Writing reveals the soul

Lisa Foster

On rare, reverent occasions, you can catch a glimpse of a person's soul: the light reflecting from a child's eyes, a tear of happiness or sadness, the captured gaze in a photograph of someone long gone. The eyes are the window to the soul, true enough. But wherever the soul dwells, the front door is through the hand. The art of handwritten communication is a threshold to the soul.

And that door is closing.

Just as the Maya believe being photographed steals part of their soul, so a portion of our soul is lost each time we choose electronic communication over the handwritten form. One day, cursive will be lost. Already my 15-year-old is losing the ability to write in cursive, and I'm told it is no longer taught in some schools.

No one would suggest a wholesale return to handwritten correspondence. There's no altering the fact that we live in a digital world accustomed to rapid response. Although I grew up with stovetop popcorn, patiently shaken over heat until the volume of puffed corn lifted the lid, releasing that mouthwatering steamy scent, you won't find me dragging out the cast-iron pot on movie night. Who doesn't prefer the quicker microwave version? I can appreciate the conveniences while lamenting the loss of some-thing in choosing them.

And so it is with handwriting. Typing is faster, easier to read. But it is also sterile and soul-less. We lose part of our souls when the old yellow correspondence of our grandfathers no longer exists, when the recipes in mother's hand are a tradition unknown to new generations. I can't imagine a world without electronic communication, but I dare not imagine a world that chooses convenience over the humanity of misspellings, smudginess and delicious imperfections of someone's quirky "q" formed by hand, not machine.

Janie Simons Mitchell was a free black woman who lived here during the Civil War. Documented within the pages of her journal are personal accounts of Charleston life more than a century ago. That alone is unique and worthy of attention and protection. But it is form, in addition to content, that imparts something of Janie's soul. It is her handwriting.

There are no surviving photos of Mitchell. We cannot peer into her eyes to find some fragment of her soul. But we can see the words she wrote in her own hand and feel a connection with her because of it.

In her strokes, we can imagine her sitting up late into the night, fighting sleep to capture on paper what she wanted to pass down to future generations, what she wished to be remembered. We can see where she became tired; her handwriting got a bit lazy, more elongated. We can tell when she wished to emphasize a point: letters are darker, more severe, larger, underlined or capitalized. We can point to the places where she returned to add an extra note in the margin -- something important enough to include as an afterthought.

We can see her soul in her handwriting, in her signature and in the careful way she wrote the name of her church. And because we have this small fragment of her soul, we feel even more poignantly how desperately she wished to communicate through the ages that she lived, that she has a story to tell and that she wants others, especially young people, to benefit from her historically valuable life experiences.

We can communicate from a keyboard. We may even be able to make a profound point that changes the world. But it will never capture the soul the way handwritten words can. Write to your children. Copy down a recipe in longhand. Keep a journal, as Janie did. The soul you save may be your own.

Lisa Foster is a freelance writer living in Goose Creek with her husband and daughter. She and the diary's owner, Mary Lou Murray Coombs, have written a book about Mitchell, "Janie Mitchell, Reliable Cook."