Tuesday, March 31, 2020

Seeing Mr. Watson


Today we had our weekly virtual staff meeting and the feeling was unanimous from both the teachers and the kids—everyone misses everyone. We're all starved for human connection, particularly with our friends. No surprise that. 

Our first impulse is to up the number of Zoom meetings and yes, it is good to see people and to hear their voice. But there’s another “yes and” possibility that perhaps only an old codger like me would bring up or even remember. Writing letters.

“Mr. Watson, come here, I want to see you.” That was the first sentence spoken on a telephone by Alexander Graham Bell. A bit ironic, because just as the invention made it unnecessary to see the person you’re talking with. Mr. Bell was already hungry to see him! At any rate, it was not a profound communication.

Some 4,000 years earlier, there was another extraordinary technological breakthrough—written symbols on a clay tablet in Sumeria that communicated a message. And the message? Was it a poetic utterance worthy of Shakespeare? A profound message to future readers? No, it was the details of a business transaction involving copper goods. Some of the documents that followed were records of the number of slaves someone had. 

And so. Deep communication and deep connection between human souls does not arise simply from technology, be it a clay tablet, a telephone or a video Zoom meeting. It doesn’t in and of itself appease our hunger for connection. Just because we can wave at someone and talk casually while slurping our breakfast cereal doesn’t mean we will now feel less alone.

Ah, but a letter. Of course, again, not automatically. But the technology of setting pen to paper both suggests and helps create an atmosphere that can send out golden threads between two human hearts. Consider:

1.    It’s unplugged. You can write anywhere. Sitting under a tree, on a bench at a train station, in your favorite chair at home with soft light and a candle burning.

2.    It’s intimate. Your handwriting reveals something of your character, becomes as much a feature of your uniqueness as your face and voice and the way you walk. Simply seeing the handwriting of a loved one can evoke their presence the way smelling the kind of cake they used to bake.

3.    It’s slow. Pen to paper slows you down and slowing you down puts you in a different time-zone than the fleeting moment, allows you to dig back into the past: “I’m remembering that trip to Mexico we took…”, tip forward into the future; “Wouldn’t it be wonderful to spend Christmas together some day?” and be more present in the moment; “It’s twilight and there’s a gentle rain. Your favorite lentil soup is bubbling on the stove, Bach’s Cello Suites are softly playing over the speakers and here I am writing to you. And there you will be reading this, maybe sitting on that bench in the park where we used to talk.”

Nobody writes an e-mail like that. No one begins a Facetime conversation at that level.

4.   It’s storable. So is e-mail, but no one is going to go through your old mails on the screen when you have passed on except to delete them as they close your account. But that box full of letters as you’re cleaning out the house of your departed loved one is a treasure beyond price. 

5.  It invites and evokes the imagination. To see someone in your mind's eye imaginatively instead of literally on the screen, to hear their voice in memory's ear, to feel their presence when they are not present—this is the Heart-work that allows for real connection between two souls. Setting pen to paper alone won't bring you there, but it will set the table for the imaginative feast that might follow if you do your work well.

Now of course 8-year-olds writing to each other during their sheltering-in-place will probably not achieve great heights of profundity. But they have to start somewhere to cultivate that possibility, to mark the moment more deeply than the passing flash of electronics and yes, occasionally say something worth reading again in the years to come. Something that will edge them closer to truly seeing Mr. Watson while thanking him for his generous gift of copper candlestick holders. 

Just a thought. 

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