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Music suggestion: Christmas Card from a Hooker in Minneapolis, Tom Waits
Drink suggestion: Fleur de Geisha, Japanese green tea

Last week marked la rentrée in France, when public schools across the country opened their doors anew to their summer-worn charges for the year. The pack of students and moms crowding the entrance to the neighborhood’s middle school could be heard blocks away, the children abuzz on a blend of anxious exuberance, loud with the mission of finding friends and figuring out class lineups; the parents keen for some serenity once again in their daytime hours. Off you go my little darlings.

Collége Mignet is famed for 2 of its former students: Paul Cezanne and Emile Zola. These icons-to-be ran the hallways together in the 1850s and were reportedly inseparable. Today this public school is celebrated as much for its international section, with some classes in English and a language support program for kids not yet fully fluent in French. You can imagine its popularity with the local expat community.

Hopefully the creative spirits of Mignet continue to haunt its corridors and enthuse its occupants, particularly Zola. Casual writing has become a lost art. It is most noticeably absent from the lives of the young, who have devolved from letters to emails to chats to tweets (Darwin, please explain). But, they are not alone in embracing the informality and ease of electronic messaging. Be it through our Gmail or iPhones or Facebook accounts, the keyboard and screen have permanently displaced the pen and paper for most of us.

The composition anarchy of texting and tweeting (no punctuation, conjugation, or tense agreement required, …Strunk & White begone!) doesn’t disturb me as much as the absence of soul and warmth that comes with a pen-scribed card or letter. The digital domain is perfect for reminding the spouse about that bottle of Bordeaux on the shopping list – Dnt 4gt wine, thx! – but is a coolly detached medium for connecting with loved ones.

It is also selectively deceitful. Facebook allows us to create and present a personal image through an electronic collage of profile pictures and likes and posts that reflect our flawless, funny selves , but not our authentic selves. Life would be beautiful if we could airbrush our looks and our lives like the aging celebrities on a Vanity Fair Magazine cover. Oh wait, now we can!

I am a member of Facebook because there is no better way to track my childrens’ activities (and they could give a damn about the evils of social media), it’s a good place to post Postcards (for me, the optimum airbrush), and I too have enjoyed the unexpected reconnections with old friends from time to time. On the surface, there is little harm in a digital community hall. My worry is the insular and simulated life it engenders. It is fun to exchange a few brief lines with a high-school friend one hasn’t seen in 30 years, but the lift is fleeting. Wouldn’t it be infinitely more rewarding to actually meet over coffee or lunch, or to write a letter? Of course this would require time and effort, so why try when the keyboard and screen are right there? Because the time and effort invested are what that makes the connection so gratifying, both to the writer and reader.

I am writing more letters this year and find the practice uplifting and meditative. Letter writing is a rich with flow; for that hour of indulgence I am absorbed solely on the enjoyable task at hand, time stops and all else is forgotten. Zen.

Writing is an art and like all art improves with practice and process. And for motivation you have my permission – my encouragement, actually – to splurge on some good tools. I did and it helped. So let me present you with Bill’s top 5 tips for enjoyable letter writing:

  • Invest in a good fountain pen. A Waterman, Parker other quality pen may cost $50 or more, but if you enjoy writing you won’t regret it, and the investment will help you feel committed. You can’t create inspired food with cheap knives; you can’t write inspired letters with disposable pens.
  • Buy quality stationary. It is not expensive and you will appreciate the look and feel, and good stationary often comes with matching envelopes. I like the 6×8 sheet, which is bigger than a card but no too daunting to fill. Yellow tablet paper doesn’t quite capture the mood we’re going for here.
  • Find a comfortable writing space. I prefer a table by one of the tall windows in my flat, with natural light and enough movement in the street below to stimulate but not distract. Choose your favorite corner of the home, somewhere quiet where you love to sit and relax.
  • Prepare tea. The warmth is relaxing and de-stressing, particularly green tea. I benefit from a wealth of tea shops in Aix with incredibly large assortments from around the world. If you spend an extra dollar on quality tea then your writing hour becomes a luxury, a private pleasure.
  • Make a date. As with all hobbies it helps to have a fixed day and time, otherwise it gets squeezed out by truly critical chores like Costco runs and laundry.

To whom does one write? Well only you know that. But if you are looking for a few practice sessions then my address (the one without an @ sign) is 7 rue Manuel, 13100, Aix-en-Provence, France.  I love getting letters and promise to write back.

For more about the concept of flow, read Flow, The Psychology of Optimal Experience, by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, 2008.

On a completely different note:

Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart. – Steve Jobs, Stanford University Commencement address, 2005

It was widely reported this summer that Steve Jobs was stepping down from his operational role as CEO of Apple. If anyone hoped that his decision was simply a natural step for an aging executive planning to spend the next decades relaxed on a sunny beach, the photos that surfaced on the internet soon after his announcement suggested otherwise. If you knew that there was no afterlife, no reincarnation, no heaven, no continuance of consciousness in any form or manner, would you live differently now?

Bill Magill
Aix-en-Provence

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Posted by on September 11, 2011 in Essays

 

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