Paper Memories

The dining room table has been loaded with boxes of letters this week: letters from years ago, decades ago that have been unearthed from our loft. Most of them are Mum’s, but as she sorts through them, she picks out any addressed to me. I already have most of my own letters, of course, in the pine chest in my bedroom, but she discovers a few of mine mixed in with hers.

I sift through these pieces of my past. There’s a handful of birth cards, in which pink features predominantly. “A Baby GIRL!””, one proclaims, while another begins “To Welcome Your Daughter.” There’s even a telegram my aunt sent—to think that I was born in the days when people sent telegrams! My younger brothers had never seen one until I showed it to them.

I don’t know most of these people, though, so I am less interested in the birth cards than I am in a few more personal items. There’s a letter my grandmother wrote when I was three years old. She included some photos of me from a recent visit I’d paid. In one of them I give a small, shy smile as I stand on a chair drying a plate with a tea towel. My hair is quite short and looks, perhaps, a little unusual. It must have been taken after I had cut my hair, Mum points out. I remember the hair-cutting incident, although I don’t remember my visit to my grandparents. “Won’t Dad be surprised to see you drying the dishes for Granny?”, my grandmother wrote.

There’s also a letter my dad wrote me when I was almost six. He was away, and apparently I had sent him a letter and a picture. “I really liked your little letter and picture—once I could find it in the envelope”, he wrote. I must have sent a tiny missive or a huge envelope, or both. “I love and miss you very much,” he finished. I don’t remember getting this letter either, but now? It’s something special to have and to keep.

As we rediscovered these mementos from the past, it made me think again about how meaningful it is to have real, physical letters that last. Will we be able to look back on old tweets, Facebook messages, or even emails in twenty or thirty years’ time? And even if we can, we’ll be missing something of the writer’s character that we can find in a handwritten message—the handwriting, the choice of card or paper, adds a layer of meaning and personal interest that pixels just can’t mimic.

“If I get a guy,” I announce to Mum, “I’m going to make him write letters to me.”

As I Am

He’s not here to assess me, like my boss was the other week—reading my lesson plan, observing how I interacted with my students, noting my manner and appearance. He won’t sit down with me later to discuss the positives and negatives of my performance.

He doesn’t care about my past. The foolish decisions. The wasted years. My sins and my shames. My frighteningly long list of misdeeds could be much, much longer and it would make no difference to him.

He doesn’t mind that I’m not pretty. In fact, he doesn’t even seem to notice my glasses or my spots. Other women and girls in this light-filled hall have smoother skin, glossier hair, brighter eyes than I have, but in this moment he has eyes only for me.

Yet he has no idea who I am. I don’t suppose he remembers the last time we saw each other, but even if he did, he would be none the wiser as to my actual identity. Distant relation? Long-lost family friend? Neighbour? No such questions disturb his tranquillity.

Oh, I could be anyone, I could have done anything, and he wouldn’t care. All that matters to him is that this woman who’s holding him is smiling at him. I lean in, and he peers back, and we’re forehead-to-forehead, so close that I can no longer focus on the big brown eyes that I can’t see without adoring. We pull back, and he grins at me—the sort of beam a five-year-old might give after tearing off the wrapping paper and discovering a long-wished-for toy inside. All I’ve done is smile (with a funny face now and again for good measure) and lean into those eyes, and he’s delighted.

And me? I’m basking, joyful, in a nine-month-old’s smile.

A Dash of Style

“Punctuation is the music of language.”

So proclaims Noah Lukeman in his book A Dash of Style: The Art and Mastery of Punctuation, and it is punctuation as an art which is the focus of his book. As Lukeman says himself, he’s not interested in re-hashing all the rules about punctuation. He’s interested in showing you how using punctuation skilfully can improve your writing. It’s a book for creative writers, writers who “want to know how punctuation can serve them—not how they can serve punctuation.”

Although there are certainly punctuation rights and wrongs, what is clear in A Dash of Style is that the key to punctuating well is not memorising a list of rules and following them slavishly. Rather, it is becoming aware of what you are doing and why you are doing it. It is asking yourself if the use of this mark rather than that one enhances your content or detracts from it. Lukeman shows what each mark is designed to do: it is perhaps “the speed bump” (the comma) or “the magician” (the colon). Armed with this knowledge, it is then up to you decide whether its use is appropriate and effective in any given context.

The book is enhanced by Lukeman’s illustrating many of his points with extracts from works of literature. He also includes exercises at the end of each chapter which provide ideas for playing with a piece of punctuation in your writing and discovering how its addition (or removal) affects that work.

Given that Lukeman uses the same format for each significant punctuation mark (examining use, misuse, and so forth) the book does feel somewhat repetitive, perhaps unavoidably so. But for writers who are keen to go beyond simply avoiding egregious punctuation errors and instead use punctuation to actively enhance their writing, A Dash of Style is an excellent tool.

The Peat Burns Brimming

Oh dear. It’s been too long.

September has been and gone, first in heavy rain and latterly in a succession of warm, sunshine-y days, a parting gift from the departed summer. Amongst other things, I’ve been to Northern Ireland and to Kent, and I’ve been adjusting to my new classes for this term. I’ve also been reading–of course! I’ve been dipping in and out of a collection of Lewis’ poems “and having a marvellous time”, as Fraulein Maria would say. (There are some gems, let me tell you, but since they’re all within copyright I can’t post them here.) I’ve read a book on punctuation (yes, you read that right), Surprised by Joy, and an L. M. Montgomery novel.

I’ve also been procrastinating on writing, as is all too obvious, although I did write two blog posts or want-to-be blog posts which, for one reason or another, I decided not to post. However, I’m here today to assure all 2.5 of my readers that I am alive and am planning to get back to a more regular blogging schedule….

In the meantime, I leave you with this beautiful Chesterton poem whose acquaintance I have just made:

GLENCOE

The star-crowned cliffs seem hinged upon the sky,
The clouds are floating rags across them curled,
They open to us like the gates of God
Cloven in the last great wall of all the world.

I looked, and saw the valley of my soul
Where naked crests fight to achieve the skies,
Where no grain grows nor wine, no fruitful thing,
Only big words and starry blasphemies.

But you have clothed with mercy like a moss
The barren violence of its primal wars,
Sterile although they be and void of rule,
You know my shapeless crags have Wed the stars.

How shall I thank you, O courageous heart.
That of this wasteful world you had no fear;
But bade it blossom in clear faith and sent
Your fair flower-feeding rivers: even as here

The peat burns brimming from their cups of stone
Glow brown and blood-red down the vast decline
As if Christ stood on yonder clouded peak
And turned its thousand waters into wine.