the purity of pigments and words

image by ஆ ன ந் த ம் / a n a n d h a m via flickr

My mother loved hot pink. She wore the most shockingly pink lipsticks that would make anyone else look dreadful yet they were soft and lovely on her. There is no polite restraint in the color magenta, it announces its joy and ebullience for all to see. I thought of her as I searched for photos for my desktop and found the one which illustrates this post (and now my screen). It’s lovely, isn’t it?

I wonder if on her travels she ever heard of the Holi festival, the Hindu celebration of Spring and its abundance, celebrated with wildly unfettered explosions of colorful enthusiasm. She would have loved it. Perhaps someday I will witness it and will dive and twirl in the clouds of pigment and perfumed powder, laughing with abandon for the two of us.

She was a relatively early adopter of technology, embracing with fervent passion her (naturally) hot pink imac in their first iteration. She struggled to master it, but froze when she had to remember how to print, or save. She would print out her emails to edit them by hand. Then she would proceed to re-edit and re-edit them until she grew so uncertain of their worth that she would decide not to send them. We found stacks of them in her home.

“Just write, don’t worry,” I would chirp, a magenta bright mantra that I hoped she would embrace, but to no avail.

“An email is like a letter,” she would say.

“Exactly,” I would reply.

In this seeming agreement we could not have disagreed more.

She wrote, whether in her journals—which I did not read, advised to discard them rather than invade her privacy… does privacy even exist after we are gone?—or in letters, with discipline and perfectly formed script, a reflection of the ponderous thought she put into every word. Her letters were careful and deliberate. She was a volcano of color and life yet was very good at regulating its escape.

At that stage in my life I was quite the opposite. I wrote many letters, endless letters, often accompanied by a drawing, a collage, a photo. They were just as often messy and unkempt as they were exquisitely beautiful, written on handmade paper with gold ink or on the backs of vintage postcards. They were pure emotion on a page, offered with little forethought or planning. Often I wouldn’t even read them before sending.

When recently I found some letters I’d written (never sent, I assume, or they would not have been there, tucked in that stack of things I’d pushed aside long ago) I was struck by how heartfelt they were, how raw and free. Their phrasing was rhythmic, ever reflective of the mood and the emotions behind them. Like the pigments of Holi, my words were tossed in the air without thought of where they might land.

Like many, I embraced with joyous enthusiasm the concept of The Rumpus’ “Letters in the Mail.” I treasure them, actually, not only as I’m reading them, but even afterwards, tying them together and slipping them in a corner of my shelf, in order of receipt, the first containing the magenta stain of a lipsticked kiss.

I’ve received others—letters, that is—from friends I’ve made via my blog, via my writing group, and even from the illustrious UK publisher Scott Pack who at one point offered generously to write a handwritten note to anyone who asked for one. (No doubt he was deluged with requests.) I wrote him back, but have not written back yet to the others, something which hovers like a raincloud over my head and about which I’ve made a thousand excuses.

I know, it’s not like they are waiting for my humble response, but there is something terribly rude and heartless about receiving a letter from someone and not replying. It’s far worse than not replying to an email. I do want to write back, to give them the pleasure of receipt that they have given me, yet somehow I feel intimidated, my response halted. There is so much to say, yet how and… why? It has been far too long since I’ve written a letter with abandon, which is perhaps a good thing, for it spares the recipients (these oft beloved strangers) from my intimacies. A letter is, after all, and no matter what it contains, by its very nature intimate. It must come from the heart.

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9 thoughts on “the purity of pigments and words

  1. I just want to know your mother. I’m shocked you didnt read her journals, I wouldn’t have the strength to discard. You write your letters whenever you feel the need, the passion, and screw the rest (the rules of response).

  2. I just want to know your mother. I also am shocked you didn’t read the journals. You must carry a calmness that I just don’t have. I would have savagely ripped open that binding. Reading someone’s journals is like figuring out if we all see orange the same way or do some people see something else entirely.

    PS. you reply when you feel like it, screw the rest.

  3. This is such a beautiful piece, friend. By your third sentence, I was shaking my head, thinking how gracefully you string your words together. And that image of you diving and twirling in Holi… Stunning.
    What a gift your letters must have been (and continue to be.)

    My teenaged summers were full of letters, spanning the time spent on boats away from friends on shore, back in those days before email. I still try to send periodic cards to loved ones, but sadly, they don’t happen as frequently these days.

    1. So, hmmm maybe we should all meet up for Holi sometime… Nepal? Bangladesh? We could pick a pigment color and recognize one another by it.

      In a way, I suppose blog posts are letters. They are a spilling of self onto the page, like a whisper of intimacy (despite the fact that they are public). I love reading yours always, following your journeys.

  4. A lovely piece…and you’ve tapped into something I wish to return to, the art of a letter. I’ve just subscribed to the Rumpus, and you shall shake your head, for I just received Moody’s letter and thought, “meh, his heart was not in it”. The other one I received, I’ve used to write a bit of poetry and would like to write a response. I bet you do respond…lucky them. Keep writing your letters, they are most certainly a treasure to those who receive them. ~

    1. That’s funny you say that, because of the nine letters so far, Moody’s was for me the one I least connected with. Some of the others were incredible.

      I so enjoy the writing you share on your blog.

  5. The photo is so beautiful and rich . . . and perfect for a post re: that tactile sensation of putting words down on paper. I’m reminded of pen pals when I was a young girl, and people I corresponded with after my first visit to Europe (early college, pre-computer days), and how those lightweight onion-skin international letters always seemed weighted with something exotic. I still love sending ‘real’ cards. The very act of writing by hand slows us down.

    1. I must say, I think this image will stay on my desktop longer than most. Aerogrammes were my main way of communicating with family and friends for several years… so fragile, yet so very strong. 🙂

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