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To send the very best, try more than Hallmark


Hallmark’s hijacked our feelings. The crime is apparent if you shop for cards (an inane paean to consumerism in itself -- whatever happened to the epistolary art?), then return home and read the Bible. Admittedly a problematic book, but one interleaved with fiercely honest passions. Read through the strong, swift words to the hot tears and sweat, the fragrant oils and wines, the abiding loves and constant quests. Compare the bloodless pastel sentiments of modern communication.

Have we lost all passion? Are interpersonal relationships so fraught with peril that we must buy a paid scribe’s version of the blandest possible blandishments in order to preserve the peace?

A child is born, an earthshakingly momentous event that not only harks back to Christ but confirms the life force and continues its journey. We ignore this event’s quiet majesty and send cute cardboard storks with fatuous verses about new little arrivals or make wink-and-nod jokes about sleepless nights. Three hundred felt-flocked baby bunnies and pink-cheeked bundled babies later, we might realize all we ever had to do was quote Isaiah 60:3: “Kings [come] to the brightness of thy rising.”

Later, at the child’s confirmation, having failed to learn our lesson, we will dig out holy medals and laminated cards and buy those elaborately scripted messages about joining God’s family. Such platitudes give a newly confirmed Christian no clue what she’s in for; they gloss the entry, and she slips through a little too easily. A few years later, when the going gets rough, struggle will seem unnatural because nothing has prepared her for its inevitability. Why not seize this opportunity to acknowledge the challenge?

I think of the poet Anne Sexton who wrote about the “awful rowing toward God” and pronounced faith “a great weight hung on a thin wire.” Admit it and you can close, not with abstractions about eternal salvation, but with Sexton’s hard-won, delightful promise: “And God will come into your hands as easily as ten cents used to bring forth a Coke.”

As for those of us who occasionally need to apologize, enough of the wussy mea culpas about how miserable we feel (all emphasis remaining, conveniently enough, on us). “Rend your heart and not your garments,” Joel advises crisply (2:13). He could reverse the process to salute achievement: Gladden the heart, ignore the superficial trappings. But oh, how we cling to those trappings.

Congratulations cards evoke every cultural bias in America. “Way to Go!” they shout. “You MADE It!” “You’ve Reached the Top!” “You’ve Got the Right Stuff” Always, the same assumptions are made: The recipient has bested fierce competition in an egalitarian framework and his outward, goal-driven activity has won him a recognizable success that now differentiates him from everyone else. How different the aura if we simply said “Namaste!” a Nepali expression of honoring that means, “I bow to the God within you.”

At a time of -- I almost said bereavement and soon I’ll be saying someone “passed away” -- at a time of death, shouldn’t Christians be celebrating? Yet who among us has the courage to burn the violet-covered card rhapsodizing about heartfelt love and spiritual comfort in times of sorrow and send a card that says simply, “We end in joy.” (A line from Theodore Roethke’s poem “The Moment.”) Perversely, we’re afraid we’ll offend the bereft beloved, who so loved the dear departed that they can’t stand to think of her in joy.

Ah, and then there are the sunsets. All those recycled nature cards with Joyce Kilmeresque odes to trees and pine cones, trite reductions of cosmic glory to our own petty analogies, when instead we could quote Habakkuk 2:20 and take a lesson from it: “Let all the Earth keep silence before Him.”

And on the dreaded Valentine’s Day, instead of saccharine protestations of sentiment to our sweetie, wouldn’t it weigh more if we explained how we know our love’s depth? “My heart teacheth me, night after night.” Long after the chocolates have melted into her thighs, long after the flowers have “departed.”

Hallmark works, you see, because it doesn’t address the honest everyday truths, the night-after-night realizations. If we were capable of doing that, we wouldn’t need Hallmark.

Enough of the condescension, though: I’m as guilty as the worst of the sentimentalists. I look for the anti-cards, the Valentine that talked about Harriet and Roger lighting a fire and eating ice-cream sandwiches every year and showed only a box of matches. Wit and abstract concepts are my favorite disguises and they costume intense feelings as thoroughly as kitsch and schmaltz do.

Admitting intense feelings is terrifying, even when they’re as wonderful as love or awe. They’re too stark, too close to our core. And they render us too vulnerable, in need of God and each other in a way we haven’t experienced since -- well, Biblical days. Then, people knew, inescapably, that they needed God to lead them, needed bushes to burn and tablets to crash down from the heavens.

We have computers.

I do, at least, refuse to send a cyber greeting card. I’ve stopped hiding on The Far Side; I’ve stopped falling back on undeniably arty, urban street scenes by French photographers in the ’40s. I’ve even stopped buying the high-concept graphic collages that break apart a poetic message like a ransom note.

The acid test, however, will come on our 10th wedding anniversary. If, by then, I dare to abandon what’s expected, I shall read my husband’s mind and echo it back to him, borrowing from the irascibly Christian John Donne to say, “For God’s sake hold your tongue and let me love.”

Jeannette Batz is a senior editor at The Riverfront Times, an alternative newspaper in St. Louis.

National Catholic Reporter, March 13, 1998