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Heart to Hand to Pen and Paper: Corinth Letter Society Revives a Sadly Neglected, Yet Graceful Practice

  • Barbara Soros, founder of the Society of Handwritten Letters, writes to a friend in Paris about solitude, and "the tyranny of the garden," at her home in Corinth, Vt., Tuesday, Sept. 11, 2018. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Barbara Soros, founder of the Society of Handwritten Letters, returns her pen to the page with a flourish after a long moment of thought at her home in Corinth, Vt., Tuesday, Sept. 11, 2018. "It's not like some regressive thing. It's not some blast from the past. I think what it brings is a sanity to hand," said Soros of hand-writing letters. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Barbara Soros, founder of the Society of Handwritten Letters, writes to a friend at her home in Corinth, Vt., Tuesday, Sept. 11, 2018. "I think to write a letter you have to have silence in yourself and around yourself," said Soros. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • From her writing desk at their Cookeville home on Sept. 13, 2018, Dina DuBois, of Corinth, Vt., writes a thank-you letter to the AirBnB innkeeper in New Paltz, N.Y., where she and her husband recently stayed. DuBois spent summers in the Hudson Valley town when she was young and, by coincidence, the innkeeper remembered DuBois from those days. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • After she finished a thank-you letter with fountain pen at her writing desk, Dina DuBois, of Corinth, Vt., switches over to the computer desk to look up an address before walking across the road in Cookeville to mail it on Sept. 13, 2018. Since May, DuBois and others have been tracking their letters as part of the Corinth Society of Handwritten Letters. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • A Valentine Dina DuBois' grandfather wrote and illustrated to her grandmother in the 1890s is amongst a collection of letters that DuBois, of Corinth, Vt., has dating back to the Civil War on Sept. 13, 2018. Since May, DuBois and others have been tracking their letters as part of the Corinth Society of Handwritten Letters. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.



For the Valley News
Friday, September 14, 2018

Dear Everyone:

Write more letters, preferably by hand.

Yours,

The Society of Handwritten Letters

A tiny village in Corinth seems an unlikely place for a movement to be launched. On a languid summer afternoon, Cookeville is pretty as a postcard and agreeably quiet. The village’s handful of buildings are painted with colors from the Vermont palette: understated shades of white, red, green. A quintessential Vermont aroma wafts by, decidedly bovine.

The venerable Corinth Academy building, now the pride of the historical society, commands a view of the town hall, a modest green, several homes and the post office. The post office lobby is small, with enough space in front of the counter for a couple of patrons before they must do-si-do around each other.

Off to the side is an invitation — either wonderfully timely or curiously out of date. The call to action: take up pen and paper again to write letters by hand. The missive, from the local Society of Handwritten Letters, “invites you to preserve this nearly extinct art form & support our post office.”

At a time when communication is very nearly instantaneous yet widely unsatisfying (online comments can be a boiling pot of rage and scorn, emails are spare, texts stripped to the bone), a cadre of writers in Corinth has been taking part in a letter-writing contest of sorts, a marathon in ink and graphite.

According to the rules, “All letters qualify: expressions of love, empathy, congratulations, breaking of sad or joyous news, honest revelations, political commentary, details of daily life, shared dreams and all imaginings written on any kind of paper or blank cards.”

The effort began in May; as of July, 34 had signed on. It would seem, in a small town like Corinth, to be going gangbusters.

“Someone who came in said it’s pretty bad we have to be reminded to write letters,” said Beth Thompson, the affable postal clerk.

But many have entirely forgotten about handwritten letters in these digital times, so here we are.

Thompson herself has taken up the challenge, writing letters and notes by hand after a hiatus of decades. She mailed nine in the first month, sharing tidbits about people, news and weather with relatives around the country. “I just think it’s a wonderful thing to do,” she said, adding, “The computer isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.”

Thompson found pleasure in addressing an envelope to a family member in Maine. “Pumpkinville Road,” she recalled with a smile. She said most seem delighted to receive a letter out of the blue, although one relative’s initial reaction was alarm, out of fear that “something must have happened.”

Prizes are awarded monthly to correspondents, writer-friendly items such as stamps, note cards, preserves and brie. Scott Elledge, of Corinth, won a prize the first month for the most letters, 51. For his prolific output, Elledge won some chocolate. He was thrilled, he said, but in the spirit of the thing, the prize added to his writing duties. “That, of course,” he explained, “required another thank-you.”

The contest coincided with Elledge’s growing desire to write “more letters than email messages.” He’d realized, “to my great dismay,” that he was forgetting how to write the cursive script he’d learned years ago in school. His signature, too, had radically changed over time as he wrote faster and faster.

“I decided to slow myself down a bit,” Elledge explained, “and live in the now.”

The marathon was supposed to end this month, but thanks to the response, organizers are extending it through winter, the dark time when writing and reading letters might be a diversion and a comfort. The effort has also spread to Strafford, where a half-dozen quickly signed up recently in response to a small display at the post office. Organizers hope that the project could spread further, perhaps helping post offices that have seen volumes drop in the digital age. When they dream big, they wish that schools would return to teaching cursive writing.

Barbara Soros, a Corinth author and educator who conducts workshops on themes of creativity and healing, had the inspiration for the Society of Handwritten Letters. For her, the project is something deep and meaningful.

“It’s not just an antique from the past, but a tradition that can be brought forward,” she said.

Soros said that as emails, texts and social media are speeding communication and stripping it of depth and complexity, our use of language is growing baser. “This is not allowing a human being to go to the depths of themselves,” she said.

Handwritten letters, on the other hand, can be an art form, Soros said, as expressive as baking bread by hand or organic gardening. When she receives such a letter, she sees it as something to be savored; the handwriting itself says much about the sender.

Soros observed that we live in an “impatient society,” but letter writers practice patience when they send a message with the “happy expectation” of a reply, and “the cycle of the letter continues.”

That cycle has been turning for many centuries, of course. Letter writers in certain eras were prodigious, leaving treasures for gossips, historians, biographers and critics of all stripes. Consider that Lord Nelson, when he wasn’t saving the British Empire at Trafalgar and elsewhere, was an energetic correspondent, with some 5,000 surviving letters. Queen Victoria wrote some 3,700 letters, including a revealing one to her daughter that stated, “An ugly baby is a very nasty object and the prettiest is frightful when undressed.”

Famous pen pals of history include Catherine the Great and writer-philosopher Voltaire, who corresponded for 15 years. One online list also includes writers Anais Nin and Henry Miller, composers Johannes Brahms and Clara Schumann and poets Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell, who supported each other in writing for 30 years. Their letters form the emotional heart of Dear Elizabeth, which will be performed next month at Northern Stage in White River Junction.

Advocates of writing letters, by hand or otherwise, ask whether historians and thinkers of the future will find such gems in the emails and texts of today. In Corinth, Soros speaks of “a living history that I fear is going to be lost.”

In agreement is Dina DuBois, of Corinth, who also has been active in the letter-writing campaign. “I doubt that people are going to be saving emails,” she said. “Letters persist,” she said, but what of the floppy disk? She herself uses fountain pens, “of course.” For her, “having a pen in hand and the paper is a different experience tactilely. It slows me down.”

DuBois has in her keeping family letters dating to the Civil War and seven years of correspondence between her grandmother and a fiance. She has taken to returning a lifetime of letters sent to her through the decades. Rereading them inspires deep reflection, she said.

Tania Aebi, of Corinth, said sometimes she’s had a chance to look at letters she wrote in the past, allowing her to “see what color pen I used, paper I chose and stories selected to tell.” She called them “little unvarnished time capsules that sometimes embarrass me. That’s not the person I like to now think I was then!”

Soros said one reason the campaign took off in Corinth is that it is a vibrant community, with many social and cultural gatherings. Elledge said people are not wedded to smartphones in the rural town.

Though letter-writers almost always toil alone, a community is forming around the Corinth project. Organizers are planning a potluck picnic for letter-writers later this month that will include music, prizes and readings of letters.

The gathering will celebrate meaning discovered and recovered in the process of writing. Tania Aebi wrote, in response to an email about the project, that she committed to writing by hand, even though it irritates her carpal tunnel symptoms. “The gift of time is very precious, and this giving of time is implicit in handwritten letters. It is a very satisfying way to show respect, love, thoughtfulness and caring, all of which our society needs now more than ever.”

Letter writers and others might say a collective amen.

Sincerely.

According to the Society of Handwritten letters, “anyone can join at any time, no matter in what village you live. Just send a note with the number of pages and letters or cards written monthly to Beth Thompson, Corinth Post Office, Corinth VT, 05039, or telephone 802-439-5551.”

Dan Mackie lives in West Lebanon. He can be reached at dan.mackie@yahoo.com.