My buddy Ray Early and I were contemplating the ills of contemporary life. From microeconomics to text messaging, nothing was spared from our scrutiny. Our analysis evolved to the paradigm of human communication.
“Who writes letters today?” Ray asked.
“I do!” I replied. I have a penchant for writing letters. Kids today are ill-served by the phenomenon of electronic communication.
My grandfather taught me the art of writing a letter. I remember his weekly ritual. Each Saturday, Papa Puglia would pour a glass of wine, grab his Montegrappa pen, some fine linen paper, Waterman blue-black ink. Then he would sit and meticulously scribe the weekly events to his sister, Zia Carmella, who lived in Misterbianco, Sicily.
I watched Papa with fascination. To a 12 year-old boy, the duality of his persona was confusing. He was a tough man; feared by the coal miners of the Monongahela in Western Pennsylvania. But as he wrote his letter, his face was a sea of emotion and his eyes, often watery, reflected a longing that could not find solace. He had not seen his sister in 50 years.
I wondered what he wrote. Since I couldn’t read Italian, I never knew.
For Papa, writing a letter was sacrosanct. He collected fountain pens and assorted inks in odd-shaped bottles. His penmanship was painstakingly elegant; his letters were works of art and were expressions of who he was. Federico Fellini once said, “All art is autobiographical. The pearl is the oyster's autobiography.”
My mother said I inherited my grandfather’s bellicose personality, but Papa also gave me the love of the written word. Unlike any other form of communication, letters express true strength of sentiment. Both message and sender are delivered, powerfully and indelibly. The swirls, dips and strokes of forming ideas bind us to the recipient, and for a moment, we become translucent. Written communication is the essence of human sincerity.
I became a letter writer, just like my grandfather. I had numerous pen pals, and corresponded to relatives, friends, dignitaries, artists, writers, athletes and statesmen all over the world. I collected fountain pens and read historic collections of letters.
I was fascinated by the intrigue of a sealed envelope. Sending a letter on a journey guided by a simple stamp, propelled by the will to reach out and render thoughts, was enthralling. The letter gives a glimpse of that complicated and mysterious entity that we all seek to understand — the human relationship.
We lost a lot when we stopped writing letters and have forgotten the important role a letter played in people’s lives. Human communication is the bedrock of civilization and the written word was once the manifestation of human interaction.
The lost art of letter writing has been replaced by the text message, email, cell phone, and Facebook. But today’s modalities provide little depth. Our innate inclinations to detail human emotion, analysis and narrative are atrophying.
The act of putting pen to paper encourages pause for thought, this is turn makes us think deeply about life and gives us our equilibrium. Letters induce self-expression. Ink from your pen touches the stationery, your fingers touch the paper, and your saliva seals the envelope. Then, magically, something tangible from your world travels to another’s mailbox. The paper that was sitting on your desk now sits on the desk of another. Thus do letters create a connection that modern communication will never approach.
I like to think that I am an artist; and with the company of a steamy chai latte, I enjoy sitting on the patio at Penelope’s. My Easterbrook fountain pen is my brush, the Noodler’s ink is my oil, my stationery is my canvas, and the rest is me.
JOE PUGLIA is a practicing counselor, a professor of education at Glendale Community College and a former officer in the Marines. Reach him at doctorjoe@ymail.