontent are often sweeter than simple good fortune. They can develop resilience, resourcefulness, and a sense of humor their classmates may come to envy.

“There will be little rubs and disappointments everywhere,” Jane Austen said, “and we are all apt to expect too much; but then, if one scheme of happiness fails, human nature turns to another; if the first calculation is wrong, we make a second better: we find comfort somewhere.”

Though they won’t accept comfort from me, the disappointed seniors may find it in their own hearts, which will ultimately be more valuable than anything I might offer.

We’d all like to choose our paths, but we can’t see the wider world that way. The recipients of bad news would never accept my saying so, but they may be the lucky ones.

I don’t grieve for them—they carry my greatest hopes.

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Belle Blogres

bishopone2.jpg As a poet, Elizabeth Bishop was an amazing letter writer.

Some of Bishop’s meticulously edited and re-edited poems arise from over 100 drafts. Her “process” made her output comparatively small, and it’s easy to imagine her creativity running at a torturous trickle.

Yet poems don’t tell the story of Bishop’s creative life. She wrote a prodigious number of letters, over 30 a day at some points, and many are just as insightful and apt as her poems. A selected and edited collection of her correspondence runs 668 pages and could have been twice that length. Letter writing suited Bishop, allowing her to write without censuring or editing herself as she did endlessly elsewhere

Bishop died in 1979 just as personal computing arrived, but I wonder how someone of her habits might adapt to our technological age of lightning editing and instant manuscripts.

More specifically, I wonder—would she blog?

Bloggers share some traits with old school letter writers and some with essayists. Some blogs are here’s-what-I’m-doing-at-camp missives, but some are letters from smart people to smart people discussing ideas they’ve been nurturing… like communism, evolution, and negative capability. Some blogs present back-burning thought, brains trying ideas out and rehearsing paradigms.

Essays do too, but essays’ exploration often comes across as conventional. Ideas appear as if the writer were just thinking them, but the best essayists are character actors who learn to appear casual and spontaneous as they research, plan, and outline.

Bloggers, working in short bursts, haven’t that luxury. Ideas unfold as rapidly as inflatable life rafts. In one or two scrolls, ideas are out and exhausted. Emotion is as appealing as reason, discovery as important as development—blogging is getting something down.

Bishop used letters similarly. In a letter she wrote as a student at Vassar, she talked about how much she learned when someone coughs or hiccups. “You know how he feels in the little aspects he never mentions,” she wrote, “Aspects which are, really, indescribable to another person and must be realized by that kind of intuition.” One of the last poems of her life, “The Waiting Room” uses that observation when an Aunt’s involuntary “Oh!” of pain in the dentist chair leads the speaker to insight.

It took her an entire life to find the proper place for this revelation, I might post it the next week.

Most blogs aren’t notepads or proving grounds. Though they aren’t tweets, they are an immediate form appropriate for an immediate age—quickly written and read. People who dislike blogs complain how unfiltered and unedited they are, but they are also of-the-moment. Some are visceral and direct and unpolished, and that’s their appeal.

Bishop wrote in one of her letters to her friend Ilse Barker, “I am sorry for people who can’t write letters. But I suspect also that you and I, Ilse, love to write them because it’s kind of like working without really doing it.”  Of course there are some bad posts—ideas or emotions that could have incubated longer—but good posts feel experiential and experimental, like working, not work.

And, despite what critics say, posts aren’t vomited mentation or self talk. Elizabeth Bishop taught a course on letters at Harvard called “Readings in Personal Correspondence, Famous and Infamous, from the 16th to 20th Centuries.” Maybe a future course will be called, “Readings in Posted Thought, Flaming and Cool, from the early 21st century.”

You would have to choose a small time window because even a few years would admit millions of choices. The volume of “letters” bars them from mainstream writing culture. Too much product. Supply exceeding demand. Call anything “democratic art,” and you doom it to oxymoronic hell.

Elizabeth Bishop’s letters center around simple observations: a party that became a fight or a gospel group’s gyrations, or a moment on the street between two lovers. They appear nothing special—except to recipients who, privy to a poet’s mind, are momentarily transported and enlightened.

Blogs aren’t the Faberge eggs that Bishop’s poems “One Art” or “The Fish” are. They aren’t even “The Map,” but they are the letters of our age, the minutiae of grand existence. I suspect Bishop might approve.

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