A Postal Clerk Tangles With Lines of Twine

In the time I've been standing here inching toward the counter, the postal clerk has cut and unwound 16 lengths of twine binding various packages submitted to her. In place of string, she has slapped 16 yards of sticky tape: the wide, clear, superstrong tape you can't find an end or even an edge to tug on, even when probing with scissor tips. You can't bite, tear, or break it. You have to find your kitchen knife to stab the package.

That tape tangles me in great sticky loops and knots whenever I try to mail my recycled manila envelopes full of manuscripts.

And it took all my patience to tie these packages. No yank-free reef or granny knots, mine are solid square knots, bowlines, clove hitches, fisherman's bends. Gordian knots.

Such trouble people take to secure their parcels! Some wrap theirs in burlap, sew them into canvas.

Most firmly bind them with twine to withstand long journeys from this snowy town to warmer ports around the globe: Casablanca, Surabaja, Singapore, Bombay, Mombasa, Abidjan, Port of Spain, Aqaba, Eilat.... A few parcels may go to Baffin Island, Murmansk, Tierra del Fuego, but I'm mailing mine to Rio.

Alas, all our meticulous knots. Tied by one set of fingers - sometimes with the help of a second set, preferably a child's small nimble ones - to be untied weeks later by another; to be unknotted with curiosity, excitement, gratitude.

Snip, snip, snip, go the post office shears.

In those distant destinations, the recipients of our parcels would not just cut and discard the string. Each knot would be patiently worked free. The unwinding twine would be conscientiously looped around fingers and palms into coils, hanks, skeins, or wound directly onto a ball of string already in progress, the way my grandmothers - one Russian, one American - taught me.

Waste not, want not. You never know when you will need that particular length and ply. People always need string for something. String can be reused, pieced together, reused, and reused until worn out. Then some sharp-eyed crow, magpie, or weaver bird will snatch the abandoned frazzle of threads to line her nest.

All the strings I've gathered, saved! Like mismatched bits of lives. Limp strings from pastry boxes, thicker curtain cords, clotheslines, frayed jib sheets, hemp hawsers off lost anchors, and fish lines after the fish absconded. They are ties to past lives. Guy wires. Lifelines. Spider strands.

But there's no stopping her: The post office lady cuts and cuts. Postal regulations ban the use of string.

She treats us to our government's sticky tape. For her, tape obediently unwinds from the resistant roll, tears off the serrated cutter teeth, dangles neatly, lures no flies. The tape goes around the packages smoothly, without doubling over and sticking to itself. She does not get entangled.

Now the clerk will cut my strings, too. She looks miffed, thinks I should know better, indeed all of us lined up out here should read the current rules.

Surreptitiously we scoop up our snipped knots and loops, stuff them in our pockets for later unsnarling, redeployment. If we pooled all our strands and tied them together, the rope might reach around the globe, each knot radiant.

Forget dutiful postal clerks and customs inspectors on the other end. Inside the sealed outer wrappings, at least, are rainbows of ribbons - shimmering satin, velveteen, and crinkly paper bows curled beneath our blades, like the bright, only slightly wrinkled paper we've preserved from one holiday to another. All of these express our love and longing in dependable connections.

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