Temporary Talismans

Sejal Shah
July 12, 2016
Comments 7

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There’s a postcard I’ve kept propped on my desk, on a bookshelf, or protected in a drawer—since middle school. I don’t know what attracted me to that particular postcard from Germany. Perhaps it was that I had not yet traveled out of the country, other than Canada. But it always felt more mysterious to me than that. The image even surfaced in a story I wrote several years ago called “The Girl with Two Brothers”:

“We walk toward a mountain. We long for the curve in the road. We look at each other, heads leaning in. You are carrying a staff. The girl’s face is happy. I could never see your face.”

The postcard shows a pair of towheaded children embarking on a journey; they resemble my idea of Hansel and Gretel, though on a happier trek. I think I most likely found the card at one of those pop-up fairs of antiques, collectibles, and memorabilia, which suburban malls used to host in their large corridors and courtyards. I loved looking at old bottles, books, and ephemera, and I bought this one card. It had been sent already. It was used and it was perfect.

According to Christian McEwen in her marvelous (and timely) book, World Enough & Time: On Creativity and Slowing Down, we’ve lost something by losing our paper correspondence—letters and postcards. McEwen writes that “because of their brevity, and the play between words and image, postcards are perhaps especially potent.”

McEwen meditates on the corporeality of the postcard—as an art object, as a temporary talisman:

[T]he pleasure of a postcard in and of itself: a tiny icon which can be propped on a mantelpiece or a bedside table, attached with magnets to the fridge, slipped into the edge of a mirror, or pasted on the front of a journal is a loss that no one even seems to mourn. And yet a postcard—just because it is so cheap, so light, so portable—can be astonishingly resilient and evocative. Who has not opened a book to find a battered postcard thrust between the pages? Who has not puzzled over a date, a smudgy postmark, and reread the message from so long ago, studying the ease or awkwardness of phrasing, the swirl of a signature…

I have three friendships that grew out of postcard correspondences. I met W and H at an artist residency (fourteen years ago and six years ago, respectively) and M at a conference eleven years ago. We were all already writers. But the four of us, individually, also had a practice of writing postcards to friends—and we all still do.

I have never lived in the same area as these friends and three of us have moved in the ensuing years—between us, we’ve relocated in that time from or to Michigan, New York, Massachusetts, Iowa, and Washington State. I would and do recognize each of their handwriting without a signature, when a letter or postcard arrives in the mail. It gives me such pleasure to know their handwriting. In general, I don’t know the handwriting of my newer friends.

M mentions peonies from when he lived in Syracuse. H writes of books and walks in her balletic, elegant script. W’s letters fill the page, billowing clouds—a kind of kinetic energy—I see a sail filled—telling me the relief she has that the school year is over.

What does it mean to take the time to write a card and procure a stamp when I can message any one of them on Facebook or text or email? It’s not that I do not email or message or text them now; I have and I do. But we still write postcards.

Postcards lend themselves in a quiet way to cultivating a new friendship or courting a new friend, which perhaps is why we began that way. But why do we continue? It’s a quality of mind I’m after or trying to describe. A postcard arises from a quiet place, before picking up the pen—I think it’s about attention and intention, though there can be something breezy or even rushed, offhand about a postcard (at least before email).

Postcards are incomplete, imperfect, and often say something about one’s travel or daily life—they free us from the sense of having to write something extraordinary or profound. They are a first and only draft. For me, as a writer, that’s such a relief. It’s a snapshot of a life.

I often edit emails, but in postcards, it’s ok to be free-ranging, to not get everything—or even anything—special in. All is forgiven and the stakes are low. The gesture itself takes some effort and care. It’s an unexpected bit of happiness in the mail. Sometimes a flash of watercolor or a small quote; writing what we were doing and thinking; an acknowledgement of the card just received. A picture for no reason. An email wants something from you—an answer, some information, a reply. A postcard asks for nothing. It is a gift.

I became friends with H, W, and M in part through years of writing. Certainly we had a connection when we met and conversations that sparked and felt meaningful. And yet, there was something about the years of trading small messages, the effort taken in going to the post office, in picking a card, in retrieving the address. The old-fashioned practice of having a pen pal, of maintaining a correspondence, tending to a conversation, which became, over the years, friendship.

The postcard I’ve kept for so many years: it’s not currently in rotation on my desk, but I safeguard it in a box with a few other talismans, art objects, muse-callers. There’s a phrase in German on the picture side of the card. Hinaus in die Ferne! According to Google Translate, it means “Out into the Distance.” In all those years, I had never bothered to look it up. I didn’t need to. The image had its own potency– it gave me words. It spoke to me as if a dream image, and I trusted it fully. To step onto the path with a sense of wonder—whether setting off to write something or on an actual journey, a pilgrimage.

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The card said nothing extraordinary—or perhaps what it said was essential, only words, a message (which would now come by email or text or whatsapp); no punctuation, a sort-of poem: We arrived / here today / Everything is / great  / Valney & Esther 

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This week, while out of town, I went to IKEA. After I gave up sticking to my list, I left the Swedish behemoth with, among other things, a pack of postcards. The illustrations are of single birds (though no blue jays)—and therefore, have nothing to do with Toronto, where I bought them. Still, I fancied the pale green background and the image of a solitary bird perched on each card. I will send them (to M, W, H) when I get home.

7 thoughts on “Temporary Talismans

  1. It was special to hear you read this outloud at Writers and Books for the Teen Master Class! Lovely piece. When my father would say to me, “don’t worry about writing a letter, just send a postcard” I realized it was his way of saying what mattered to him was not the words… the thoughts, the endless stream of energy I would pour into letters. No, what mattered was the sign from me to him, that he mattered.

  2. My friend Suzie and I have sent each other postcards since about 1982 when we were 12. We often sign them with fake names and/or draw things onto the postcard image (most often birds like the letter M in the sky). I was very pleased to learn, soon after library school, that the poet Kenneth Koch and his New York School friends often exchanged postcards using fake names. This led to some confusion in the list of correspondents in his papers — does one include Mickey Mouse, Gertrude Stein, etc., when all are written in the hand of Frank O’Hara? Anyway, viva la handwritten messages. Suzie recently sent me a 14-page handwritten letter!

  3. Beautifully written. Loved the topic and the nostalgia. Such fond memories of sending and receiving letters to and from friends. Postcards sent while on vacation, prided myself with how many words I could fit on a card . Those postcards often arrived after I arrived home, that fact never deterred us from writing anyway.

    Thanks.

  4. This post makes me want to encourage my poetry students to get into a habit of composing postcards as a way of freeing up their writing, allowing that free-ranging expression you describe, and as a way of slowing down and noticing something worthy of sharing in a quick moment.

    Hinaus in die Ferne!

    Lovely piece!

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