Category Archives: Miscellany

Sincerely and most ardently yours (Why don’t they write!?)

I am writing today to lament the tragic and rapid disappearance of a very classic and elegant form of expression: the love letter. The love letter (or note if someone was pressed for time) has been in existence since written forms of languages were developed. Love is one of the fundamental emotions felt by humans, and for thousands of years we have been trying with and without success to effectively put it into words. Love letter writing was once a very serious undertaking. Manuals on how to accomplish such a task date back as far as the sixteenth century. We take for granted today how easy it is to be physically near our partners and how much alone time unmarried couples are allowed now in the western world. Without the means of modern transportation and the often heavy supervision of chaperones often the love letter was the only way (provided the couple found a discrete and trusty means for delivery) that a pair of lovers could earnestly express their affections for one another. It was even considered acceptable as late as the Victorian period for gentlemen to propose marriage through letters. I think that’s a fact most people today might find a little off-putting when so much emphasis tends to be placed on the act of “popping the question” these days. This was not so in the past when a young man might be too bashful or overcome with intense emotion that he could not effectively express his intentions verbally. The Victorians, as they were wont to do, of course took love letter writing to a whole new level. They often used scented inks, gaudily decorated stationary, and flowery language. Penmanship was a skill cultivated by the more affluent classes. Judgements were passed on the quality of a person based on this fact alone. In other words a great deal of thought went into letter writing and it was governed by a score of precise rules that did not really loosen until the twentieth century.

One of the beauties of the love letter is that, provided it is looked after, there is forever a record of the very intimate exchanges of two people. So many love letters from famous individuals survive today and have provided great insight into their lives. I personally love reading these sort of exchanges between such individuals. I think a great deal can be gathered about a person by the way he or she expresses him or herself to his or her partner.

I love the eighteenth century example found in the letters of John and Abigail Adams. Not only were they very much in love which is clearly evident, but John also considered Abigail his intellectual equal and elicited his “Diana’s” advice and opinion on political matters. John was often taken far away by his involvement in forging a new nation so letter writing gave the couple their only means of keeping close and the couple took great advantage of this exchanging well over 1,000 letters that we know about today. You probably don’t really think cute when you think of John Adams, but this little letter he sent Abigail in 1762 might change your mind:

“By the same Token that the Bearer hereof satt up with you last night I hereby order you to give him, as many Kisses, and as many Hours of your Company after 9 O’Clock as he shall please to Demand and charge them to my Account: This Order, or Requisition call it which you will is in Consideration of a similar order Upon Aurelia for the like favour, and I presume I have good Right to draw upon you for the Kisses as I have given two or three Millions at least, when one has been received, and of Consequence the Account between us is immensely in favour of yours.”

There is a great book of their letters called My Dearest Friend, which is an excellent way to experience one of the greatest American love stories.

I am a known fan of Keats. Pretty much any guy who quoted his words to me could easily capture my affections. However, there was the one poor idiot who once tried to pass Shakespeare’s famous rose line from Romeo and Juliet off as Keats to me at a bar. Suffice it to say he was left quite embarrassed and without my phone number. Anyway, Keats’s letters to Fanny Brawne in their tragically sad love affair are interesting and tenderly melancholy, which appeals to me. God love a poet, they’ll break your heart, but they can certainly woo:

“I never knew before, what such a love as you have made me feel, was; I did not believe in it; my Fancy was afraid of it, lest it should burn me up. But if you will fully love me, though there may be some fire, ’twill not be more than we can bear when moistened and bedewed with Pleasures.”

Often those of us today make the mistake of assuming those in the past were somehow all more prudish and straight-laced than we are today. While outwardly this might have been how things appeared, not everyone kept their love letters as prim as one would think. Take for example this rather juicy excerpt from a letter written by Gustave Flaubert to his lover Louise Colet in 1846:

“I will cover you with love when next I see you, with caresses, with ecstasy. I want to gorge yu [sic] with all the joys of the flesh, so that you faint and die. I want you to be amazed by me, and to confess to yourself that you had never even dreamed of such transports… When you are old, I want you to recall those few hours, I want your dry bones to quiver with joy when you think of them.”

It sounds like ol’ Gustave knew how to show Louise a good time. But if you really want to read some steamy (and quite frankly, graphic) examples of love letters look no further than the early twentieth century example of those written by James Joyce to Nora Barnacle. I’m afraid I do not even have the courage to excerpt them here. Trust me, though, if you aren’t faint of heart or easily offended, they are quite the interesting read. See, letter writing can be fun!

Letter writing lived on with only a slightly diminished vigor post-telephone it seems until the birth of the internet. I love the internet. It’s great in many ways. However, I really blame it and cellphones for the decline of letter writing and proper communication skills in general. Very few of my generation (the 20s set) seem to write any form of letters at all. We text, email, Facebook, etc. For some things, though, like love letters, these forms of communication simply aren’t a good substitute. There is something to be said about receiving a letter from a loved one in the mail. It means something for someone to take the time out of their day to pen thoughts specifically designed for another. I love the intimacy of that act. I try to write letters as much as I can. I was raised by parents who wrote and write letters still from time to time. I had pen pals as a child years before I learned to use the internet. I have written love letters as well. I find satisfaction in it. I wish more people my age would get back into the habit of posting their thoughts to one another. Yes, speed and efficiency are sacrificed, but sometimes speed and efficiency are overrated. I guarantee, from personal experience, it would be very hard to find a young lady (or man for that matter) who would not enjoy receiving the written expression of their significant other’s affections folded into a lovely handwritten letter. Speaking of which, all you guys out there should really consider taking a look at “The Art of Manliness'” post about letter writing. It’s actually good advice if you’re looking to woo a special lady especially one with a romantic soul. The same goes for ladies too looking for a special way to charm a young man. Stamps really aren’t that expensive. Why not give it a try?

I hope one day we’ll return to letter writing, but I’m afraid it would take some sort of post-apocalyptic situation the likes of which were seen in that bizarre Kevin Costner film The Postman. In the mean time, though, I’ll keep doing my part by writing letters as often as I can, and faithfully checking my letter box. Happy writing, everyone!

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Filed under History, Miscellany

All things go

I have been thinking a lot about loss lately: what it means to lose, how it feels, what it causes and why. Being the factually-minded scholarly type in my quest to understand loss I turned to my trusty OED, which told me:

loss  n 1 the fact or action of losing something or someone. 2 a person, thing, or amount lost. 3 the feeling of sadness after losing a valued person or thing. 4 a person or thing that is badly missed when lost.

We all lose things: keys, remotes, cell phones. This is an everyday, mundane occurrence. Ah, but it’s that third definition that really makes us human. The feeling of sadness after losing a valued person or thing. The key word there is “valued.” This understanding of the word, like the first, is something that every person will feel at some time in his or her life, but unlike the first understanding of the world this will usher in unprecedented change and the greatest agony he or she will have known to that date. To feel human is to feel completely lost and powerless in the face of change and time. Funny how language works; the same word can take on two completely different meanings. It creates the differentiation between dropping a contact lens on the pavement and having your heart shattered.

That agony I mentioned a sentence ago comes in the form of grief. Grief is the stuff that emits from the deep pit that is left when your loss (see definition 4) is ripped from you. That hole or wound, if you will, seems to appear at the center of the place where your soul meets your corporeal presence. You ache uncontrollably with such a fierce intensity, with a longing so desperate, you feel as if you will never be whole again. That wound suddenly becomes a black hole, engulfing all other meaning in your life, incapable of being filled, and it leaves you only with the irrepressible longing. This is grief.

Medically, I suppose, grief is the psychological and, yes, physical reaction we have to loss. Elisabeth Kübler-Ross famously introduced the Five Stages of Grief in her book On Death and Dying. The five stages are denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. They come in no distinct order nor are they experienced the same way for everyone. No one goes through the grieving process at the same rate either. I think it also gets typically associated with the death of a loved one, but it comes into play where any loss (definition 2) is experienced from losing a job or moving somewhere new to ending a relationship. The real rub about grief is that no one has the ability to ignore it. No amount of distraction or avoidance will make it leave more quickly. Grief is something one has to face. I think as humans we all have a natural inclination toward self preservation which includes an immediate desire to flee from pain and avoid ever after that which we know will cause pain. Grief is all about forcing you to embrace the pain whether little by little or head on all at once. There’s no running from it. It is there to be worked through, waiting until we are ready, but it will never go away on its own.

I think it is interesting that grief elicits a physiological response from our bodies. I found a list on the BBC website (of all places) of physical symptoms that can be brought on by grief. The list included the expected symptoms such as extreme fatigue and uncontrollable crying, but it also included heart palpitations, recurrent infections, hair loss, and disruption of the menstrual cycle, among others. Grief actually directly effects our nervous systems. When we experience an intense loss our nervous systems go into hyper drive creating a tremendous stress response. It releases enormous levels of natural steroids and throws the body into a heightened level of awareness. Essentially the body experiences what happens in the fight or flight response. Our hearts then have to react to keep up, increasing our pulse and blood pressure. As they said in the BBC article, “Even if the person seems slow and down, inside they’re in turmoil.” Our physical appearances change too. The eyes and cheeks seem to recede and sink in the face due to a number of other physical reactions such as sleep loss or lack of appetite that can occur, as mentioned our hair can thin, or our posture changes. When we see people affected by grief, they always seem like ghosts of themselves worn away by anguish. The effect can be quite striking.

What is further interesting is that many studies have now shown, and I personally agree with them, that other animals apart from humans experience grief as well.  There are numerous accounts of species such as elephants or certain primates exhibiting grief-like behavior over the bodies of their dead offspring holding vigil or carrying the body as if it were alive. Some primate offspring who lose parents also grieve. Jane Goodall famously observed the case of Flint, a chimpanzee, who lost his mother. He then withdrew from the other chimps, stopped eating, and died. Certain avian species like the grey lag goose have been known to exhibit signs of grief as well. Grey lags have actually been observed displaying outward symptoms similar to humans after the loss of a mating partner including the appearance of receding eyes and the drooping of the head and neck. It fascinates me to think that grief is potentially yet another way all fauna can be connected as living, breathing life forms. I find some comfort in that.

I am not a doctor nor am I a psychologist or any sort of professional, and all my thoughts on loss and grief are purely amateur conjecture, but thinking has always brought me comfort. Contemplation has always helped. I think in the cases where we lose people whether through death or separation in life, we are never really able to stop loving them. When love occurs between two people, in whatever capacity, it never leaves. I think it is a form of energy, and being as such it can neither be created nor destroyed, it can just exist. This is at once both beautiful and incredibly depressing. Eventually we are able to move through the grief and pack away our memories of the person to be stored in our own mental attics, but, in those boxes, also gets packed our remaining love for that person. We can somewhat push away the memories of the intensity of that love in our everyday consciousness, but when we accidentally stumble on those boxes while shuffling around in our own minds, we remember that it is still there, flickering faintly always. We can let go of everything else, but that.

When I grieve, I turn to words. I read those of other writers and try to collect my own on the page. Words help me work through things, understand, and cope.  Writers have been writing about love and loss since words were invented. It helps when I can find those particular configurations, which seem to speak directly to me.

Neil Gaiman, as I have mentioned before here, is a favorite author of mine and one that just seems to be on a similar wavelength. He wrote this in The Sandman and it pretty well captures it, all of it whether you lose someone through death or the ending of things. On that note, I will leave you all for now in the much more capable hands of a wordsmith vastly more adept than myself.

This is what he wrote about love:

“Have you ever been in love?  Horrible isn’t it?  It makes you so vulnerable.  It opens your chest and it opens up your heart and it means that someone can get inside you and mess you up.  You build up all these defenses, you build up a whole suit of armor, so that nothing can hurt you, then one stupid person, no different from any other stupid person, wanders into your stupid life…. You give them a piece of you.  They didn’t ask for it.  They did something dumb one day, like kiss you or smile at you, and then your life isn’t your own anymore.  Love takes hostages.  It gets inside you.  It eats you out and leaves you crying in the darkness, so simple a phrase like ‘maybe we should be just friends’ turns into a glass splinter working its way into your heart.  It hurts.  Not just in the imagination.  Not just in the mind.  It’s a soul-hurt, a real gets-inside-you-and-rips-you-apart pain.  I hate love.”

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Filed under Just Me, Miscellany

Sundays (in the car) with Irving

My little seasoned traveler just outside of Chattanooga.

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Filed under Irving, Miscellany, Sundays with Irv

I love my cat.

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After an afternoon of going absolutely nuts and literally bouncing off the walls, Oiving finally crashes. Do you think he’s dreaming of surfing? One thing’s for sure, though, I have a massive cat, proven by the fact that he takes up an entire ironing board to snooze. Just one of the many reasons why he is utterly lovely.

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October 20, 2011 · 8:25 pm

Still crazy after all these years

Today is Paul Simon’s seventieth birthday. Happy birthday, Paul. I’ve loved you and your music ever since my mom and dad played me the Graceland cassette when I couldn’t have been much older than two. Here’s to seventy more!

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Filed under Miscellany, Music

I’m not gonna let them

This is the response to my discouragement of late that my wet plate friend in Portugal sent me today. It immediately brightened my day. Thanks, guys.
No matter how near or far they are, I have an amazing support group.

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Filed under Miscellany

I’ll be seeing you

Hi, everyone! It’s been a while. I don’t have anything good to post tonight. I am writing instead to say that I am going on a bit of a hiatus from blogging. I have a pretty busy couple of weeks coming up, and they’ll keep me from writing, unfortunately. I wish I could’ve written more in the past couple of weeks, but a twenty hour a week assistantship and nine hours of classes are keeping me pretty busy and very worn out when I do manage to snag a free moment. I’m adjusting, though, and drinking more coffee, so hopefully I will be writing again soon.

Until then, as Garrison Keillor would say, “Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.”

Irving says "Hi," by the way.

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Filed under Just Me, Miscellany