About Me

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Born in the US, raised on the Mediterranean island of Cyprus, lived in Italy, the US, and Canada. Lover of language, travel, colour, and the natural world.

Monday, January 24, 2011

The art of a hand-written letter

I am a bit of a hopeless romantic. My friends tease me about this constantly, and I make no attempt to deny it. I like receiving beautiful flowers. I appreciate it when men open doors, give up their chairs for women or elderly people, and help me with my coat. I like to lie in bed in the morning quietly watching the light filter in through the curtains and listening to the first sounds of the day outside. I am interested in the story behind the flavours that I taste and inhale when I drink my tea. I like fires in fireplaces, lying on my back in fields at night looking for shootings stars, walking on the beach at night and contemplating the moon, people who play musical instruments, and poetry (reading and writing it). I like picnics. I prefer candle light to electric light. I am a total sucker for impromptu adventures with friends, and I loved the six hour version of Pride and Prejudice. I also am a great lover of writing and receiving hand-written letters.

I have very few friends who still write me hand-written letters, but the friends who do write me by hand have a sacred place in my heart. Their stories and experiences become a tactile part of my reality. One of my closest friends, Rafael, is one such person. Rafael was raised on an organic farm in northern Arizona. She is a terrific writer, farmer, adventurer, naturalist, biologist...the list is endless. I met Rafael in a field class in Costa Rica that I took while attending Prescott College. I had not connected with her at all until one day when my class found ourselves on a remove dirt road in the middle of nowhere, headed back to San Jose, and our van got a flat. Everyone piled out, and stood by the side of the road, eyes wide, uncertain of how to proceed. I distinctly remember standing there and thinking to myself: I wish I had asked someone to teach me how to change a tire. But then again, I figured that with the number of men in the group, surely someone had the skills to sort us out. Suddenly, out of the stillness all around me, Rafael separated from the group, got down on all fours, lay down on her back, slid gracefully under the van, re-emerged with the spare tire, got the flat tire off, put the spare on, and re-attached the flat tire to the van. It all happened so fast and so efficiently that I was stunned. Who was this woman, I wondered? And how do I become more like her?

In the remaining 3 weeks of the class I made a point of getting to know more about this remarkable woman, and we have been fast friends ever since. I learned that she did her B.A. in biology; that she knows how to ride and shoe horses; that she got up at dawn to milk cows and move pipe before heading off to class; that she is an excellent builder and cook. I learned that she is an amazing writer, who got her M.F.A. in creative non-fiction from the University of Arizona, in Tucson. I watched her move to California and work in the grape vineyards, get her EMT certification, spend a summer working on a fishing vessel in Alaska, spend close to a year herding cattle in the Australian outback, move to Chile to train wild stallions, and then begin her PhD in geography. She is currently in the Mexican desert camping out under the stars with no running water or roof over her head researching the plants that surrounded desert oases. Her courage astounds and inspires me to no end.

I share all of this to capture the immense wealth of experience that Rafael has to write about. Despite being one of the most capable women I know, Rafael is humble and down to earth. She is also an incredible letter writer. She and I have maintained an on-going hand-written correspondence across the world since I met her in the winter of 2000. I have received letters from Arizona, from Alaska, from Australia, from Africa, from Chile and Argentina, and from Mexico. I have received these letters in Arizona, California, Italy, Cyprus, and Prince Edward Island. There is something about the tactile experience of ripping open the beige envelope and sliding the folded pages out -- pages covered with stories in patterned ink script. I will never forget the time I received on of Rafael's letters on Prince Edward Island in the middle of winter. It was a freezing day, the ground covered in snow. I settled down on my couch in the sunshine, and opened the envelope, hastily sliding the pages out. As I did so, a cascade of colour sprinkled all over me, catching the sunlight like a wild mid-winter rain shower. Rafael had collected desert flowers, dried them, and then pressed them between the pages of her letter. I cannot begin to describe how beautiful it was to sit and read her letter in the sunshine, looking out at the snow, covered in wild flower petals from the desert. I was right there in the desert with her, inhaling the scents of the desert, and taking in the blossoms that were erupting out of the desert floor.

I just received another letter from Rafael last week. She wrote it from Mexico, where she sees skies full of stars, the moon rising above a volcano, white egrets, reflections of date palms in old dams, 300 year old olive groves, and miles and miles of abandoned gardens that used to surround oases...many varieties of fruit trees, and grand fiestas at each oasis attended by farmers who ride for days to congregate and celebrate in the middle of the desert. Reading her letter, I am no longer sitting here in urban northern California, but enjoying fresh juicy mangoes with her in overgrown desert gardens.

When I finish reading Rafael's letters, I always sit for a while absorbing and basking in her imagery. I feel like she has taken me on a journey. One that has become part of my own journey. I have kept all of her letters over the years. They are in a bundle in the drawers with my own journals, and old letters that I wrote but never sent. 

There is something magical about writing and reading a hand-written letter. It evokes another time. A time when we took more time to savour each others words and stories. When it was the intimacy and depth of the communication rather than the immediacy of transmission that was valued. I find that nowadays I send far more emails, and far fewer hand-written letters. I try to infuse my emails with the same care as my letters, but for some reason it simply does not feel the same. There is more of me in my hand-written letters. I write them less frequently, but perhaps for this precise reason, I say far more in them than I ever do in an email. And likewise, I savour the hand-written correspondence that I receive in a completely different way than I do an email.

I have a list of people I have been meaning to write back to. Rafael is one of them. I am thinking that finding the time more regularly to sit down with some blank paper and write hand-written letters might be a good new year's resolution. I know how much joy the hand-written letters that I receive bring me.

To get myself started, I think I will send a hand-written letter to each of the first five people that make a comment on this post. Spread my romantic spirit around a little. What do you say?

1 comment:

  1. Ariana, this is beautiful. I would love to receive one of your letters. I'm reading your post to Leif as he fusses and squirms trying to free himself from his gas.
    About three years ago I decided that it was a good idea to work on my penmanship. It must have been the image of Darcy sitting at his table to write a letter to his sister that inspired me. That and a CBC radio story about high school students who can't recognize a proper handwritten sentence.
    Anyway, your lovely post has given me the patience and love needed to keep me going on this sure to be long night with my three week old son.
    Thank you