Wednesday, August 5, 2015

The Pen

I’ve seen talk lately (I interrupt this moment to reflect that my synesthesia is apparently in play). Starting again, I’ve seen talk lately that schools are considering bringing back handwriting as a subject for students. How remarkable, I think, my wonder betraying my age, again. I’m in favor of it. 

I would hate to see such an intimate form of expression become lost among the ashes of the Library of Alexandria. No matter how much healthy self-esteem we want to instill in our youngsters, sadly not all of them can or should become doctors whose handwriting cannot be read.

As wedded to the concept of crayons as I was with their 64 or more colors, writing was always the skill of power when I was a child. Could you? Your name first, then other words appeared. Did your d’s point the right way or were they b’s instead? Did you run out of room on the line? And you learn to judge space rather than have a machine automagically pop the last word over to the next line. Did you stay within the lines, the two solid lines for the biggest letters and the dotted line in the middle for the shorter letters? Did you hold your pencil correctly, the extension of the point of your dominant hand, meant to be the focus of your conscious self, the mind within?

I went to Catholic school starting my second grade year. We used pens and learned cursive writing years before our public school friends. We had Sheaffer cartridge pens to learn to write correctly. My brother became fond of Peacock Blue ink and even dyed a strip of my long blonde hair with it one afternoon while I nattered on unawares, far ahead of fashion. My brother struggled with left-handedness. I had the scribe’s ink-stained callus on my middle finger. We followed the guides and practiced curling letters over and over.

Mom offered encouragement, showing us antique pens, explaining the “Palmer Method” she had learned, an artistry of loops and whorls that, practiced over and over, became the exquisite “perfect handwriting” I identify with her generation. Her signature was perfectly readable, stopping just short of calligraphy with no extra flourishes but possessing an authority, dignity, femininity, artistic motion and unassailable finality and gravity that putting one’s signature to a document was supposed to have. I was awestruck by her handwriting.

My father’s showed the vestiges of the Palmer Method, but with the architect’s angular precision and confident ego, much like an artist’s signature in red at the bottom of an important painting. His signature betrayed his personality as much as my mother’s, attention-getting, bravado, bragging, essential, aggressive, visionary, the signature of the View of the World As It Should Be.

I began to realize that signatures and writing were such an intimate expression of personality as to be like a fingerprint of the soul, the revelation of the mind of the one who wrote it, as much as we see those signatures on the Declaration of Independence.

What would my signature be? Who was the soul within? These are weighty topics, especially by the time I reached third grade. That year, I decided to explore my inner self in my handwriting and especially signature. I went experimental. This was frowned on by my teacher, young Miss O’Brien, the “lay teacher” with bouncy black hair and blue eyes who wore sneakers to work in spite of the strict dress code. I received the only C on my report card ever. It was clear that artistic experimentation with expressing my identity was something I needed to do on my own time. I gave up and returned to conformity, so often the result when the values of achievement and responsibility dominate.

By junior high school, handwriting was no longer a subject taught and I began to find my own voice in a signature, readable at least but neither my mother’s perfection nor my father’s ego. One weekend around the kitchen table, we were looking at my parents’ high school yearbook. They were in the same high school class in Kansas, my grandfather was on the School Board, my father looking like he should wear a beanie and have tea with the faculty, my mother looking like she would have been Goth if Goth were a thing in 1929. I marveled at the lovely awkwardness, how they all looked older somehow than teens in the 70’s and yet more innocent of the world at the same time.

I saw a signature on the margin of the yearbook and showed it to my mother saying, “I don’t remember seeing this yearbook before, but look! I’ve written Daddy’s name here in the margin.” It was the most curious thing.

She leaned toward me at the large round table and adjusted the glasses on her nose, then smiled.

“You didn’t write that. That’s your grandfather’s signature.”

I was stunned. I had posited that signatures expressed the personality of the person. Now I had mistaken the signature of the grandfather I never knew for my own. A million possibilities flooded my head. This was Hal, Sr. not my dad. And would that mean that his personality was more like my own? He had committed suicide just a few years later, a family mystery full of shame and scandal. Was that…me? My life? My possibility? Did we inherit the signature patterns of our ancestors the same way a grandchild will have his grandfather’s walk or laugh or gesture?

The Ace of Wands in Tarot is the new project, the inspiration, the intuition, the fire in the belly, the life force. It is also commonly interpreted as the pen for writers, for who would pick up a stick and poke it into a dark and wet substance, then guide that pigment to form the translation of human thought? Who would contrive such a wonder but humanity?

That signature in the yearbook started many things for me. I was inspired to know my relatives, including the ones long dead, as people. I was struck by the connection, beyond the boundaries of physical space and across time, between people who never knew each other in life. It was not long after that that I experienced a ghostly visitation from my grandfather with his love, sadness, and assurance that while we had much in common, I need not choose the path he took. For all our commonalities, we were individuals, as unique as life itself.

Best wishes.

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