A Cursive New Year’s Resolution

“We spend January 1 walking through our lives, room by room, drawing up a lot of work to be done, cracks to be patched. Maybe this year, to balance this list, we ought to walk through the rooms of our lives … not looking for flaws, but for potential.” –Ellen Goodman

I have never been a big believer in New Year’s resolutions. In fact, I have never ushered in a new year with any firm resolution to do–or not to do–something. This year, however, I may make an exception. This year, I may make one, single solitary resolution.

Here’s why.

Last week I sat down to write some personal notes to a few alumni of Lord Fairfax Community College where I am a professor of English. It seemed to me that the personal touch would be the right touch. 

Armed with my blue-ink, roller ball pen—and just barely into my second note—I realized that something was wrong. My fingers felt cramped. My upper arm muscles felt atrophied. My relaxed and cursive grace of yesteryear was gone. 

I was “drawing” my letters. They were tight and cramped like my unused writing muscles.

Once upon a time, I knew how to use those muscles, and they were robust and firm.

Once upon a time, I knew how to write naturally and smoothly and uniformly.

But that was long ago when I wrote letters in cursive—in longhand—with my special pen, on my special paper.

Suddenly, I realized that I had not written in longhand for a long, long time.  For nearly four decades, I have word processed nearly everything. I just don’t “do” longhand anymore, beyond the mechanical “Enjoy the holidays” or “Feel better soon” or “I love you” scrawls. How strange, especially considering that I love reading published volumes of letters and, in fact, I spent ten years locating, deciphering, and editing the letters of New England writer Mary E. Wilkins Freeman, and I am now working on a revised, updated, two-volume edition. 

Suddenly, I realized that I have not received many personal longhand letters and notes in a long time either. Over time, the volume has decreased steadily, and I no longer need trunks and file cabinets to store those personal artifacts, treasured objets d’art. Handwritten notes from friends and family have been hardly better than the scribbles I have sent their way. Touché.   

Paradoxically, I receive far more communiqués these days. My smart phone goes with me everywhere because I want to stay connected and be accessible. My email inbox has nearly reached its maximum storage capacity. Truthfully, those messages are far more frequent, far more detailed, and far more extensive than the longhand letters of yesteryear.

I store these electronic messages in virtual folders, where, hopefully, they will remain, virtually forever. But I doubt it. Maybe I should start printing those messages. Maybe I should start putting them away somewhere for safekeeping.   

I’m thankful that I sat down to write personal notes to some former students. Writing them has given me a wake-up call. I realize that some traditions can be preserved alongside all the marvelous advances that propel us magically forward.      

Ironically, here I sit at my computer on New Year’s Day, pecking away at the keyboard, wondering: What else in my life is cramped? Atrophied? What else should I re-train? Re-learn? Preserve? Potentialize?

For now, I’ll resolve to make one—just one—New Year’s resolution for this year and this year only. I’ll strive to renew my old tradition of reaching out to folks from time to time with longhand letters—my hand, my pen, my ink, my paper, my postage stamp. My arm, my hand, my mind, my heart, my soul—retrained to a cursive tradition that is natural and social and graceful.

Touching Lives through Giving

“We make a living by what we get, but we make a life by what we give.”

Sir Winston Churchill

As a student and as a professor, I have learned some of my best life-lessons through classroom repartee—those lively, light-hearted and spontaneous exchanges that give way to intellectual magic.

As this season of celebrating and gifting winds down and as the year 2021 that gave us all fantods comes to a thankful end, I am reminded of one those magically powerful exchanges from long, long ago. However, its initial significance has been outdistanced by its long-range influence: perpetual mind food (more accurately, soul food) given freely (perhaps, unknowingly). It matters little or not at all whether it was intended for mind or soul. It matters little or not at all whether it was given deliberately or unknowingly. I have savored it and relished it down through the years.

I was a 25-year-old graduate student in an American Literature class at the University of South Carolina. One of the short stories that the late Professor Joel Myerson gave us to read was “Life Everlastin’” by Mary E. Wilkins Freeman.

I knew that I had better know all the intricacies of the story before going to class. It was, after all, a graduate class. Equally important, the class was so small that we met in a small conference room and sat around a small oval conference table, with Professor Myerson charismatically leading us. Youthful (only several years older than I and the rest of the class), energetic, and intellectually stimulating, he inspired us to come to class prepared to engage in stimulating conversations, demonstrating our abilities to analyze literary works. Professor Myerson was a Formalist and a Textual Bibliographer. Nothing mattered but the literary work itself. Nothing mattered but the text. Without doubt, I needed to give that story my best.

I had been introduced to Freeman the semester before when another professor gave us some of her stories to read, and I had fallen in love with her fiction. Having to read her “Life Everlastin'” was a joy for me.

I read the story initially, and I gave it a second reading, and I am confident that I gave it yet a third reading. Professor Myerson loved giving literary works a close reading. So did I.

I wondered what take he would give the story.

Would he give it a close reading based on the story’s accurate depiction of New England village life?

Would he give it a close reading focusing on the sharp character delineations of the two diametrically opposite sisters? Maybe Mrs. Ansel who is totally preoccupied with being fitted for a new bonnet: “She was always pleased and satisfied with anything that was her own, and possession was to her the law of beauty.”

Maybe her spinster, non-churchgoing sister, Luella Norcross, who was always giving to others, who was always going “somewheres after life-everlastin’ blossoms. … If she was not in full orthodox favor among the respectable part of the town, her fame was bright among the poor and maybe lawless element, whom she befriended.”

Would he take the conversation up a notch or three by pitting seemingly shallow churchgoers (e. g. Mrs. Ansel) against those of seemingly deeper convictions (e. g. Luella Norcross) who stayed home and foraged the fields in search of life everlasting blossoms to give away, much in the same spirit of Emily Dickinson’s “Some keep the Sabbath going to Church”? Or would he perhaps compare Mrs. Ansel’s apparent lack of religious depth to E. E. Cummings’ poem “the Cambridge ladies who live in furnished souls”?

Or might he go even deeper and explore the story as a subtle indictment of religion similar to the charge that Mark Twain gave organized religion in his “Jumping Frog of Calaveras County.” Who does not recall the fact that Dan’l, the frog, was so full of quail-shot that he when he went to hop, “he couldn’t budge: he was planted as solid as a church and he couldn’t no more stir than if he was anchored out.” 

And, without doubt, Professor Myerson had to give the backbone of the story lots of attention: Luella’s discovery of two murdered neighbors; her discovery that the alleged murderer (John Gleason) was holed up in a vacant house next to her home; her realization that she had to give him up to the law; and her dramatic decision that she had to give in to her faith: “I don’t see any other way out of it for John Gleason!”

I went to class fully prepared to give my own two cents worth on any or all of those angles.

Indeed, we gave all of them lively pursuits, all that is save one. We did NOT discuss what seemed to me to be the very essence of the story: life everlasting.

I was stunned. No. I was surprised. I suspected that it was with deliberate intent that Professor Myerson did not take the conversation in the direction of the story’s obvious eschatological meaning: the destiny of the soul and of humankind after death. I knew that he wanted us to think about—and talk about—that aspect of the story independently without giving us any coaching.

Silence fell over the class.

There I sat, feeling that we had an obligation to move toward the eschatological and that he had an obligation to take us there. I gave a question that broke the silence.  

“So, Professor Myerson, what exactly IS life everlasting?” I was hoping that the question I gave him would make him squirm.

But he had the upper hand and knew precisely how to make me squirm. An expert in the Socratic method, he gave the question right back to me. “What do YOU think it is, Brent?” 

Aha! The chance for repartee had arrived! I gave in to the moment. I seized it. 

I looked him square in the eye, with an ever-so-innocent look, as I gave him nothing more than the straight botanical definition—a flowering plant in the mint family, noted for its healing, medicinal properties. Then I rambled on about Luella’s inclusion of life-everlasting in the pillows that she made and gave to help neighbors, especially those who were asthmatic.  

I could tell that Professor Myerson was on to me. I was known for this sort of academic maneuvering, and he was not amused. He gave me his over-the-glasses look that he was so skilled in giving. 

I waited to see what he would say—he always said something whenever he gave that look—but we both had to give up for the time being. Class ended.

But Professor Myerson always had a way of getting his way, in one way or another. This time would be no exception. A few days later he stopped me in the hall. With a twinkle in his eyes, he gave me an offprint of one of his articles that had been published in a scholarly magazine. On the front, he had written:

Brent,

This is life everlasting.

Joel Myerson

“What does THAT mean?” I pondered, as I walked away. I confess, however, to no small degree of jealousy. At that point in my life, I was unpublished. Nothing had appeared in print under my name.  But here was Professor Myerson—already a well-known, published scholar, albeit a young one—giving me an inscribed, offprint of his most recent scholarly article.

I had to give this gift more thought.

Did he realize the full impact of his gift?

Or was he a young professor giving me the selfsame banter that I had given him in class?

Or was his gift more serious? Was he giving me another way to look at life everlasting—perhaps different from the traditional eschatological view? Was he suggesting that we live on forever through what we share with others, especially ideas that are immortalized in print? Maybe so. After all, some cultures believe that we live as long as our name is spoken. If that was his intent, he succeeded. Here I am blogging about him, nearly fifty years later. Here I am placing his name in public view, albeit this time under my own name. Whoever reads this blog post will speak his name, even if silently. They may even share my story with others. Professor Myerson continues to live. 

His inscribed offprint had an immediate impact. It gave me some extra encouragement not only to finish my doctoral degree in American Literature but also to publish my own scholarly articles and books. I wanted to give my ideas away to others through the printed word. When that happened for the first time, I was thrilled, and the high that I experience now through being published is as high as it was then.

But here’s the greater truth. His gift touched my soul perhaps more than it touched my mind. It kept me mindful that as human beings we all have needs—immediate and long-range.

It kept me mindful that the needs are great, always and in all ways. In fact, during these pandemic years, the needs are daunting. No. They are staggering. 

Fortunately, for us and for others, the ways that we can touch lives through giving— whatever it is that we have within ourselves to give—are countless. 

We can give our ideas.

We can give our talents

We can give our time.

We can give our purse.

We can give our love.

We can give ourselves—mind, body, and soul

Our gifts need not be large. Our gifts need not be given with any expectation of ever knowing how much they touch others’ lives or of how much they impact others’ lives. This much, though, we do know about giving. It connects us to one another. It binds us to one another. It makes us aware of our relatedness to one another. 

Who knows? Maybe, just maybe, when we touch others’ lives by giving freely of ourselves—without any expectation of receiving anything in return—we might be edging our way, even if unawares, closer and closer and closer toward the very essence of life everlasting.

The Gift that None Could See

The children’s poem below, by Mary E. Wilkins Freeman, was first published in Wide Awake, Vol. 14, No. 1 (January 1882). May it awaken your trusting, childlike heart!

And how, although no earthly good
  Seems into thy lot to fall,
Hast thou a trusting child-like heart,
  Thou hast the best of all.

The Gift that None Could See

“There are silver pines on the window-pane,
  A forest of them,” said he;
“And a huntsman is there with a silver horn,
  Which he bloweth right merrily.

“And there are a flock of silver ducks
  A-flying over his head;
And a silver sea and a silver hill
  In the distance away,” he said.

“And all this is on the window-pane,
  My pretty mamma, true as true!”
She lovingly smiled; but she looked not up,
  And faster her needle flew.

A dear little fellow the speaker was —
  Silver and jewels and gold,
Lilies and roses and honey-flowers,
  In a sweet little bundle rolled.

He stood by the frosty window-pane
  Till he tired of the silver trees,
The huntsman blowing his silver horn,
  The hills and the silver seas;

And he breathed on the flock of silver ducks,
  Till he melted them quite away;
And he saw the street, and the people pass —
  And the morrow was Christmas Day.

“The children are out, and they laugh and shout,
  I know what it’s for,” said he;
“And they’re dragging along, my pretty mamma,
  A fir for a Christmas-tree.”

He came and stood by his mother’s side:
  “To-night it is Christmas Eve;
And is there a gift somewhere for me,
  Gold mamma, do you believe?”

Still the needle sped in her slender hands:
  “My little sweetheart,” said she,
“The Christ Child has planned this Christmas, for you,
  His gift that you cannot see.”

The boy looked up with a sweet, wise look
  On his beautiful baby-face:
“Then my stocking I’ll hang for the Christ Child’s gift,
  To-night, in the chimney-place.”

On Christmas morning the city through,
  The children were queens and kings,
With their royal treasuries bursting o’er
  With wonderful, lovely things.

But the merriest child in the city full,
  And the fullest of all with glee,
Was the one whom the dear Christ Child had brought
  The gift that he could not see.

“Quite empty it looks, oh my gold mamma,
  The stocking I hung last night!”
“So then it is full of the Christ Child’s gift.”
  And she smiled till his face grew bright.

“Now, sweetheart,” she said, with a patient look
  On her delicate, weary face,
“I must go and carry my sewing home,
  And leave thee a little space.

“Now stay with thy sweet thoughts, heart’s delight,
  And I soon will be back to thee.”
“I’ll play, while you’re gone, my pretty mamma,
  With my gift that I cannot see.”

He watched his mother pass down the street;
  Then he looked at the window-pane
Where a garden of new frost-flowers had bloomed
  While he on his bed had lain.

Then he tenderly took up his empty sock,
  And quietly sat awhile,
Holding it fast, and eying it
  With his innocent, trusting smile.

“I am tired of waiting,” he said at last;
  “I think I will go and meet
My pretty mamma, and come with her
  A little way down the street.

“And I’ll carry with me, to keep it safe,
  My gift that I cannot see.”
And down the street ‘mid the chattering crowd,
  He trotted right merrily.

“And where are you going, you dear little man?”
  They called to him as he passed;
“That empty stocking why do you hold
  In your little hand so fast?”

Then he looked at them with his honest eyes,
  And answered sturdily:
“My stocking is full to the top, kind sirs,
  Of the gift that I cannot see.”

They would stare and laugh, but he trudged along,
  With his stocking fast in his hand:
“And I wonder why ’tis that the people all
  Seem not to understand!”

“Oh, my heart’s little flower!” she cried to him,
  A-hurrying down the street;
“And why are you out on the street alone?
  And where are you going, my sweet?”

“I was coming to meet you, my pretty mamma,
  With my gift that I cannot see;
But tell me, why do the people laugh,
  And stare at my gift and me?”

Like the Maid at her Son, in the Altar-piece,
  So loving she looked, and mild:
“Because, dear heart, of all that you met,
  Not one was a little child.”

O thou who art grieving at Christmas-tide,
  The lesson is meant for thee;
That thou mayst get Christ’s loveliest gifts
  In ways thou canst not see;

And how, although no earthly good
  Seems into thy lot to fall,
Hast thou a trusting child-like heart,
  Thou hast the best of all.

In Praise of Fruitcake

 “From time to time, I savor a slice, but I’m parceling it out ever so rarely and ever so thinly.  I want the magic of this fruitcake to last forever.”

I believe in fruitcakes.1  I know—that’s ridiculous.  Most folks hate fruitcakes because they’re hard and dry and filled with citron and raisins and Lord knows what all.  Most are so bad that jokesters rightfully disparage them as next year’s paperweights or doorstops.

            Obviously, those naysayers never tasted one of my Mom’s fruitcakes.  For time immemorial—seventy years, perhaps longer—she perfected her fruitcake recipe, recording her adjustments religiously.  For one single, seven-pound fruitcake, she uses four pounds of cherries, golden raisins, pineapple, and pecans.  For her batter, she mixes just enough to hold the fruit and nuts together, and it’s rich with a half dozen jumbo eggs, a pound of butter, and a magical blend of lemon juice, vanilla, freshly grated nutmeg, cinnamon, and allspice.  And when it comes to fruitcakes, Mom’s no tee-totaler.  Her fruitcakes are redolent with booze.  She soaks the fruit in brandy before baking, and, once her baked cakes have cooled, she nestles them in thick layers of brandied cheesecloth, replenished weekly—starting in August when she bakes her cakes and continuing through Christmas when she gives them away. 

            Mom shared her treasured, secret recipe with me, right after two strokes in quick succession left her paralyzed in both legs and one arm.  She was 92 then.  It was the last year that she made her fruitcakes, from start to finish.

            For the next few years, I made the fruitcakes.  Everyone raved, even Mom. To me, however, something magical seemed missing.

            Then, one year, my oldest sister called, claiming the ritual as hers.  Mom had given her the recipe, too. 

            My sister followed it with precision, but as she started spooning the batter into the tube pan, she broke down in tears.  She phoned Mom, who lived just two houses away. 

            “It’s all mixed,” she sobbed, “but it’s not going in the pan right.” 

            “Audrey, bring it on down here and prop me up in bed.  I’ll show you how to do it.”

            My sister went down and propped Mom up.  With her one good arm and all the love and courage that she could muster, Mom packed the batter into the pan, pressing it down with the back of a wooden spoon, as only Mom knows how to do.  Then she adorned the top with a ring of brandied, candied fruit flowers, just like always.  Undoubtedly, that fruitcake was her most beautiful, ever, and it tasted just as first-rate as any Mom ever made all by herself. 

            My sister gave me a huge hunk of that love-laden fruitcake—undoubtedly, the best in the world and, sadly, Mom’s last.  I have it wrapped in brandied cheesecloth, and I keep it in the freezer, the same way that Mom always kept one or more fruitcakes, from one year to the next.  From time to time, I savor a slice, but I’m parceling it out ever so rarely and ever so thinly.  I want the magic of this fruitcake to last forever.

1 This essay reflects minor revisions to my essay originally published in 2009 as part of NPR’s “This I Believe.”