THE SEDUCTION OF LETTERS
by Jerry Murley
O Lord, thank you for the opportunity to explore and learn, to reflect and express, to share and correct.
When my son was eighteen months old, he became enamored of letters. Perhaps it started with the sounds and sight of symbols in books that we read to him. It soon progressed to multicolored plastic letters with magnets that could be stuck to the refrigerator door. His grandparents were a bit concerned when he used wooden building blocks to make letters rather than to build buildings. I will not amplify this childhood story now, in part because anyone familiar with my family knows this evolves into a wondrous history all its own.
There are nieces in my family on both sides who became voracious readers in childhood. It would not surprise me if at least one member of our families' next generation becomes a very good, if not great, writer one day. This attraction, pursuit, and attachment to letters is something that strongly links my wife and me to these younger family members. This journey of letters is the bridge connecting generations.
My wife and her mother are readers in the intensive sense. She and her mother have lively, broad minds. Those close to them feel as if they could talk to them at length about most any topic. No more down-to-earth pair could be found anywhere. But they do tire of long-winded conversations and monologues, giving the impression they require – and are eager for – engagement in quiet reading for several hours daily. Just before junior high school, my wife moved from the city to a farm. Amenities such as plenty of indoor heat and bathing water were in short supply. She used to take her book to the car for solitude and warmth to sit in that quiet, sun-drenched space and read.
My wife loves rich linear stories, therefore she puts my meandering style and philosophical ramblings to the test. It should come as little surprise that she taught reading throughout her professional career and continues to do so in retirement as a volunteer at a local, rural public elementary school. An avid gardener, she routinely joins in grueling physical labor, especially related to landscaping and home repair. No husband could be prouder of a spouse and made more happy by such balanced and congenial habits and dedication. To me, her every utterance and motion is prose poetry in action. Abstraction holds no strong attraction for her, an inclination which provides her spouse exactly the discipline that his impulsive, imaginative, and associative mind needs as a daily ballast and corrective.
For 36 years my wife has been my reader-in-chief – the one reader willing to read a draft of a letter or a story and give me a spontaneous, unreserved opinion. Besides catching many errors, she has been infallible about determining whether a word, sentence, or paragraph is appropriate or marginally understandable. I might stomp my feet and pout, wanting to stop the writing and re-writing and move on, but in the end, given the proof that my wife provides, I usually come around face to face with the audience class that I view as populated by experienced, open, kind, and likely readers – and I make revisions that always improve the product. Her gifts in this regard are something for which I remain grateful. It is an active reader's presence and effort not easy to bear for the mate of an often preoccupied composer.
Letters lifted from the launch pad of my mind leave me free.
Thirty-six years ago, I dropped out of college for the second time, after four years of study. I went traveling. I spent one summer in a rental apartment that was part of a villa on Via Senese in Florence. That summer, in breaks from reading rules of Italian grammar in the tiny rocky yard that a friend and I tried to turn into a vegetable garden, I read through a concise English dictionary for the first and only time in my life. I did other reading as well, such as a book by William Godwin on anarchism (Political Justice, 1793). But often I started a career of writing letters. These letters were to friends about my journey abroad, but as one friend, who would years later become my wife, said, the letters were a disappointment in terms of being personal correspondence, because they read more like a disinterested, impressionistic journal instead. And she would not be surprised later to learn the reason why they were peppered with so many new, delicious and often vaguely understood words. About two years after that beginning, for about sixteen years, I worked in graphic design. I got involved in graphics in part because of an interest in art and in part because of an interest in primitive publishing – self-publishing at a pamphleteer level. I sometimes performed every step of the publishing process down to running the press and folder, though I never made the paper. I never dreamed of making money at it – or becoming very accomplished – and I never did. But I enjoyed trying to do it for a while nonetheless.
Whale-song at sea, two bulls' duet,
– fence, road, and stream divided –
one deep and constant bitter moan
with bellow cries requited.
The plaintive calls in echoes crawl
the harbor of our hollow.
Disquiets in confinement pall,
still yearnings unignited.
Since two years into college, the thin thread that connects all of my close friends has been a fascination with letters – and perhaps a clear, honest appraisal of how formidable a task good writing was for us from our backgrounds. Before college none of my friends, including me, were readers, except under pain of failure in school or ill-preparedness for class discussions in church. After two years in college all my friends were readers. Reading merged with experience as a door to another life.
The call of letters is very powerful at first and then letters become the everyday medium for all exchange – and even a therapeutic ritual with age. So much so, that one forgets to notice it through the years – through the bookcase of bound paper trophies and adult concerns. Though several friends have excelled with master's and doctoral degrees in letters, none have the temerity to claim to have mastery of letters. The seduction is in the mystery that is just over the horizon. It is surprising and exhilarating to feel that after decades and decades, some new discovery, some new framing of the world in mind, is at hand in the book that one just heard about or checked out of the library, or in the article in the magazine with the promising beginning. The allure of letters is all about the promising beginnings. The endings are of little consequence.
No-telling leaves, awaking breeze; forsaken sees, the burden flees.
For me, letters are as much as about writing as reading. Everything I write is a letter addressed to one or the other of friends or family, near or far, young or old, alive or deceased, that are associated with a thought or image that I attempt to capture. I hope that I have kept every single letter that was ever written to or by me. The letters are hardly different from breath. They come in to revive and they go out to express. The difference is that they can be recalled and shared. Letters are not paltry whims and representations, though to others they may seem little more than litter. They are the memory, the fiber and the cast of life – almost as dear as the life that they conceive and remember.