The only thing my great-grandmother ever learned to write was her own name. My mother and grandmother found sheets and sheets of paper in her dresser drawer after she died, covered with her name. She labored over those pages at her kitchen table, with my mother’s help, because she wanted to become an American citizen. Although she could take the citizenship test itself orally (which was hard enough, my great-grandmother’s English being somewhat sketchy), she had to be able to sign her name on her citizenship papers.
Those pages covered with my great-grandmother’s name are lost, but two examples of her signature still exist. Both are on her naturalization certificate. The signatures are painfully shaky and uncertain. You can see her hand faltering, the letters getting smaller and skating down below the line where they ought to be. You can tell from her signature that my great-grandmother was illiterate. She never went to school. When she turned seven—the age she would have started in her small town in southern Italy—her mother had twins, and she had to stay home and help take care of them. She never learned to read, but “Boy, did she have a head for numbers,” my mother always says.
She had guts, too. At the age of 20, with no schooling, no English, no reading or writing, my great-grandmother took her 18-month old son and got on a ship to America. She set out to find her husband, who had come here to work after their first child died of malnutrition. He was supposed to send back money, then send for her. He never did. She came anyway.
She landed in New York and made her way to Pennsylvania where he was living. Somehow she found him, this brutal man to whom her family had married her. “They paired us up,” she used to tell her daughters, “like a couple of horses.” She informed him that his family had come to America and that now he would provide for them. My great-grandfather’s response to his wife’s sudden appearance has not, for some reason, been handed down as part of the family lore. Perhaps he was simply too surprised to speak. We do know that, after they moved to Chicago, he refused to let her go to night school to learn English. It wasn’t a happy marriage, by a long shot, but all of their surviving children went to school and were successful. My great-grandmother never went to school, but she got to America.
Now my children go to school, and all I had to do to get them there was walk them across the street and prove they’d had their shots. They learn to read and write, and they exhibit their great-great-grandmother’s math skills, which I must have carried on a recessive gene. I wonder what my great-grandmother, as a girl, would have liked best about school. I wonder what she might have written if she’d had the chance to learn how.
When my son was in second grade, his teachers were divided over whether the kids should learn to write in cursive. No one uses longhand anymore, they said; people type everything on computers instead of writing by hand, and when they do write, they print. This is true, as far as it goes. We have less and less need to handcraft our words. And it’s a good question: Why should we bother joining together letters that were made to stand apart?
As it happens, I whiled away some years in art school and I know a little bit about pens and paper. As a result I have a peculiar sympathy for cursive writing. An old-fashioned pen like my great-grandmother used to sign her naturalization certificate, the kind with a metal nib that you have to dip into an inkbottle, is a tricky tool. It skips, it blots; it requires skill to keep the ink flowing smoothly from the tip. But it has a vivid, electric feel to it that other media lack. Because when the ink on the pen hits the paper, the fiber of the paper reaches out and grabs the ink, pulling it in. The ink soaks into the wood fibers, and then you have this continuous, living connection between paper and pen. The flow of the ink into the paper pulls more ink from your pen, to be guided along whatever path you choose. As long as you keep the pen moving—not too slow or too fast—you’ll have a beautiful, smooth, clean line. It’s a giddy sensation, sort of like driving a car that only goes sixty miles an hour. You know disaster looms if you can’t keep up. The possibilities are frightening and exhilarating, and you can practically touch them. You will create something, the paper says; I can feel it. Don’t let go.
Take the tip of the pen off the paper, however, and you break the connection. Pen and paper are two separate things again. Your ideas, if you have any, are stuck in your head like so much backwash. You have to start all over if you want to get your line flowing, your ideas coming out. Printing single letters involves many such stops and starts. So when you use an old-fashioned pen, longhand is much less frustrating. You don’t have to re-connect as often; you don’t leave as many little scratches and blots and half-completed lines where your words cling stubbornly to the pen, afraid to commit to the paper once more.
I don’t suppose everyone needs to learn to write in cursive with a dip pen, but I think anyone can see the lesson in the process: Commit, and keep going. Life requires us to start new lines over and over again, and for some of us it never gets any easier. Sometimes every day is a fight to commit, connect, make something happen.
From what I can tell, my great-grandmother’s life was just one damned struggle after another. But she always fought, and she fought hard. I don’t know if she ever got tired or discouraged, or if she ever felt afraid, but if so she didn’t let it stop her. It’s a shame she never got to learn karate because I’m sure she would have kicked ass. But I like to think that I carry some of her spirit with me in my training. I never knew her but her blood runs in my veins and that is one reason I know I can fight if I have to.
Through my martial arts training I am also part of another line, one running from teacher to student. In modern karate this line extends back through Gichin Funakoshi of Okinawa, through thousands of years of Chinese martial arts, all the very long way, they say, to Bodhidharma in India. Through this line a complex philosophy and practice have been transmitted over centuries, with very little writing. True, people write about martial arts, but the art itself is not passed on through written descriptions or explanations. The living art, as my sensei once explained to me, is inscribed in the bodies of the practitioners. When you study martial arts, you are the blank page, and your teachers and their predecessors write their art into your fiber. The tradition is something you become, not merely something you follow.
And I’m not just speaking metaphorically here. I’m not a superstitious person and have little patience for mystics. One reason I chose my dojo is that I felt I could only take meditation and harmony and all that other crap seriously if it was taught by people who could break every bone in my body. But I have had the eerie experience, when performing a kata, of feeling someone else looking out through my eyes—many people, perhaps; the memories of others whose muscles have moved this same way countless thousands of times, like a name written over and over on the page.
Of course, for several millennia women were not part of the martial arts lineage. My training in karate is only possible because of women like my teachers, who saw this art form, newly-imported to the West, as a viable tool in the fight for women’s equality. They trained with men who barely tolerated them and resented their presence. It’s tough enough for a woman to walk into a martial arts school today; forty years ago it must have required stunning audacity. For women in the twentieth century, the martial arts represented what America was to my great-grandmother a hundred years ago: A foreign land full of promise but also work and pain, unfamiliar language, hostile men—but a place worth fighting your way into just for the chance of making something worthwhile happen.
My great-grandmother wanted her naturalization papers so she could get a passport and go back to visit Italy before she died. She had not seen her homeland, or the family that had arranged her marriage, since before Mussolini. That’s why, in her old age, she struggled to pass the citizenship test, and learned to write her name.
The part of southern Italy my great-grandmother came from was dirt-poor, superstitious, and backwards. The war did not improve it. When she got there she found her relatives living in homes that seemed intolerably dirty to her. They considered her a rich American success story and everyone wanted something from her. After a disappointing visit, she returned home to Chicago and sank down, exhausted, on the couch in her living room. There my mother, coming home from her classes at college, found her, and asked, “Well Grandma, how was Italy?”
My great-grandmother replied with what has become a proverb in my family: “Thank God Christopher Columbus discovered America. I’m never going back there again.”
She knew about Columbus, of course; even illiterate girl children in rural 19th-century Italy knew about Columbus. He would have been one of the national heroes you didn’t need to go to school to learn about. There couldn’t have been many others; Michelangelo, Da Vinci, maybe a couple of popes and the Borgias. Not a lot to choose from, so I’m not surprised my great-grandmother identified with the man who, at least according to Italians, discovered America. Columbus wasn’t afraid to get on the boat either.
I suspect my great-grandmother was not just disgusted with her family or her homeland; she was annoyed with herself for forgetting what a very hard life had taught her: Go on, go on. And keep going. Going on justifies itself. If you are brave enough to touch your pen to the paper, the paper will do half the work for you. If, like Columbus or my great-grandmother, you step aboard the ship, the ocean will take you far. Like a spindle pulling yarn from a distaff, it is the motion itself that generates. When you enter a new space, find new teachers, take new partners, you can transform yourself and others, now and for generations to come. That powerful, frightening void, drawing ink from your pen, movement from your limbs, possibility from your misery, is your partner in creation, as long as you stay with it. Once you connect to the nothingness, it will pull life from you that you never knew you had.
It takes courage to do this; to reach out your hand, ill-trained and shaking though it may be, to the blank page, the waiting opponent, the silent instrument, the empty life, and say: Come dance with me.