Ah, the infamous “lost art.” One could fill in a number of notions after the three dots in the above title. A few phrases or words come to mind: kindness, gentility, non-electronic friendship. Less serious, too: tea brewing, whittling, even for many of us, gardening. Yet here I would submit for your consideration, letter writing.
This week I had a very unique experience. I received in the mail a single packet of four letters; one of which was a thank-you note written to Elaine Jakes by my beloved high school teacher, Zinaida Sprowles, whose first name means “belonging to Zeus.” And godlike she was, for Mrs. Sprowles, who is mentioned in the Curious Autobiography (p.101), was the under-appreciated gem of the New Hope-Solebury High School faculty. Originally a Latin teacher, Zinny (for so she was called) was, by the time I had her in school, nearing the end of her career. By then they had phased out Latin (so was the trend then, as the administration could see no use for it) and relegated the tenured, and therefore not able-to-be-fired erstwhile Latin teacher to teaching English courses, though they allowed her to retain the honors students’ section of what amounted to the best college preparatory courses at New Hope-Solebury, classes that were essentially Great Texts (or what is sometimes called Western World Literature). I was not an honors student, and thus I had no access to that track or to Mrs. Sprowles, unless she happened to teach a regular English elective.
Fortunately for me, she did just that, but it was the second term of my junior year. Hitherto I had known Mrs. Sprowles only from the school hallways. Yet, having met with Mr. Karl Richter, the school’s guidance counselor, with his help I constructed a schedule that included a strange elective—strange for me, that is, because I was a numbers kid, excelling in Physics and mathematics and a member of the geekily (but sadly all too fittingly) “Mathletic Team.” The elective in question was “Detective Literature,” and it focused almost entirely on the works of Arthur Conan Doyle and the figure of Sherlock Holmes. It was taught by none other than my hallway-only acquaintance, Mrs. Sprowles.
Class by class Mrs. Sprowles vivaciously led discussions on the characterization of Holmes or Watson, Doyle’s craft in writing, tension, climax and resolution of each work, construction of plausibility, and the list goes on. I had never encountered a teacher of this caliber. Why, I wondered, was she the only teacher in New Hope-Solebury who had no desk, no classroom? Was it some kind of less than subliminal message from the administration? In any case, she was the self-styled peripatetic pedagogue, though she was far more academic and Platonic than she was categorical and Aristotelian. In fact, that is what made Mrs. Sprowles so profoundly delightful: she was not someone who observed and put things into boxes but she was utterly academic, someone who sought the highest origins and deepest forms.
And that is what must have frightened the administration of New Hope-Solebury High School in those days, the fear that students would become so enamored of learning that they would follow this peripatetic pedagogue just anywhere she might happen to meander in her academic wandering. Indeed, some of us did. Having used whatever influence she had left with Mr. Richter, she managed to squeeze me into her honors class (even though I had been, outside of math and physics a grade-wise dishonorable student), she led me and the rest of that senior seminar to the theater of Dionysus where we witnessed by reading the Oresteia and came to understand the importance of justice and democracy. We would follow her to the ancient agora, where we could overhear Socrates speaking with the young all too self-righteous and overconfident Euthyphro in front of the Stoa Basileios. And, like all the truly great educators such as Socrates, she was misunderstood by the higher-ups.
This is the area, I think, in which Elaine Jakes and Mrs. Sprowles would have fundamentally connected, for both were educators of a similar ilk, all too often misunderstood by all but their students. Yet that letter that Mrs. Sprowles wrote was never sent, presumably because it fell into a crack in the desk or was covered over by two days’ worth of mail and, by the time Zinny found it, it was too late to send. Yet why did she keep it all those years? That I cannot ever know. But I am glad that her daughter took the time to send it to me, along with three other letters written by a very young version of myself—a first-year college student at Dickinson—to his former high school teacher and inspiration, Mrs. Sprowles.
I’m not writing to say that I thought, when I read them, that my own three letters were well written or conveyed anything more than sincere appreciation to a wonderful teacher, or even that Mrs. Sprowles’ note to Elaine Jakes is anything to write home about. Rather, these four letters collectively reflect something bigger, something that is actually worth writing home about: the lost art of letter writing. It is truly a lost art, for art is an aspect of letter writing, as it involves several artistic choices.
First, one must find the right stationery. If one chooses a note format, as Mrs. Sprowles did in her unsent note to Elaine, one must ensure that the card befits the occasion, even if it is blank inside. Then there is the issue of penmanship. Here I’m afraid I fail miserably. Even my finest penmanship is shoddy at best, and I blame my fourth-grade self for snickering and treating as trivial the lessons of Mrs. Hendrickson, my teacher that year, who labored relentlessly to get me and one or two others in the class (was it Mickey? Todd?) to write more legibly. Then there is content, which of course is the most important bit. Yet even that comes out differently with a pen on paper than it does in a computer. It is not correctable on paper: one must get it right the first time.
And this is an art, an art that I was confronted with from a former generational iteration of myself. In case you’re wondering, other than the penmanship and poor choice of stationery, I did okay. But Mrs. Sprowles’ note was far more meaningful. How good it was to see her handwriting again after so many years. How rich and thrilling to know that she had cared enough to write my mother a note—a note I would never have known about had Mrs. Sprowles actually ever have sent it. And that is the key part of the art, the production of the artifact of the epistle itself.
Memory is such a funny thing: it allows us to record in some deep recess of the brain a meaningful event, and never let go. It is something like hope, but backwards. In his Confessions, Augustine demonstrates the power of memory by going back in time to his childhood and his life as a young adult and rendering it all in seven lovely and quite memorable books. But then in the eighth book he begins to shift the notion of memory around so that with the final five books he has reoriented his own and the reader’s mind as he engages ideas that are otherworldly, heavenly. The way he does this is to anchor himself and the reader in the past by memories, one upon another. Mrs. Sprowles’ short note did that for me this week, and my mind looks forward to an otherworldly hope of sitting for tea with her again in a place far away that some of us call Home. I hope she has some of her delightful cinnamon buns with that tea, for I recall the last time we met we enjoyed them together, yet another sweet memory; but a sweeter hope.
Hope is the word most often searched on Google by those feeling desperate. One wants very badly to find a space or at least a place, virtual or otherwise, where hope may not glibly “spring eternal” but rather may be as it were a part of a landscape, mortar holding the brick of a garden wall that one feels a sense of security there. That is the place where someone will say and actually mean, “It’s okay. You’re safe now. You still have a future. There is—this is—a place of hope.” To get to that place, to appreciate it, most often one must go through some frightening and sobering moments, to have faced some tough times, times in which hope was nearly in full eclipse. I know the darkness of such an eclipse well, for my grandfather, Harry Reed Jakes, passed away when I had just finished my sophomore year in college. For a season I lost hope.
Thus do I recall: I was reading Homer’s Odyssey not as a class assignment, for the school year had then ended. Rather, it was book envy, plain and simple, as I had not had it on the syllabus of my section of Western World Literature. For whatever reason, Professor Culp had not put the Odyssey on her syllabus, choosing instead the Iliad—an interesting introduction to college,for that thoroughly violent epic was the first thing I read at Dickinson, that gentle autumn season not so many
years removed from the last troops coming home from Vietnam.
Truth be told, it may have been the first entire book I had read for a class in quite a long time, as in high school, at least until I had taken Mrs. Sprowles senior English class, I was the master of partial preparation, pioneering then what seems to have become an art form among many precollegiate and even college students today. Yet I did know when I walked through that gate of Dickinson College that I was passing through what I would later, thanks to another text in that same class of Professor Culp, recognize as a Dantean-style gate, perhaps still adorning the Benjamin Rush campus today, with cast iron letters mounted upon an uninviting arch that read Lasciate ogne speranza (di pratica cattiva del liceo), voi ch’ intrate, which in English means “Behave yourself and study!”
And so it came to pass that well before we entered the hyperborean swath of that academic year, I encountered warriors battling along the banks of the Simois, Sarpedon’s fate hanging in the balance, brave Andromache handing baby Astyanax to her husband, Hector, as they forebodingly bade farewell, until a kingly father would beg a proud warrior for the body of his fallen son for another type of goodbye scene. That son, the selfsame Hector, would in a ghostlike apparition soon charge his comrade Aeneas to save the Trojan remnant and sail for Hesperia—yet that in what I then thought a lesser text in that selfsame class.
While I enjoyed many of these stories, the other classes, I jealously grumbled, had one better, for they were reading the Odyssey, and of this aspect of their syllabus I was more than just a bit jealous. Besides, I was learning Greek with the legendary Professor Lockhart, a professor who taught much more than merely Greek; he taught life, and expounded upon why books such as the Odyssey are important. “They’re not simply the classics,” he said, “they are the air we breathe, the water we drink; they are food for our souls.” It took me a few years to grasp this statement in any full sense, and I suppose I am still doing so.
And so it was owing to “epic envy” alone and to no other reason—for I did not yet know what an important tale the Odyssey would tell me, never having read it—that I took that book along when I went to visit my grandfather, Harry Jakes, in the hospital for what would be the last time. It was two score less four years ago this month; he died on Father’s Day. This was particularly poignant to me, for he had played an important role in my life, as I had never known my father. He was a good father to Elaine Jakes, perhaps even a better father figure to me. Thus, when Harry died I felt without hope, lost, and had there been Google then, I’m sure I would have tried to Google “hope.”
But I would not have found it, not alone at any rate, for I have learned that hope is only one strand of three, like three fates or three graces, as the Greeks and Romans believed that such ideas (and deities) came in threes. For example, there were three aspects of Diana: the goddess associated with the hunt, with childbirth, and the moon. The Graces (Charites) came in three, too: Aglaia, “radiance,” Euphrosyne, “joy,” and Thalia, “bounteous bloom.” But as joyously, radiantly, blooming bounteous as these are, together they do not form the kind of cord of which I suggest hope is but a slender, yet nonetheless strong part. The second part of that cord, the largest and most vigorous part, is Love.
Now Love is something that nearly everyone can agree about or at least say something positive about. Even in these staunchly secular times, rarely will one meet a person who says, “Love’s just an emotion,” or “You know, it’s strictly a chemical reaction of the brain,” or “What is love, anyway?” or even rarer, “Love is always self-interested, when you get right down to it.” Now I admit I have met such people, usually a dour bunch, with pursed lips and supercilious eyebrows that move up and down seemingly independently. In contrast to that small minority, I think that most folks would agree that “Love is vital” or “human” or maybe, if they like music, they would go so far as to say (or sing) “Love is all you need,” with an upbeat and in-tune pitch of voice, rendering the listener an optimistic alternative to the prune-mouthed, odd-browed realists. Even the less than musical might at least say prosaically, “Well, love’s really important.”
But that’s not what the Odyssey is about, of course, not quite. Or if it is about “love,” it’s a different kind of love. Perhaps it’s the kind that is spelled with a funny combination of letters, three vowels, three m’s, one c and two t’s. Unlike “love,” that word is not very popular, and has often delayed an engagement or two for well more than a year—though it held Penelope and Odysseus together for twenty. Yes, those of you good at word puzzles have already deduced that this kind of love is commitment, admittedly to some a word that is pedestrian, even flat-sounding, but certainly really a bit more “real” than the kind that the “we’re-all-just-a-bunch-of-chemicals” crowd objects to.
But to get back to the Odyssey: it points us homeward. It’s the story, as you likely know, of a war hero finding his way home and cleaning up the problems that accrued while he was away. It’s a text that has a timeless message, even if it is one that is cast against the backdrop of mostly outdated ideas of revenge (though even those values are, sadly, often still found in action movies). Odysseus must come home; such a journey in Greek called a “nostos.” I could not see it then, but my grandfather strongly believed that he was about to make his nostos, not to a home or a house where one can find a hope for life, but to another Home where one finds such hope realized. The commitment that he had shown throughout his life that was reflected, in part, in his love for me and my cousins, Eric and Mark—that was the second strand of the cord, the cord that, if all three strands remain, seems unbreakable to the casual observer, which I confess I was then.
But what about the third strand? Well, as that’s a matter of faith, I prefer to leave it aside for now. Perhaps I’ll come back to it in a future blog. For the time being, suffice it to say that two of the three strands are Love and Hope, and hope only can make sense if one believes that there is such a thing as unfailing love, a.k.a. commitment. Yet who am I to say all this? Well, I’m just a “might-not-have-been,” as I said in my first blog, one who happens to be a writer, who normally writes about elfin hobs or ghosts. And I, dear reader, next week, will tell you another story more along the lines of a hob or a ghost, or perhaps something entirely different but no less entertaining than a lesson in Greek literature, like this one, that involves and expounds on an archaic term such as “nostos.” Yet perhaps the Odyssey’s nostos is an adventure worth having, whether you discover it in a book or, better yet, in your life.