Jim Taylor's Columns - 'Soft Edges' and 'Sharp Edges'

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Published on Thursday, May 21, 2020

The value of handwritten notes

Handwriting still matters.

            My granddaughter says that her schools no longer teach handwriting skills. When I research, I learn that education ministries in Ontario and Quebec (and in about 45 states south of the border) have already pulled cursive writing from the curriculum.

            Once upon a time, we all learned the MacLean Method. Turns out it’s Canadian – popularized by H.B. MacLean who taught in Victoria from the 1920s to the 1960s. It was the standard method taught across the country and in the U.S. since its inception.

            The teacher carefully inscribed chalk letters on a blackboard; we students hunched over our desks copying those sweeping ascenders and descenders onto lined sheets of paper. 

            Some of our desks even had a diagonal stripe painted across their surface to ensure that we set our sheets of practice paper at the right angle. 

            The social culture of the time assumed that everyone would be right-handed. If any students weren’t, they were soon forced to adapt. My mother, the generation before me, was punished for trying to use her left hand. She had to learn to write with the proper hand. 

            By my time in school, left-handedness was no longer considered a physical disability. I was allowed to hold my writing instruments in my left hand. But instead of my hand sliding across the paper safely below the letters I laboriously practiced, it smudged across them. My pages looked as messy as a teenager’s floor. It took me another 40 years to learn how to write under the text. 


The personal touch

            I’m sorry that cursive handwriting is disappearing. Because there’s a huge difference between a handwritten note and a printed text, whether on paper or on screen. 

            In the two months since my wife Joan died, daughter Sharon and I have received 60 or so emails of condolence. And several dozen phone calls. But the cards have made the most impression. They were all handwritten. Forty-seven of them.

            The printed words on the cards offered saccharine platitudes. But the notes and letters described memorable incidents, long ago or more recent. They told of the writers’ own sense of loss. They recognized of the double-whammy of grief and mandatory isolation. 

            In an age when “Hey, Siri!” can send off an instant assembly-line platitude, those writers recognized that there was something more personal, more meaningful, in taking the effort to write by hand rather than in just getting the job done the easiest way. 

            And yes, I could recognize MacLean Method elements still lingering. 

            What impresses me is not so much what they said – although those personal connections were important – but that they made the unfamiliar effort to write. By hand. 

            Even if the same words came out as they would have if sent by computer printout, the handwriting conveyed as much as the text. Maybe more.

            In recent years, I have occasionally railed at charities that send out all-purpose cards as an incentive to donate more. “That’s not why I send you donations,” I fume. (I say the same about unsolicited address labels and memo pads.) 

            But I realize now that the cards themselves are simply a vehicle for people to write on. And it’s the writing that matters.

            Dear writers: I read every card you sent. Sometimes I smiled. Sometimes I wept. I’m keeping every one of them. 


Copyright © 2020 by Jim Taylor. Non-profit use in congregations and study groups, and links from other blogs, welcomed; all other rights reserved.

                  To comment on this column, write jimt@quixotic.ca





Several letters continued to come in about knitting and prayer shawls, but I shall restrict this compilation to some letters about goldfinches, beauty, and reincarnation.


“I think you are caught in a false alternative,” Steve Roney suggested, “in supposing that the goldfinch at your window was either a standard issue dumb animal or a reincarnation of your wife. There are other possibilities.

            “Birds are understood by just about all cultures as messengers from heaven. Perhaps all cultures are not wrong. In B.C., you should know of the native tradition referred to in the book I Heard the Owl Call My Name.

            “The Bible says angels can appear in physical form at will. The Holy Spirit appears as a dove. A goldfinch tapping at your window could easily be an angel conveying a message from Joan that she is fine, and still in contact.”


Dawne Taylor considered options “A sign from Joan? A gift of the Spirit? Just a pretty bird passing by? One of God’s beloved creatures wanting to connect with you? Who knows? And does it matter? I have heard so many stories of ‘signs’ from a deceased loved one that I no longer pooh-pooh such accounts. Both my parents died in 2008. A few months after my mother’s death, I was stunned to see two bucks in my backyard. I had never seen them before, and never saw them again. To me, that gave a sense of my parents’ well-being in a way I can’t explain. So yes beauty is in the eye of the beholder – may that goldfinch’s beauty stay with you.”


Ruth Buzzard also had post-death connections: “I don’t believe in very much anymore, but I am of Irish descent and sometimes the Irish are ‘fey’, a term that defies definition.

            “My mother knew when someone in the family was going to die, but never knew who it was going to be. I remember her panic when she was afraid that it was going to be me. Her eldest brother died the next day.

            “The evening before my mother died, I went out to the balcony of her old age home and watched the sunset. There was a cloud formed like a human, or an angel, reaching up to the sky. I felt it was a symbol of my mother’s soul reaching for heaven. She died that night.”

            About presence of loved ones after death: “When I was climbing Kilimanjaro years ago, we were all struggling up a steep scree slope in the dark at about 19,000 feet. My father, who was an outdoors man and who had died nine years earlier, came to take my hand and help me up the last few hundred feet to the summit.”


Lois Carey: “My 28-year-old grandson Michael died in a tragic accident a year and a half ago. He loved goldfinches. Now whenever we see one we believe it is him making contact with us and it makes us feel good. Shortly after his death a goldfinch landed just outside my window on a tree branch and it stayed there very still, long enough for me to take its picture. I made a card out of the picture and sent it to all those family members, who loved the story of the goldfinch.”


Norma Wible offered her explanation: “I too enjoy nature and would have treasured this visit by the little bird. If, as I believe, our spirits (or souls)don’t perish with our bodies, then I believe they exist in another dimension as some sort of energy. 

            “Now that little bird was doing a very odd thing, which I don’t think was natural, at a precise time when you were on the other side of that window. Who is to say that some im-pulse wasn’t behind his action, if after all, we talk about energy as a ‘pulsing’?  Rather than BEING that bird, why couldn’t Joan’s soul have nudged it to act in that particular way?

            “Just a thought to offer you some comfort, as I never did when she passed on. I know the hurt doesn’t go away, it just becomes a little less acute.”


Tom Watson: “The goldfinch was a God-moment because it was a connection that touched something in you, brought some piece of you in communion with the beauty of the natural world around you. The scientific rationalist side of me asks why we might feel compelled to make that goldfinch into something other than itself -- a beautiful goldfinch. Being touched by and enjoying the wonder of the moment is in itself life-affirming and life-giving.”


Isabel Gibson agreed that “reincarnation (especially into animals) raises more imponderables even than Heaven, and that's saying something.

            “And I'm with you on the God-moment when we experience beauty. Why did that capacity evolve, do you suppose? Is it an emergent property of our big brains -- just a happy accident along for the ride? 

            “However it got here, I'm glad it is. And maybe the connection between that goldfinch and Joan is that they both incarnate that God-moment for you: the one in passing, the other over a lifetime together. Now there's a lovely thread to bind us all . . .”


Lowell Courtney also picked up the re-incarnation theme: “I much appreciated your piece about the goldfinch: we have chaffinches galore this year. thanks to the lockdown. My heart empathises with those who hint that this could be your late wife; my head agrees with you that this theory is baloney. On the other hand, it is the interpretation which we put on birds which matters: every time my wife sees a robin redbreast (and they are more scarlet than their North American cousins) she thinks of two late teaching colleagues who encouraged her to make her own path and to strike out alone after her divorce. When we walk -- and we have done loads of that lately -- she mentions either or both of the other ladies by name and somehow feels that they are there in spirit to watch out for her. No matter that logic dictates otherwise, the rationale is of little use in matters of life and death.”


Bob Mason wrote of comfort: “Thanks for this reminder that often in very little things we can see beauty, even in the continuing grief at the loss of your wife and your imagining that the goldfinch maybe wanted to come inside. How comforting that must have been, and indeed was a God-moment for you and must have been such a blessing.

            “Like most folk, my wife and I are seriously impacted by travel restrictions, and spend much time in our apartment, enjoying the beauty of the distant hills, the flowers and trees in the gardens below our window, and the birds which fly past. We've so appreciated seeing a single heron, and even enjoy the Canada geese as they go by, cackling away. Most of all, though, are the tiny sparrows which nest under parts of the roof tiles, and often come to visit our balcony -- singing away. This to us, is pure beauty and just another reminder of the beautiful God we love and serve.”


Kerry Brewer: “I also do not believe in reincarnation; nor in coincidence. The appearance of that beautiful little bird that cheered your heart during a time of great sadness was undoubtedly a gift from The Giver. It arrived at the moment when you could see it at the window. A God-moment indeed!”


Peter Scott: “I don't think I believe in re-incarnation either but on the afternoon of the day that I scattered my mother's ashes I was replacing the storm door of the house where she had lived for 40 years before she moved to a nursing home to endure 12 years of Alzheimer's.

            “As I removed the storm door a yellow warbler (one of my mother's favourite birds) landed on the door sill about three feet from me and watched what I was doing for about 15 minutes, much as my mother had done many times when I worked on her house. Never in all my years of watching birds has one behaved like that before or since. I do not say that my mother's spirit inhabited that bird but the presence of that bird brought me more comfort than anything else had done. Its ‘unnatural' behavior’ was, for me, my mother saying: ‘Everything is alright now. I am at peace.’

            “In those few moments the universe, through a small yellow warbler, told me what I needed to hear.”


Frank Martens has his own goldfinches “that seem to come back and stay because my wife has special feeders for them, as well as hummers who come back every year on the 15th of April, climate providing. We know we get the same hummers, or their offspring, back every year. If we are late with the feeders they come and look in our window just to remind us. 

            “We have numerous birds – finches, hummers, starlings, house wrens – that perch on our living room window sills to view themselves or knock, or attack because our bronze solar-reflective glass acts like a mirror. They can’t see us, but we can get really close to them.

            “We had an incident yesterday in which a colorful male Rufous hummer perched on his feeder and just sat there – not a normal thing at all. We watched him through the window and thought it peculiar. So we went out on the deck and slowly approached, saw that he still seemed to be breathing. I think we could have touched him and he would not have moved. He might have been in shock for some reason – they are always trying to protect the feeder for themselves -- so he may have been recovering from a fight. After about half an hour he flew away. Very weird.

            “I get a kick out of changing the feeders when they are empty, as the hummers get ticked when I take it down and when I put it back up they come back and swarm around within touching distance. Wonderful birds.


On the grief connection, Wayne Irwin lost his wife Flora Litt a week after my wife Joan died. He has been finding consolation – mystical experience -- in Flora’s poems. Here’s one of them: 

The Days Slip Away

The days slip away
like wispy mist before the sun,
the heart-beats ticking off
like clock-work
wound for three score years and ten,
and of these days
a moment hangs suspended,
timeless moment now and then
within time,
the rest marching along
keeping time
left right left right;
a heart-beat missed,
a tick not tocked,
for you are near
and inside time,
love is bounded by time
no longer.




Psalm paraphrase


Its traditional that when an important person enters the room, we rise to our feet in respect. I used that custom in this paraphrase of Psalm 93, an alternate psalm for this coming Sunday.


1          Rise, please, in the presence of the Holy One. 

2          All other gods are pale imitations of the real thing. 
There is only one God, by any name; God is one and only. 

3          God filled the earth with the energy we use; 
God created the resources we depend on. 
God taught us to harvest the fields 
and to harness the animals. 

4          God charted our course from us, 
from primitive tribes cowering in the woods
to the elevators and airplanes of modern civilization. 

5          Under God's guidance, we have all evolved: 
from fruit fly to eagle; 
from bacteria to great whales; 
from penny whistle to symphony orchestra. 

6          Give the credit to the Ground of Being, not to our own efforts.

7          Just as corporations give credit to the executive officer, 
as governments give credit to the president or prime minister, 
so all of us should rise in honour of our Source of Life. 

8          God sits at the head of the table. 

9          At God's table, even the most powerful of people take lower places. 


You can find paraphrases of most of the psalms in the Revised Common Lectionary in my book Everyday Psalmsavailable from Wood Lake Publishing, info@woodlake.com.







If you want to comment on something, send a message directly to me, jimt@quixotic.ca.

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                  I write a second column each Sunday called Sharp Edges, which tends to be somewhat more cutting about social and justice issues. To sign up for Sharp Edges, write to me directly, jimt@quixotic.ca, or send a note to sharpedges-subscribe@lists.quixotic.ca

                  And for those of you who like poetry, please check my webpage .https://quixotic.ca/My-Poetry I posted some new poetic works there a few weeks ago.  If you’d like to receive notifications about new poems, write me at jimt@quixotic.ca,  or subscribe yourself to the list by sending a blank email (no message) to poetry-subscribe@lists.quixotic.ca (If it doesn’t work, please let me know.)






To use the links in this section, you’ll have to insert the necessary symbols. Some spam filters have blocked my posts because they’re suspicious of some of the web links.

                  Wayne Irwin's “Churchweb Canada,” an inexpensive service for any congregation wanting to develop a web presence, with free consultation. http://wwwDOTchurchwebcanadaDOTca He’s also relatively inexpensive!

                  I recommend Isabel Gibson’s thoughtful and well-written blog, wwwDOTtraditionaliconoclastDOTcom. She also has lots of beautiful photos. Especially of birds.

                  Tom Watson writes a weekly blog called “The View from Grandpa Tom’s Balcony” -- ruminations on various subjects, and feedback from Tom’s readers. Write him at tomwatsoATgmailDOTcom (NB that’s “watso” not “watson”)



                  I have acquired (don’t ask how) the complete archive of the late Alva Wood’s collection of satiric and sometimes wildly funny columns about a mythical village’s misadventures. I’ve put them on my website: http://quixotic.ca/Alva-Wood-Archive. You’re welcome to browse. No charge. (Although maybe if I charged a fee, more people would find the archive worth visiting.)


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