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The Machineries of Anxiety

May 17, 2007 1 comment

From thinkBuddha.org, November 28, 2005

There’s a beautiful quote from the German philosopher Martin Heidegger, who wrote, “Anxiety is there. It is only sleeping. Its breath quivers perpetually through man’s being.” I was reminded of this last month whilst on retreat, sitting in meditation feeling the breath of anxiety running through me, an unease with existence, a tremor.

For Heidegger, anxiety is interesting because it shows us something fundamental about what it is to be human. This anxiety is not a fear of anything in particular, but more a general sense of being unsettled; it is a mood that makes us aware of our essential aloneness, of the fact that we are in the world without choosing to be and the only certainty that awaits us is death, a certainty that is nevertheless the most uncertain thing: which breath will be our last, our final breath? Will we drink in this air a hundred times more, a thousand, a hundred thousand, or just once before our life comes to an end?

Sitting in meditation, in the silence of the Devon countryside, I saw clearly how, beneath my everyday concerns, my various projects, my plans, my schemes, my hopes, there is an awareness that the world we live in is contingent, changing, unsatisfactory, filled with suffering and with the possibility of suffering. It is not that suffering is the only thing, merely that here, in the world, it is inescapable; and being inescapable, it demands some other response than simply fleeing and hiding one’s head in the sand. But that is always the temptation. As I touched on this awareness of suffering, I was taken by the urge to get up from my cushions, to stride across the hillsides in the blustery rain, to write poems, to sing songs, to make plans for the future, to reminisce about the past, to do anything I possibly could to blot out this anxiety.

Normally, that is what I would have done. But on that occasion, I chose not to. Instead, as an experiment, I stayed with the anxiety, with the reality of suffering. And as I sat in meditation, I confess, I sobbed, realising with relief that I needed no excuse to do so, that simply living in the world was reason enough.

What is this quivering of which Heidegger writes? It feels to me as if there is a kind of double movement in it. As we settle into an awareness of the pain of the world, there is a relaxation. But there is also a kind of fear, as if, were we to settle too deeply into this awareness, the world might no longer hold us up, we might not be able to bear the reality of suffering. And yet . . . The legend goes that when the Buddha was confronted by the fears and terrors of existence before his awakening, he responded with a simple gesture, touching the earth lightly with his fingertips as if to say, ‘Yes, there is all this terror and pain, and yet still I sit, here upon the surface of the earth.’

For a moment as I sat in meditation I thought that this suffering might be all that there was. Yet in spite of the suffering, later that afternoon the sun shone and lit up the drops of rain hanging from the damp grass like a carpet of jewels; my fellow retreatants went about their business, calmly, quietly, each one bearing their own sufferings and joys, exchanging brief smiles, sitting in silence and looking out across the hills. And it struck me that there is something more fundamental than Heidegger’s anxiety, something that no longer quivers, something calmer, more stable, something that is echoed in that gesture of touching the earth. A kind of joy, for want of a better word, but one that does not exclude an awareness of pain.

Back in the flow of day-to-day life again, it is always easy to forget what precious insights are gleaned from being on retreat. It is a question of using these moments of insight to make concrete changes in your life or, as Jack Kornfield puts it, after the ecstasy, the laundry. An insight that is not put to use is no insight at all.

Reflecting on anxiety after the retreat, I realised that one of the things that feeds anxiety the most, at least for me, is the constant drip, drip, drip of misery from the mass media: newspapers, the addiction to the news programme in the morning radio, the habit of turning on the radio again for the six o’clock news in the evening. These are the machineries of anxiety. They say that sex sells, and no doubt it does; but anxiety sells just as much, if not more. The experience of reading a newspaper can sometimes seem like a dim echo of the legend of the Buddha, facing the raging fears of existence as he sat calmly at the foot of his tree: for here all the terrors of human life are on display – rape, murder, mutilation, loss, hunger, disease, cruelty, death. But, unlike in the legend, even as we read the newspaper or listen to the news, we find ourselves in flight from the horror of that which we are reading or listening to. We don’t take it on board. We don’t really recognise it for what it is. We do not look the terrors square in the eye and gently touch the ground with our fingertips, because we are afraid that if we looked them in the eye, we might break apart. We turn our minds away from the reality of suffering. But it slips in nevertheless, taking root in the corners of our mind, feeding our jitteriness, our unease with existence.

This leaves a dilemma. Given that I am a British citizen, here in the 21st century, I believe that I have certain responsibilities. It is true that I may not have chosen these responsibilities, but I don’t really think that responsibilities are really chosen anyway: we find ourselves responsible, and then we choose whether to act upon these responsibilities or not. I am, to some extent, responsible for what my government does, at least in the sense that I may be called upon to respond to what my government does. I am responsible for the ways I act, the things I buy, the life I lead. To cut oneself off entirely from what is happening in the world seems to me to be dangerously close to abdicating my responsibilities. At the same time, becoming a twenty-four-hour news junkie is clearly unhealthy. A middle way, perhaps, is needed, one that is neither hooked into the drip-feed of anxiety, but nor is it simply a case of burying one’s head in the sand.

My current solution is this. I avoid the news on the radio. I don’t have a TV, so I don’t have to worry about this. And on Fridays I buy the excellent Guardian Weekly, a digest of the best articles from the week, with a smattering of others from Le Monde and the Washington Post. The news when it reaches me is always a few days old, so it doesn’t fuel that ‘I’ll just turn on the radio and see what is happening with x’ habit; and whilst this keeps me up to date with what is happening, so far at least I am refreshingly free of the nagging, daily anxiety that is encouraged by our 24-hour news society.

by Will Buckingham

Memory

May 15, 2007 2 comments

From mole, March 14, 2006

Yesterday my high school roommate said he had seen me slap my girlfriend, once. I believe him, but I don’t remember it, and there was a cold constriction behind my breastbone all day. This is well over thirty years ago; any connection I have to that overwrought teenager is tenuous, but it distressed me, and it still distresses me.

That I’d done it – if I could remember it – would be forgiveable. I was fifteen and terribly unstable. But that I could do it and forget it, that’s what frightened me. What else have I forgotten? Just how much editing has gone into making this persona?

I had to ask Martha, last night. “Have I ever hit you?”

Her blank perplexity was reassuring. I told her why I was asking. “No, you’ve never hit me,” she said.

So that was a relief, anyway.

I still don’t remember it. But a couple hours after he had said that, a picture formed in my mind: a dark hallway, and she standing a couple yards away, on her high-colored face an expression of mixed anger and triumph. The expression said, “I knew that was what you really were.” There’s no movement to this picture. Nothing leads up to it or away from it.

My memory works like that. Disconnected pictures, charged with emotion. There are no stories in my memory, no narratives. I’m always astonished by people with narrative memories. Martha has the whole history of our lives in stories. Start her anywhere, with any memory, and she catches the thread of the story, and soon the narrative unfolds, complete with characters and motives. She even remembers other peoples’ stories.

But my memory is little vivid pictures framed by a huge darkness. I remember things I’ve seen and things I’ve felt. There’s M, having just stepped back from me, the stairs tumbling away to my right, an unlighted doorway behind her; and the picture is suffused with dread. But that’s all there is.

by Dale Favier

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Elegy for an Elegant Mule

May 13, 2007 4 comments

From Bitterroot and Bergamot, December 14, 2005

edith_1.jpg

I heard from my cousin that Burley died last week. Burley is the elegant mule, standing proudly at attention above, whose passing we mourn here.

Burley Ironsides has been a family institution since 1972. His mother was Peg LaMoose (in the above photo, the mount of my cousin GW2, the legendary zoologist cowboy). Burley’s sire was Montana Jack, a jack donkey.

Burley’s passing gives pause. In his retirement years on the MCG Ranch, we would always seek out and greet Burley in much the way one visits a respected elder. He was unfailingly gracious and tolerant of such tomfoolery as having to sport a Santa Claus hat over one ear. The photo below of our dignified friend was taken last summer.

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GW2 took Burley in his prime years, along with daughter T, on many an adventure in the wilderness areas of Montana. Below is T on the historic occasion of Burley’s first passenger trip.

T has some wonderful Burley memories: “From the day he was born, Dad began gentling him by brushing him, scratching his ears, lifting up his feet, getting him used to the human touch. All proceeded nicely until weaning time. Burley then became a little hellion, racing around the corral, shaking his head and striking out with both front and hind feet. He climbed up and over the solid post and pole corral several times. Dad put snow fencing up all around the top of the corral, raising it to a height of about 12 feet.

“For several months, Burley continued to be mad, and there were times Dad wondered if a riding mule was such a good idea after all. But eventually, time and hormones came under control, Burley settled
down, and his training began in earnest. I was the first one to ride him, as Dad figured I was lighter and would bounce on the hard ground if Burley took a dislike to the proceedings.

“The day arrived. We saddled up Burley, Dad got up on Mrs. Moose and looped Burley’s halter rope snugly around the saddle horn, and I climbed aboard Burley. His big ears went back and forth a couple of times as I talked to him, and that was it. Burley was a riding mule.”

edith_3.jpg

T goes on: “For many years, Dad and I went together on pack trips into the Bob Marshall Wilderness with Burley, Mrs. Moose, and Dolly Davis, who was Burley’s half sister. Dad usually rode Burley himself, but occasionally allowed me to ride him. It is true: mules are much better to ride than horses in the mountains. They have a smoother gait, are more sure-footed over rough ground, and don’t panic in difficult situations such as fording wild rivers and plunging through belly-deep mud.

In later years, we went on pack trips with Smoke Elser, a wilderness outfitter. Many of Smoke’s pack animals were Burley’s half-brothers and -sisters. Burley always became the favorite of the wranglers and the paying dudes on these trips.

“At home, Burley’s favorite place to hang out on hot summer days was the brick sidewalk directly in front of the front door. Anyone coming or going from the house was given the option of ducking under Burley’s neck or sidling around his backside. We figured it was a good way to screen visitors.

“Whenever Burley was far out in the pasture, all Dad had to do was holler ‘C’mon, Burley!’ Burley’s head would come up, his long ears would point forward and he would come to Dad.”

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When Burley was born in 1972 (see above for Burley’s first hours), the world did not stop to take note. Nor did we kids understand that Burley would come to represent a world that our parents showed us and that we now value in a way that is impossible to describe. My cousins, my brother and I all grew up in Montana with parents who saw the last of the Montana frontier. These were magnificent people who fought in WWII, miraculously survived, and came back to Montana to forge lives in business and academia that were still rooted in their pioneer heritage. In their spare time they built log cabins, preserved open space, wrote books, and told the stories of their grandparents who had come to the west with nothing but hope. And they took us, many times, to the wild places we would otherwise never have known.

Burley, the seemingly immortal pack mule, always seemed to represent those remote, pristine places of our youth. Even those of us who never took a pack trip with Burley (God help me, I was living in Chicago when Burley was born), came to associate Burley with a wilderness ethos that we would have to try to keep alive for the next generation.

Now our gentle friend is gone. The fuzzy colt has lived a lifetime and so, it seems, have we. The legacy we can pass on is the experience of pristine places. Part of our job here on earth is to protect these places so they can remain forever.

T sent a quote from The Outermost House by Henry Beston:

We need another and a wiser and perhaps a more mystical concept of animals. Remote from universal nature, and living by complicated artifice, man in civilization surveys the creature through the glass of his knowledge and sees thereby a feather magnified and the whole image in distortion. We patronize them for their incompleteness, for their tragic fate of having taken form so far below ourselves. And therein we err, and greatly err. For the animal shall not be measured by man. In a world older and more complete than ours they move finished and complete, gifted with extensions of the senses we have lost or never attained, living by voices we shall never hear. They are not brethren, they are not underlings; they are other nations, caught with ourselves in the net of life and time, fellow prisoners of the splendor and travail of the earth.

by Edith Oberley

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Attacked By Thugs!

May 11, 2007 1 comment

From Idle Words, May 21, 2004

Warsaw has a river running down its middle, an unassuming and turbid ribbon of water with a stair-step concrete embankment along both of its banks, where you can often find retirees fishing (only people on fixed incomes or those close to death would dare eat fish from the Vistula). In between the embankment and the touristy downtown on the western side of the river runs a long strip of parkland, bordered on its far edge by a big divided highway that parallels the river and is packed with traffic at all hours of the day. A simple, linear world – river, embankment, about a hundred yards of lawn and shrubbery, and highway.

This riverside park doesn’t figure much in Warsaw criminal lore. You can usually find young mothers pushing strollers along the path, nuns out for a walk, or the occasional staggering drunk, all of them signs of safety and comfort. On this particular day, I was walking along with a backpack on, muttering to myself loudly, and headed to the Old Town not half a kilometer away. It was towards noon and the weather was stunning, but the park was almost empty.

At some point I noticed that a couple of young guys had started walking behind me on the path, your typical teen-aged buzz-cut-and-track-suit types (Poland has yet to discover the mullet) who didn’t seem very threatening. A little later, I noticed a second pair of young guys to my right, on a parallel sidewalk, and I recall feeling a tinge of uneasiness – there was a little too much in the way of fleeting looks and smirking from them, and I remember thinking that if the two pairs of guys were together, then I was in trouble. But this seemed like a paranoid thought, and I was just a few dozen steps from a very busy road, so rather than cutting sharply right to get nearer to traffic (which would have looked silly but spared me what happened next) I decided to just keep walking.

The sidewalk to my right tapered off into lawn, and the pair of guys walking there cut diagonally across to my own path, until they were walking just a few dozen steps ahead of me. And then they slowed down and started to look back at me, smiling. Not normal. “What’s up?” said the smaller of the pair, a teenager with an overhanging forehead.

“Nothing’s up.”

I turned a sharp right, trying to get closer to the road, which was obscured by some bushes. But they were clearly not interested in letting me do that.

“Where are you going?”

“To the road.”

“Why are you going to the road?” Right in my face now.

“For kicks.”

My body had pumped so much adrenaline at this point that my overriding emotion wasn’t fear, but rather an intense irritation that I was about to get my ass kicked by dorks. These guys had barely cleared seventeen, and I didn’t relish the idea of losing my wallet and an entire goddamned iBook to them. But it wasn’t clear how I could get myself away.

We had come to a stop when the guy to my left stuck his foot out in front of me and simultaneously reached for my arm, trying to pull me across his leg so that I would trip and fall onto the lawn. In hindsight, it seems suspiciously like the kind of kung-fu move I would have seen in a movie and rehearsed as a nine year old. To my very good fortune, he wasn’t very quick in setting up his move, and i was able to see it coming, jumping over his foot and dragging him a few feet in the direction of the road.

At this point my assailant had me by the sleeve, in a tug of war, and his three friends were latching on. Some detached part of my brain noticed that this would be a good time to start yelling, so I did that.

We stood for a second in a state of what choreographers call dynamic tension, and then to my great relief I heard the ringleader in back yell “let him go, guys”. He was chickening out. A few moments later I was trotting safely (this being a relative term) down the median of the divided highway, feeling great, flipping off my assailants with gusto. And only after walking for a few minutes, happy as can be, did it occur to me that I should call the police.

If you are ever, ever in Warsaw, I highly recommend you flag down a passing cop car and tell them you’ve been assaulted. You will meet with a kind of unconditional acceptance and emotional support that I didn’t know could be found outside one’s immediate family. The police will also go apeshit and run around with guns and screaming sirens in a way that very few families do, and for the police it’s perfectly legal. I was lucky enough to flag down an entire van full of Warsaw’s finest, and they immediately shouted for me to climb in and tell them which way to go. No invasive questions about who I was, no skepticism of any kind, not even questions about what had happened – just an instant desire to kick hooligan ass.

“I was assaulted by four guys just past that bridge!” I yelled when I got in the van. I barely had time to get my foot off the pavement before we were shooting down the highway in the wrong direction, sirens blaring, shotguns skittering around on the floor.

“MOTHERFUCKERS!” yelled the driver. “MOTHERFUCKING COCK FUCKING SONS OF MOTHERFUCKING BITCHES!”

There were six cops in the van with me, dressed in full black uniform and combat boots. There were various firearms and body armor piled on the floor, left over from the WTO summit the week before. The driver, whose name turned out to be Elmer, looked uncannily like Timothy McVeigh’s kid brother. He did not look like he had seen a great deal of his twenties. A definite Type A personality, however.

“SONS OF FUCKING BITCH-ASS GODDAMNED COCK SUCKING GOAT FUCKERS!”, he elaborated.

We were still heading the wrong direction, and whoever had designed the Warsaw highway system had not apparently heard of the U-Turn. I marveled at the Polish system of signaling to drivers to make way, which was to wave a kind of giant plastic red lollipop out the window, moving it in complex patterns to convey instructions to the driver about which way to veer to avoid the careening cop car. The only signal I could make out was a kind of frenzied shaking, which seemed to mean “read my mind and get out of my way, MOTHERFUCKING COCKSUCKER!!!!”, judging by the running commentary.

Not surprisingly, most people’s reaction at seeing a huge police van swerving wildly behind them was to hunker down and gradually go slower and slower. The papers were full of stories about an incident the week before in Poznan, where police had followed a car and then shot the driver dead without warning, only later figuring out that they had staked out the wrong apartment block. Just two days before my adventure, riot police in Lodz had mixed up live ammunition with rubber bullets used for crowd control; they had opened fire into a crowd of students, killing three people. ‘Lie low, and hope to God they don’t open fire’ seemed a prudent strategy, so gradually the traffic around us started to crawl slower and slower.

Fortunately the van was not equipped with any kind of forward-mounted cannon, or Elmer would have surely started blowing little Skodas and Fiats out of the road in frustration. Instead he had to content himself with higher and higher flights of profanity, while the other cops and I held on for dear life. I hoped fervently none of the shotguns were loaded.

After finally, finally reaching a place to turn around, we raced back up the road and vaulted up onto the lawn a few hundred yards short of the place I had pointed out to them. I tried to repeat some minimal information about my assailants – four young guys, buzz cuts, nylon track suits – but the cops were out of the van and sprinting down the embankment before I could speak. I looked a little uneasily at the deserted van – door open, siren flashing, large shotguns spread enticingly on the floor – and then jogged down to the path to see where the hell everyone had gone. I could see two of the cops about fifty yards away: they had corralled a derelict with filthy long black hair, way past fifty years of age, clearly in need of a dark corner and a liver transplant. “IS THIS HIM?” they yelled.

“No, no – four young guys, short hair!”

They let him go and leapt back into the van, where the other cops had already materialized, and we were off with a screech.

“MOTHERFUCKERS!” said Elmer. “I’M GOING TO FUCKING TAKE DOWN THOSE MOTHERFUCKING SONS OF BITCHES!” He veered off the road after a hundred yards, stopping just short of a bridge, and the cops next to me shot out of the van again. “Is that them?” screamed one of the cops, pointing to invisible people up on the bridge. Incredibly enough, his partners seemed to be chasing two kids who were actually running away, though I couldn’t be sure whether it was out of guilt or just a sudden prudent reluctance to interact with the Polish police.

A long few minutes passed before the two cops reappeared, breathing hard and shining with sweat. They had almost captured three fleeing suspects, but a recalcitrant taxi driver had foiled the capture by not instantly tearing off in hot pursuit when the cops had jumped into his cab and told him to drive. This was to be a persistent theme in the course of the afternoon – whether on foot or on the road, the common reaction among the citizens of Warsaw when approached by a pack of screaming cops was complete helpless terror.

We all piled into the van again and Elmer began a long series of maneuvers that were designed to get us towards the Gdansk Station metro stop, which for mysterious reasons he had decided was the fleeing suspects’ ultimate destination. We started the pursuit by racing up to the gates of the Citadel, an imposing old structure near the train station that now houses an army base. Before the sentries could level their arms at us, Elmer stopped and asked them if they had seen two (?) fleeing young guys. Negative.

We backed out at high speed, Elmer waving his lollipop while steering with one hand, and entered a maze of little streets. Suddenly one of the cops saw a group of three buff guys in their thirties, wearing track suits, standing and smoking by a wall. “IS THAT THEM??” he yelled, as Elmer peeled in to a tiny alley. Hands were on nightsticks, the cops made ready to shoot out of the van again.

“No no no no no!” I yelled, Young, younger than me! Buzz cuts! Not these guys!”

“MOTHERFUCKERS!” said Elmer. “NOW HOW THE FUCK DO WE GET OUT OF HERE?”

We were in a tiny courtyard, with cars parked randomly in every direction. There was no clear way out except the impossibly convoluted path we had taken to get in. We began a fifteen-point turn, the guys in track suits looking criminal and very amused.

It had now been over an hour since the assault, but if anything Elmer was more motivated than ever. He dropped two of his colleagues off on an overpass, where they scampered down towards Gdansk Station, and then began phase two of his containment plan, Operation Search Every Bus And Tram In Warsaw.

For the next thirty minutes, the cops would pull alongside a bus or tram, sirens blaring, and flag it down furiously with the lollipop. Then they would have the driver open the front door, and lead me through it to see if I could identify any of the passengers. It was hard to let them down, but the trams were filled with bewildered retirees, grade school students, businessmen, young nuns, and other implausible types. And I had the distinct impression that anyone I identified wouldn’t have a very comfortable afternoon. Periodically, while we were searching one stopped vehicle, a second bus or tram might speed by and the cops would yell “did you see them in there? Were they in there?”

“MOTHERFUCKERS!” Elmer would add.

The only voice of sanity in the van seemed to come from the dispatcher, who was getting a little bit testy.

“We were flagged down by a man who claimed to have been assaulted near the Gdansk bridge. We moved out into the terrain and are conducting a penetration,” Elmer would report.

“You have told me three times you are conducting a penetration,” the voice would reply. “It has been ninety minutes, you have a minimal description of the suspects, and you have no leads to follow. Return to base, repeat, return to base.”

“We are finishing our penetration of the terrain and have two men in the field,” Elmer would say, undeterrable. “We will report as soon as we have terminated the penetration.”

And then – “MOTHERFUCKERS! We’re going to GET those motherfuckers!! GODDAMN! There – in that tram – is that them?!”

And so it came to pass that I found myself standing with three police officers on a very remote, very empty bridge on the far side of Warsaw. Elmer had left us on a tram and told us to rendezvous on the bridge, but something had obviously intervened and the van had now been gone a long time.

A very, very long time.

The cops were on their third cigarette and the conversation had turned to employment opportunities in Vermont (Chicago or Brooklyn might be a better choice, I thought). The swarthier officer had even gotten bored enough to ask me for identification, and jot down my name. His colleague was off in the distance, talking softly into his walkie-talkie. He didn’t seem to be in a good mood when he got back.

“Is everything all right?” I asked him, as he lit up another cigarette.

“Elmer says he’s got two suspects and is checking them out,” he said. There was a bit of a tense silence after this: all three of the people who had actually seen the suspects were standing there on the bridge. I was quite sure I heard one of the cops sigh.

“So what are American women really like?”

Half a pack of cigarettes later, a call came in. We were to meet the van down at the foot of the bridge, right on the embankment road, and we would continue our pursuit. We walked down the steps to a deserted riverside road, and stood for a long while. There was no sign of a van. The swarthy cop began another quiet intimate conversation with the walkie-talkie.

“Elmer says he’s waiting for us and can’t see where we are,” he said.

The thin cop didn’t say anything, just pointed across the river. There, half a kilometer away, was a blue police van, parked in front of one of the bridge pylons.

“He’s on the wrong fucking side of the water.”

I thought this was a prudent time to ask if I could go, but a few minutes later I heard heavy footsteps and saw my cop friends walk up towards the tram stop where I was waiting. There was a lone black-clad figure visible on the tracks, on the far side of the bridge. Elmer. “We’re going to take the tram over,” said my friends. “You don’t have a ticket, do you? Don’t worry – we’ll be your escort.”

And that’s how I happened to be dropped off by my house by a police van, sirens blaring, three hours after being attacked by thugs in a riverfront park. I waved to my new friends as passengers stared open-mouthed from the bus shelter where the cop van had stopped. I thought I recognized some of them from an earlier tram.

“We’re sorry we couldn’t get them, sir,” said Elmer. “But we’ll find them for you! Even if I have to go sit under that bridge on my motherfucking day off!”

I waved them all goodbye and made a mental note to stay the hell away from the river.

By Maciej Cegłowski

Penicullus Tardus

May 9, 2007 2 comments

From Ambivablog, April 15, 2005

No, that’s not the name of some obscure sexual dysfunction. Read on.

I just did something very curious and quaint. I wrote a letter.

My mother gave me what turned out to be, by an accident of timing, a birthday gift of stationery. She sent my signature to calligrapher (or “letterist,” as she calls herself) Eliza Holliday, both a fine artist and a commercial designer, who let it inspire her personalized design. (I’ll scan and post a sheet tomorrow.) After an enjoyable back-and-forth in which Eliza sent me an assortment of samples and musings and I told her what I liked best, the finished paper and envelopes arrived today. I couldn’t very well send my mom an e-mail thank-you note. So I sat down to the unaccustomed and awkward task of writing an actual letter with a pen on paper – an act that used to be second nature to me, in fact one of my favorite things to do.

Several things struck me as uncomfortable about it. How do you start?? The paper itself seemed to demand the formal beginning “Dear ________,” but while that form ironically feels right for a business letter – to someone who isn’t “dear” to you at all – it seems absurdly posed and mannered for talking with anyone who is dear. So I just plunged in without a salutation. Like . . . like an e-mail.

Then — how slow the pen is! There ought to be a Latin motto, like “Ars longa, vita brevis,” that says “Life is fast (or the mind is fast), but the pen is slow.” “Vita celer (or mens celer), penicullus tardus,” or something like that. The pen is tardier than the word.

And what do you say? To feel like you’re “just talking” in any medium, you have to forget the medium. How were we ever able to forget pen and paper? They’re so physical. Writing by hand is, not surprisingly, a handcraft. It’s more like woodcarving than it is like thinking or talking. That used to be one of its great pleasures. How easily and arrogantly the mind cast that off! Writing on the computer feels almost as unfettered as aerobatics. The illusion of utter freedom is directly proportionate to the complexity of the technology you depend on.

Finally, there’s – an end to the page! It makes you think about cutting your letter short, or even preplanning it to fit the Procrustean dimensions of the paper. Your thought is subject to an external constraint, analogous to society’s roles and manners before it became so indulgent, if not adoring, of the individual. A letter on stationery sets self-expression within bounds, within a conventional frame.

Hell, even putting it in the envelope feels clumsy. And going downstairs to the mailbox? And waiting for the recipient to get it??

I’m a little shocked at how adaptable and faithless I’ve turned out to be. With this stationery, I hope to rediscover the pleasures of writing a letter, and to get a better sense of what I’ve lost, as well as gained, by taking up a new instrument.

by Amba

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A Note from the Editors

May 7, 2007 5 comments

The blog form is now ten years old. How better to celebrate that anniversary than with a “Greatest Blog Hits” issue? From now through our deadline of June 15, we’re reversing our long-standing prohibition against previously blogged material: we want ONLY previously blogged material, at least one year old. It may take any form – fiction, nonfiction, poetry, art, photography, audio, cartoons – and there’s no restriction on length (though excerpts will also be considered). We simply want your best posts.

The editors for this issue are Peter of Slow Reads blog and Dave Bonta of Via Negativa (also one of the two managing editors of qarrtsiluni). This theme is a natural outgrowth of our own blogging: both of us have “best of the blogs” sidebar columns on our sites, and we share an interest in rescuing great posts from the near-oblivion of blog archives. We each have our own favorites that we’ll be looking to get permission to republish, but there are a hell of a lot of well-written blogs out there, and we can’t possibly read them all. So please help us out by circulating this notice far and wide and encouraging other literary, artistic, or simply thoughtful bloggers to exhume their best posts and send them our way.

For this edition, we’ll accept submissions of links to work that is still on the web; otherwise, see our guidelines. As always, please direct all correspondence to qarrtsiluni [at] gmail [dot] com.