I got a letter last month –that’s right, a letter. I’d almost forgotten what one was; except for the occasional bills from sources I’d forgotten to instruct to go paperless, my postal box has become more of a repository for supermarket advertising and real estate brochures than a safe-house for epistles. So the texture of the envelope came as a surprise. And the stamp. I remember holding it in my hand, admiring the quality of the paper, and caressing fibres which were just out of sight to everything but my fingers. There was a feel to the envelope that whispered personal to my senses, and –what shall I say?- friendship to my heart. I could see the affection in the care with which the directions to the post office were composed: it was hand-written, if you can imagine, and in the high-cursive script that I was taught in elementary school. The O’s were round and fluid, like bubbles in a bath, the little I’s were dotted carefully, and there was the unmistakeable mastery of the small C that I have always admired.
Unexpected gifts like this do not go unappreciated, do not slip past unnoticed. Perhaps that’s why it was sent. Although the contents were only meant to tell me I had not been forgotten, I felt, nonetheless, as if I’d been sent a bouquet of flowers, or a hand-drawn card that deserved a place of honour on the dresser.
It started me wondering if I could still write –not type, not print like I usually default to on cheques –but actually write in something resembling a fluid, readable cursive script like I’d spent the first half of my life doing. Retirement, where I now live, is a wonderful place -it leaves time for hobbies, and even volunteering if you have to- but I decided to start cursing again instead –as in cursive, of course.
At first, even holding a pencil (so I could erase it) in my hand seemed awkward, but like riding a bike I suppose, the balance soon returned. It was the speed that was my downfall, unfortunately. And, unlike typing, I actually had to think about how to join the letters in a readable way. It didn’t used to be like this –far from automatic, I found it difficult to write in a straight, level line unless I was using grade school foolscap and even then it was like trying to stay inside the pattern in a kid’s colouring book. I felt ashamed. And old.
But, in an agonal spasm of hope to keep me from requesting cursive euthanasia –or the other kind- I decided to cast my pencil to the wind, and seek advice. I needed to know that I wasn’t alone. I needed assurance that I wasn’t in one of the early stages of manual Alzheimer’s or flirting with a looming finger dementia. That if I wished to reply to my friend in kind, I would not have to sink to hiring an amanuensis.
Fortunately, I was still able to coax my extremities into a laptop, and found a semi-exculpatory article in a BBC item: http://www.bbc.com/future/story/20171108-the-uncertain-future-of-handwriting Okay, I wanted to believe I’d be informed that my deficit was merely due to the times I’ve wandered into and not to dotage or confirmation bias… Sua culpa, in other words.
Anyway, it got me thinking. ‘In an age where our children swipe, pinch and tap on smartphones and tablets from birth, is the “hand” in “handwriting” about to be removed forever?’ Learning cursive (joining up the letters) was once mandatory in schools, but ‘Countries such as Finland have dropped joined-up handwriting lessons in schools in favour of typing courses. And in the US, the requirement to learn cursive has been left out of core standards since 2013.’ It’s like a conquered nation losing its language, when you think about it –soon no one will even remember how to practice it. Or understand it: nowadays, ‘95% of handwritten manuscripts can’t be read by the average person anyway.’ I first suspected that might be a problem in grade three when the girl in the next row returned my notes; there weren’t many accredited girl palaeographers in my class, I guess –palaeography being the study of the hurried scribblings from the kid with horn-rimmed glasses sitting beside you.
But, my popularity aside, there is research suggesting there are cognitive benefits to writing. For example, ‘Handwriting may boost fine motor skills in your hands and fingers.’ Writing with a keyboard versus a pencil utilizes different brain functions, apparently. ‘Brain imaging studies show that cursive activates areas of the brain that do not participate in keyboarding.’ Even the word, keyboarding, makes it sound like a street sport, doesn’t it –or is that just wishful thinking from someone who always got picked last for the teams at recess?
Oh, and to ice the cake for the cursivites, ‘Further academic study suggests that handwriting can stimulate visual recognition and memory retention.’ Well, I can’t say I ever noticed that in school, but now that I’m mixing up faces and forgetting names as a cursive apostate, I wonder if there could be something to it.
And yet, even after reading the article, I’m really not sure I’ve really grasped all of its subtleties. What, for example, am I supposed to do with its mention of Voice Recognition Software? Do I have to learn to write with my voice now, too? It really took me back to elementary school and that girl in the next seat claiming she couldn’t read my notes, or didn’t want to –I forget which, now. Anyway, I always figured it was because she was Catholic or something; I never thought of writing out-loud notes to her. It might have changed my life, although in retrospect, it probably would have got me a lot more visits to the principal or extra, cursive-heavy homework. And I don’t think you’re supposed to date before puberty… Actually, now that I think about it, she was French Canadian, so maybe they’re allowed to. Whatever.
But I have to say I’m enjoying writing stuff by hand again. I’ve even switched to ink for my instructions to the cleaning lady. Of course there’s still a lot of smudges, and crossing outs, but she must read them –I found one crumpled up under the couch last week.