Monthly Archives: October 2015

The Write Stuff

One of my nieces was once so pleased with herself for learning to write her name that she found a rock that fit nicely into her kindergarten-sized hand and scratched out all five letters.  Onto the side of my sister’s new van.   She even neatly scribbled out one of the letters and corrected it.

After the hell fire and brimstone rained down, she wrote it repeatedly on more appropriate surfaces.  Writing, it seemed, was a delightful new skill.

Holding my son’s hand the other day, I realized he was missing something:  a writer’s callus.  Incredulous, I quizzed his sister and some friends of hers.

“A writer’s what?”  they wanted to know.

“You know,” I explained, showing them my right hand, “that bump on the side of your finger where the pen rests.  It’s that raised rough spot you get from writing.  Like, from taking notes and writing essays.”

The smooth-fingered youths had no idea what I was talking about.  My oldest was in third grade a decade ago.  That is typically the grade where children are taught cursive writing. That year, they grudgingly made it through about half the alphabet before moving on to another topic.  The year after that, the school stopped teaching handwriting altogether.   Ask my younger child to sign his name and it’s different each time, a flat squiggled imitation of what he’s observed from his father and me.  They write all their work on their laptops and email it in to the teachers.  Taking notes in class is sometimes a simple matter of taking a picture of the board with their phones.

I remember spending hours–hours–practicing handwriting on page after page of paper handwriting paperthat looked like miniature roads running from left to right, a dotted center line between two solid lines, the guide for how high each lower-case letter should reach.  We were graded on penmanship, required to write our letters to Santa this way, and the requisite post-Christmas thank you notes to far away aunts and uncles.  By the time I reached middle school, I could chat with my latest crush and execute countless finely doodled “Mrs. Stephen Bishops**” on the pad by the telephone, wrapped in its spiraled cord.  (**Names have been changed to protect said no-good, cheating twerp and my less than stellar character judgement.)

When my family moved just before high school, I spent mopey, sulky days writing long letters back “home” to my friends, pages of thoughts, drawings, and stories that grew so bulky the envelopes required reinforcing tape and lots of extra postage.  I filled journals, amusing to pull out and read now, my teenage angst leaping from each page, but instructive, now that I am raising teenagers, in remembering what it was like, inhabiting that lonesome territory.

In high school and college, my note-taking was fast and furious, letters small and sure.  Small handwriting is supposedly a sign of introversion and an ability to concentrate, in my case probably accurate.  Once, for a chemistry test, a teacher cleverly allowed us to bring a “cheat sheet” to class, with a catch:  it could only be one inch square.  While I am not so focused as to fit entire book chapters on rice grains, like artist Trong G. Nguyen,  I managed to fit every chemistry formula I needed on that tiny square.   I wrote countless papers and my master’s thesis by hand, typing and retyping it in final draft on an electric typewriter, halfway high on White-Out correction fluid.   For graduation gifts, I received several Cross pens, some engraved, which the givers I’m sure imagined would be useful for decades.

I had a meeting the other day with a fellow writer, a guy in his mid-thirties.  Curious, I asked if he had a writer’s callus.  “No,” he shrugged.  “I never even carry a pen.”  He quickly transitioned from laptop to ipad to smartphone, typing notes, reading emails, and sending texts.  Yesterday’s writer’s callus has morphed into alarming maladies of today:   something called “text claw” and thumb arthritis.

Obviously, I have upgraded from my old electric typewriter to a computer.  I have a smartphone and I know that an emoji is not a Japanese manga character.   Although my teenage son frequently can not believe that I don’t use Siri and the fine points of Apple navigation are lost on me, at least I’m ahead of my father, whose idea of a text message is to send me an email with just the subject line.

Perhaps we have lost something in the rush of progress.  I love looking at my husband’s grandfather’s Bible, with his shaky notes written in the margins.  I treasure my mother’s handwritten recipes so much that I have one framed on my kitchen counter.  At some point, she thought to organize everything and threw most of them away in favor of typed-out note cards.  This is why I just cannot, will not, refuse to get on board with the Nooks and Kindles and handheld Bible Apps.  Traitorous devices!  Electronic highlighting and note taking is not the same as pulling a book from the shelf and happening upon a marginal note I’d written long ago, the handwriting and thinking a reflection of whatever age I was at the time.

A couple of my friends occasionally take the time to write notes.  With a pen.  On real stationery.  It says something more than an email or text.  Taking an extra minute to collect a thought or two, commit them to paper, and drop them in an actual mailbox may be a relic from the past, but what a joy to receive it amid the impersonal bills, catalogs, and the usual computer-generated fare.   Maybe it’s another one of those genteel Southern graces like handkerchiefs or making a medicinal hot toddy.

I’m afraid someday my grandkids will be texting at Christmas time:  Sup, Snta.  How ru?  Im gud.  Pls bring prsnts!

I shudder to think.  Until then, I just know I’m mourning the writer’s callus.


Waiting in traffic on drawbridges was a fact of life for me as a kid.   Unaware of the adult time pressures of schedules and to-do lists, I’d sit in the back of the car watching the stately sailboats gliding like royalty through the raised roadway that halted our progress.   Stuck at a standstill, I could get a closer look at the pelicans perched on the watchman’s tower.  Once the drawbridge was lowered, I was amazed that we could drive right over a stretch of road that had just a second ago been pointing toward the sky.

Somewhere along the way, that leisurely contentment on bridges gave way to more nervous crossings.  I’ve driven over the Golden Gate and Brooklyn Bridges, clomped echoing steps over wooden covered bridges in New England and Madison County, Iowa, hiked across hanging suspension bridges on trails here and there, and cruised over the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers crossing over into neighboring states.  There were jaw-dropping views from the Bixby Bridge in Monterey, California, and white-knuckle moments across the Chesapeake Bay Bridge in Maryland.  (This bridge is so scary, some people actually pay $50 a day for a service to drive them to work and back!)

Mostly, bridge crossings have been uneventful, but not always.  Our car broke down in the middle of the 5-mile long Mackinac Island Bridge in Michigan.

Royal Gorge Bridge
Royal Gorge Bridge

I lost power steering and acceleration and had to coast the last part of the way off the far side.  In Colorado, I rode in the back seat hyperventilating as we crossed the Royal Gorge Bridge, the world’s highest suspension bridge, dangling 1,100 feet above the Arkansas River.  It was so narrow that passing cars had scant inches between them as they crawled along, and pedestrians walking across had to plaster themselves flat against the railings to avoid being run over.  Then there was that one time in a haunted house with my brother where I wet my pants when we crossed a wooden bridge rigged to fall out from under us.

People build bridges, after all–fallible people.  Maybe the fact that I hold my breath across them and wince as they sway is more of a flagging trust in human capabilities than an innate fear of bridges themselves.   Many of our bridges are aging and need repairs, over 60,000 of them, in fact.  So there’s that.  The old London-Bridge-is-falling-down nursery rhyme doesn’t really help either.  Or those stories about trolls and such living underneath.

Bridges often are the only means to get from here to there, and the truth is, sometimes transitions are just hard.   And, oh, goody, life is chock full of these vulnerable, hold-your-breath, learn-to-trust moments.   I envy those people who can cartwheel across those bridges with no trepidation.   While new and exciting things might wait on the other side, leaving the familiar soil of this side, where my feet are on solid ground and the scenery is just fine, can cause excessive hand wringing.

I have a salt water aquarium in my living room. One night, just after its lights had turned off, I witnessed a hermit crab exchanging its shell for a bigger one.  It carefully measured the bigger shell with its antennae.  Using its claws to hoist itself up, in one swift move, it hauled itself out of its shell, scuttled across the sand to the new shell, and edged in backwards.  Voila!   But I was stunned!   All we usually see of these crabs is the legs and head, the parts that stick out from under their comfortable shell.  When it moved from one shell to the next, its body was revealed.  It was a gray comma-like stub, an unformed Voldemort creature.   How brave it was to scuttle out from its familiar house, unprotected and exposed!

All of us have our secret underbellies, like the crab, and it’s the worst thing we can think of to crawl out of our comfortable corners and move–grow–into something new.  Worse still is to admit to anyone else we might be afraid or unsure of ourselves.  Many of us may flinch and wince as we cross bridges of transition—into new careers, empty nests, or life without someone we love.  Sometimes, I admit, I cross those bridges trembling on my knees, clinging to the railing and afraid to look down.  It helps to have folks around who are no less fearless, but who have made those transitions already.   They beckon from the far side, offering encouragement and extending a hand.

Once we make it through our transitions, we can become bridges, of sorts, ourselves.  We can span gaps between generations coming along behind and those ahead of us.  We can be connectors between old ways of thinking and new.  We can extend our hands and assurances that this far side is different, yes, but not so frightening.  There are lots of us over here, and we get it.

Twain said that the only person who likes change is a wet baby.  Like it or not, change is a constant.  Sometimes it demands small alterations, and sometimes it requires of us a full metamorphosis.  It’s almost always a surprise and usually terribly inconvenient.

I’m grateful for those who have been on the far sides of my bridges so far.   A life that is static and fearful is no life at all.   I am learning, slowly, to embrace the change and growth that transitions bring.  Sometimes I still squeeze my eyes shut and take hesitant steps, but I have faith that grace will eventually get me where I’m supposed to be.   None of us can predict what’s coming down the pike next.   But, focusing on the far side, I’ll cross that bridge when I come to it.