The Hundred-and-Sixth Letter: Fancy Cursive & Plain-Jane Hospitality

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Dear Daughters,

A few weeks ago, I made you a framed poster of the cursive alphabet for our homeschool room. Considering that I am a hand-lettering artist, making such a simple poster ended up taking a lot more deliberate focus than I expected. You know why?

Because I am in the habit of making my own cursive too fancy.

When you were first learning cursive—by which I mean, when you first started imitating the writing that you saw me painting on my canvases—you did it the way of faux calligraphy, like you saw me doing. You thickened your downstrokes. You added flourishes and curly-cues at the end of words. It was adorable, you trying to make your words look like mine. But when we actually started school for Kindergarten, and I wanted to teach you how to practice cursive as part of our handwriting lessons, I had to get you writing regular old plain-Jane cursive.

And it was hard.

For both of us.

It was hard for you because you wanted to make it look fancy. You saw what I was doing and wanted to do it too. (That’s hard for grownups, too, trust me.)

It was hard for me because I could hardly remember how plain cursive looked. It had been a long time since anyone expected me to make my cursive so ordinary, so normal, so everyday.

And so there I was a few weeks ago, writing out the cursive alphabet in pencil, and erasing, and doing a letter again, and erasing, and doing that letter again, simpler this time, sometimes even asking you, “Is this the way your handwriting book has you make a letter ‘W’?” that I found myself feeling the weight of a metaphor.

Girls, it is often during these sorts of tasks, as I lean over a table, eraser in hand or pencil tucked behind my ear, doing something over and over again, that I feel like I figure things out. Call it a nudge of the Holy Spirit, call it the synchronicity of the Universe, call it just the results of thoughtful attention, but I often get my best, deepest thoughts just then, during an ordinary, repetitive task, and often when you are underfoot.

So here it is: the cursive-writing-is-like-hospitality metaphor.

It is hard, in this busy life, to offer ordinary, everyday, plain-Jane hospitality.

It seems to me that when we get in the habit of seeing our homes in terms of picture-perfect Instagram boxes, or when we think HGTV and dinner parties and Fixer-Upper as real-life, or when we simply aren’t living up to our own standards of how much laundry needs to be done or dishes need to be washed or self-care needs to happen because life is so full and we just don’t have time to squeeze in any kind of dinner-planning or invitation-offering or front-door-opening, well, that’s a good sign we have succumbed to the problem of fancy-cursive hospitality.

If our lives are too full to fit in hospitality, it’s because we’re making hospitality too fancy.

And we have forgotten what hospitality is.

It is not a gift given to a certain few.

It is not meal planning and fresh flowers and multiple courses of food.

It is not waiting until the green linoleum is replaced or the yard is neatened up or we finally take the plunge and hire someone to clean our bathrooms for us. It is not waiting until the kids are no longer having quiet time in the afternoons or we have a weekend open where we can actually catch up on XYZ or get to that specialty store to buy that special thing or maybe even just to vacuum the floor. We wait and we want the perfect time and the plan because we like plans and there is so much to do all the time but trust me there has got to be a break here somewhere and then I promise I will finally plan to invite those people over…

No, girls, just no.

Hospitality in the plain-Jane form is this: living life alongside other people. Simply inviting them in to what life already is.

That’s the part that’s easy to forget.

Yes, that part when we invite folks into what our life is, not what we want it to be or what we think it is for other people or what it might be for us in an ideal world on an ideal day at the end of an ideal week.

But to what life is. Today.

Because there is no such thing as an ideal day at the end of an ideal week.

For the record, I’m not talking here about radical invite-strangers-to-your-dinner-table hospitality. I mean, I do think we are called to that, and I can be kind of preachy about it, too, but that’s not what I mean here.

No, I’m talking about opening our normal life to share a normal minute.

And not making it fancy.

I’m talking about a potluck of chili and fixins and assorted desserts and water and coffee and too many people to fit comfortably in the house so thank goodness it ended up being 60 degrees and sunny today. I’m talking about mud in the grass and three families who can’t make it because of illness and one child who gets sick outside before her momma even gets a chance to eat the peanut butter pie she brought. I’m talking about just-met-them-last-night new friends chatting with known-for-a-decade old friends, and we’ll figure out how to let people wash their own dishes even though that makes things awkward kind of hospitality.

And, girls, let’s be real: I’m also talking about genuinely not feeling like doing it but doing it anyway, even after we realize it’s the same weekend as a million other commitments and we’ll be out late the night before and it’s the beginning of a long, busy month, and the week before is the polar vortex, and does anyone even care if it’s the Super Bowl, is that a good reason to cancel, no, okay, let’s just do it, and we do and it is good because that is what hospitality is.

Yes, that is what non-fancy, plain-Jane hospitality is.

Y’all, shared life on a normal day will never, ever be convenient.

But we do it anyway.

Because I want you to know how to write cursive.

And I want you to know how to share your life.

And I want you to know it is all hard.

Really hard.

But all good, too.

Love,

Your Momma

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The Sixtieth Letter: Handwriting Is My Jam

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Dear Daughters,

I have, as long as I can remember, loved to write longhand on paper.

I have also, as long as I can remember, practiced my handwriting.

I don’t know what that makes me, but certainly some level of nerd. I remember in my teens when I started shifting my lowercase ‘a’ intentionally to look more like a typeset ‘a’ because I had noticed it in someone else’s handwriting and thought it was cool.

This means I have always been aware of letters and how they look on the page.

And I guess this means that I have been a typography nerd before I even knew what the word “typography” was.

Fonts matter a lot to me. And by that I mean they matter a lot more than they should. To me, fonts have personalities and they send underlying messages. So when an email or a sign or a book or magazine uses a font that sends a different message than the words themselves, I feel the same tension as when there are actual typographical errors on the page.

Yes, I’m that kind of nerd.

I remember practicing to write with my left hand in elementary school on the off chance I would break my right arm. I suppose I’m still able to do that, to write with my left hand, but I haven’t tried in a long time. I did try this evening to write backwards in cursive, as I used to in middle school. I remember exchanging notes with my friend Jess Kisner in backwards script back in eighth grade, holding the pages up to the light to read them easily as the backwards script reversed when read through the page. Why did we do this? Surely we knew anyone who obtained the secret note would be able to do the same thing. But at least, I suppose, nobody could read over our shoulders as we wrote those notes to each other.

When I was in high school, I began experimenting with what I would now call hand-lettering. I remember taking quotes and trying to make each letter of each word an artistic image or creative design. I remember, especially, writing out “every man’s death diminishes me” during one of our state government school programs at the capitol building. Clearly I was paying attention to the program. Clearly I’ve always been left-leaning in my convictions.

As I was an academically minded nerd, I didn’t take many art classes, even though they were offered by my large public high school. We actually had a great art program. But I spent my days enrolled in AP classes to get the weighted GPA, even then with the goal of valedictorian, which is only mysteriously important to me now as I look back on it.

As an adult in my twenties, I discovered an Austin-based graphic designer & typographer. I was looking around at his website and I had an epiphany. If I had known that people did this sort of thing for a living–that people studied and developed fonts and letter-based designs–the whole trajectory of my life may have been different. Isn’t that strange? I remember emailing your Uncle Stephen a link to the guy’s website and saying, “DID YOU KNOW PEOPLE DID THIS AS A JOB?

Seriously, if I had it all to do again, I would have taken more art, and I probably would have learned some graphic design along the way.

Because letters are so my jam.

I’m fortunate that as a mom of wee ones in my thirties, I have managed to carve out an art life. The “fortunate” part is that I’m part of a community that loves art, and I have artsy friends who are also squeezing art into their lives, who are organized enough to get together for weekly meetings to work through The Artists Way or Walking in the World, workbooks on creativity and calling and vocation and art.

I have a writing group made up of writers who also make art. These women commission me to paint for them. They are my biggest cheerleaders. Well, apart from your dad, who is by far the best encourager there is. He tells me I’m awesome all the time, and he believes it. Your Grandma Troutman also tells me I’m pretty great, pretty much every time I post a new letter. And your Uncle Stephen jokes about being the president of my fan club. So I’m definitely fortunate to have people who cheer me on when it comes to art.

But seriously, let me get back to this handwriting thing.

I love handwriting. I love to write. I love to copy down quotes. I love to hand-letter them into artsy designs just because. I like to make lists, as I’ve mentioned once or twice in these letters. I love to send real letters, with stamps and everything. I don’t know what it would be like to just sign my name to a generic card because I am kind of compulsive about writing out long messages to people. It’s like I just hiccup and suddenly there is a paragraph on the page.

I do love my handwriting. I’m such a nerd. I like to practice writing. I like to read about lettering. I like to read about fonts. I like to practice fonts.

And I love that you are learning to write your letters. I’m so excited to teach you cursive. I love how you sit beside me and watch me letter in my notebooks. “That’s so pretty, Momma,” you say, over and over and over again, as I write and doodle or paint my letters and sayings and verses.

“That’s so beautiful, Momma.”

“Good job, Momma.”

“You’re a good artist, Momma.”

You’re the sweetest little encouragers.

I have been impressed already with the way you seem to have an eye for design and image and beauty and style. Not because you like my art, but because you care about how things are. You take note of beauty in nature, and you notice when things are different. You comment on colors and designs. You love catalogs because of the repeated patterns, and you especially get a kick out of the fashion designs in my Vogue.

Sometimes I think I might be imagining it, but your dad has noticed, too.

It gives me hope that you, too, love design and art and beauty.

It gives me hope that you like letters and colors and layout.

It gives me hope that you might be a nerd just like me.

Love,

Your Momma