Civilized Discontents

The mysteries of life are sometimes there for the taking—if only we can read the signs

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I once went to a new doctor for some blood work, sat in the waiting room and scribbled my way through the routine pile of medical forms.

On the line that said, “Are there any other concerns you would like to discuss with the physician?” I wrote, “Concerned about circulation.”

Looking back, it was an entirely unnecessary thing to write. But being a fairly neurotic and underinsured woman with poor circulation, I thought I’d get my visit’s worth, and ask him why it seems that my extremities are often cold. Cold hands, cold feet. Simple question.

Anyway. I sat in the exam room fully clothed, my sandaled feet dangling off the table getting colder by the minute, and finally the doctor came in with my paperwork in hand. He shook my chilly hand and said hello, but then began eyeballing me suspiciously, up and down, this way and that, eyes squinty, in total silence. After a long minute, he asked about the small, engraved medallion on my necklace.

“Does that have any particular meaning to you?” It was an I-Ching coin with Chinese writing on it, which I liked because it was pretty.

“No,” I said. “I just like it.” Now I began eyeballing him suspiciously. What’s it to you?

He looked back at my paperwork. And then at me. Back at the paperwork. Finally, he showed me the line I’d written in my chicken-scratch penmanship, and asked, “What does that say?”

“It says, ‘Concerned about circulation.’ See, it’s no big deal, really, it’s just that my hands and feet are frequently cold, so I wondered—”

He turned and walked out the door. Uproarious laughter filled the hallway. When it settled, the doctor returned, his face red and eyes watering.

“Well that’s a relief,” he said. “We thought it said, ‘Concerned about civilization.’”

Years have passed, and today I actually am a tad more concerned about civilization than circulation, but it still has everything to do with handwriting. I laugh at the ironic Facebook status “Practicing my cursive,” but it’s the bittersweet laugh of a woman who spent her childhood exchanging frequent, handwritten letters with her grandmothers, to whom handwriting was an important and telling skill.

Both of my grandmothers have since passed away, but when I come across one of the old letters, it’s not just the content and voice in the words that speak to me from years ago, it’s the handwriting. My mom’s mother had a fine, precise, feminine script, which still invokes her spirit of kindhearted fastidiousness. My dad’s mother had a more raucous set of bends and loops, and when I look at it, I can almost smell the savory Southern meal cooking up in her small kitchen—cornbread, collard greens, black-eyed peas, fried okra, country ham, all made by habits of culture, not by following a Google recipe. I have yet to find an emoticon that can invoke such a memory.

For better or worse, my cursive was atrocious—it bent this way and that, showed little consistency and zero delicacy. So as I grew up, I began writing to my grandmothers in what would become my default, hybrid print/chicken-scratch, which no doubt concerned them about my character and future. My future, not the future. But then, who knows—with age comes wisdom. They may have seen it all coming.

Quite some time after that doctor’s appointment, I learned that historically, I-Ching coins were used to divine the future. A person with a concern would toss the symbol-covered coins and, based on how they landed, interpret the forces of yin and yang to make sense of the disjointed, random facts of existence, and the person could adjust his or her sails appropriately for a long and fulfilling life journey.

But I lost my I-Ching coins.

This is a tragic fact for all of us, I’m sorry to say. To recap: A blatant opportunity to divine the meaning of life was once literally hanging around my neck, right under my nose. On top of that, the mysterious power of handwriting led a physician and I to consider the phrase “concern for civilization”—caring about others—at that very same moment.

And instead of receiving an almost unavoidable epiphany, the doctor of medical science and the journalist sat there and exchanged suspicious glances.

But then, we had a good laugh.

Wait. Maybe that was the point.