Category Archives: Words and Language

Which Characters Speak to You?

Patapsco River

When you read, which characters do you identify with?  The books I most love aren’t necessarily the ones with an interesting plot but the ones with interesting people who speak to my spirit on a human level.  In high school I loved Bronte’s Jane Eyre and Dickens’ Pip, poor people who found their way into a world where they didn’t have to worry about material need, only to find that such a world didn’t ensure happiness.  In college I loved the quirky characters of Eudora Welty, whose stories would have been sad without the funny southerners who made me laugh.  And when my first marriage fell apart, I turned to the strong women in Zora Neale Hurston and Toni Morrison.

In the past few months, I’ve been thinking a lot about the characters in Sue Monk Kidd’s The Secret Life of Bees, which I read again last spring.  I love the spunk of the 14-year-old narrator Lily, who, like me, witnessed a scene of gun violence when she was a small child that shaped the course of her life.  I love the three sisters, named for months of the year—August, June, and May.  But it is May who haunts me.  She is the tender-hearted one.  When she hears of tragedy, she writes on pieces of paper the names of people who’ve been hurt and stuffs the papers into the crevices of a stone wall behind her home.  When she becomes too overwhelmed with the sadness of others, her sisters give her a bath in honey water and tell her, “Let all that misery slide right off of you.  Just let it go.”  They’ve learned that the human heart can only embrace so much suffering.  But she can’t let it go.  In one of the most powerfully symbolic scenes I’ve ever read, she trudges to the river, lies down with a rock on her chest, and drowns in the sorrows of the world.

Even before the tragedy in Connecticut, our nation was burdened with too much suffering, and in the 24-hour news cycle, it’s become even harder to tuck the agony of others into crevices where we can let them go for a while.  When the Columbine tragedy happened, my daughter was just about to enter high school, and I sat in front of the news for hours, often watching the same clips replay, until my daughter begged me to turn off the television and leave the misery behind.  By the time the senseless tragedy of 9/11 happened, I had learned that I needed to be strong for my daughter and my students, who no longer felt safe in a world so violent and unpredictable.  Now my daughter is 26 and living with her boyfriend, a young man who knows what it is to suffer the loss of his mother, a young man who served our country in Iraq.  He now reminds my daughter, as she reminds me and as August and June remind May, that she has to actively seek joy in a world where pain is so much more pervasive.

But I feel more than a little guilt in seeking joy this week before Christmas when there are parents and sisters and brothers and loved ones who are suffering so much in the wake of the latest tragedy.  How do I help them, as President Obama promised we would?  What can I do but offer them my prayers and weep with them?  Is it too much to ask that, this once, I sit in front of the television and grieve?  But how do I do that without becoming like May and drowning in their sorrows?

In a passionate condemnation of the news media, actor Morgan Freeman suggested that we turn off the news, forget the name of the gunman, and, instead, remember the name of one of the victims of the Sandy Hook shootings.  I’m not sure I agree that we should forget the shooter’s name.  I suspect that he, too, has a story fraught with pain and suffering that will come to us in due time.  But we do need to remember these victims somehow—in a way that will spur us to make a small difference in the life of one person who is in need—but in a way that will not make us so overwhelmed that we are paralyzed by fear and anger and sorrow.

I’ve heard many pundits say that tragedies and disasters are always followed by an outpouring of support that reveals the goodness of humanity.  And we know that is true.  But what if I vow to find a way not just to show the face of God and of love in the wake of human suffering but to look for ways to be the face of love in the world every day, to listen and look a little more closely to a world in need?  What if all of us vowed to find a small way each day to be an instrument of God’s peace?

If we all vow to do that, we won’t have a perfect world.  But the rock will certainly be easier to carry.

Wish You Hadn’t Said That?


Yesterday, exactly one month after launching this blog, I wrote a post that I deleted in the pre-dawn hours today. I crawled out of bed, pulled on a sweatshirt and fleece pants for my morning walk and crept into the kitchen, trying not to wake my sleeping husband. As I do almost every morning, I stood for a moment at the bedroom door, waiting for my dog Beckley to creep past me. As on every other morning, I wondered how such a boisterous dog knows that at this one time he’s supposed to creep quietly instead of prancing happily around me, barking, as he usually does. “Good boy!” I whispered.

I pulled the bedroom door quietly shut and stood for a moment in the kitchen, as the dog tilted his head to the side and looked at me quizzically. Resolute, I strode across the room and pulled open the laptop, going first to my Facebook page to delete the post announcing the topic of the blog that already showed one Like. I hit the X and deleted the post. Then I logged into my blog account and checked the stats. Someone had read it at 1:00 a.m. and someone else at 3:00 a.m. I frowned and unpublished the blog, deleting it from my page. But, of course, I couldn’t do anything about those few people who have subscribed to receive my posts in an email. So I closed the laptop, put on my coat, and opened the door into the darkness. Oh, well. It had to happen some time, I thought.

Now this isn’t what you’re thinking. I didn’t say anything in the blog that I wish I hadn’t said. But I had tried to write about two topics, and I felt I really hadn’t said what I wanted to say about either. If you subscribe to my posts and haven’t read the deleted one yet, don’t bother to run to your email to see what juicy details I divulged and then wished I hadn’t. You’d probably be bored before you got to the end of it, and if you did read the whole thing, I’m fairly sure you’d think, Well, that wasn’t one of her better efforts.

Playwright Tom Stoppard says through one of his characters in The Real Thing, “I don’t think writers are sacred, but words are. They deserve respect. If you can get the right words, in the right order, you can nudge the world a little.” And in the past month, I’ve discovered that I can also nudge myself a little. I sometimes write my way to knowing myself a little bit better. I think about things in a different way. I change my mind about what I thought I knew.

So this morning I realized how hard that is to do in a digital world where nothing ever really goes away. The printed word goes into the cloud, and video clips are played and replayed, never allowing anyone to forget embarrassing gaffs or to revise their thinking in any way. Politicians are accused of flip-flopping, which, granted, they sometimes do, but we seem to leave no room for our leaders to say what they really think or to change their minds based on new information, fresh arguments, and careful thinking.

How many times have you wished you could take back that picture you posted or that email you sent? How many times has someone said something in writing or in a video clip that hurt your feelings? When we depended on snail mail, we had time to think about that scathing letter before we dropped it into the mail slot. Now, we can hit Send or Post and launch our words forever into the ether, never knowing when the digital cloud will turn into a rain cloud that drenches us in a torrent of our own verbiage.

Of course, this has happened to some degree since humanity first began to speak. And there are some words that haunt us forever—sometimes long after the speaker or the listener has forgotten them. Humans being feeling creatures, we sometimes carry the hurt of the spoken word long after we should have thrown old baggage into the trash. Arguably the most naïve teenager in my high school, I still feel indignant when I think of the classmate who said of me, “That girl may be book smart, but she ain’t got a lick of common sense.” I’m guessing the person who said it forgot it ten minutes after the incident that evoked the pronouncement, but I’ve remembered it for forty years, though it was never written down. And I have had former students tell me I said things to them that have no record in my memory. That will always be true when something speaks to or hurts the heart.

What’s new is that technology has made retracting our words more formidable. Imprecise or hasty language has always demanded forgiveness. But forgiveness is harder when the wounded can shake your words in your face, post them for the world to see, or play them endlessly on the evening news.

But though the weapons are more sophisticated, I remembered that this is a conflict as old as time when I returned from my walk this morning and opened the computer to read the Common Lectionary for the day. It reminded me of yesterday’s epistle reading from James, which I’d read yesterday morning and completely forgotten in the ensuing 24 hours:

For all of us make many mistakes. Anyone who makes no mistakes in speaking is perfect, able to keep the whole body in check with a bridle…For every species of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by the human species, but no one can tame the tongue…With it we bless the Lord, and with it we curse those who are made in the likeness of God.

Coincidence? Maybe. But the irony made me smile and tilt my head at God the way the dog had tilted his head at me an hour earlier.

So how do your words come forth today?

What’s Your Favorite Color?

Tree at FPHC

What’s my favorite color?  When someone asks me this question, I can never give a definitive answer.  Is it the azure blue of the sky?  The bright pink of a spring azalea?  The emerald green of the hummingbird that hovers near the feeder on the deck?  Are you talking about clothing?  If so, I love to wear black and cherry red and royal purple and…
…never is my answer in any shade of orange.  And yet this tree, surrounded by the pumpkins our church’s youth sell every October to fund their mission trips never ceases to make me hold my breath in awe when I see it each fall.
And when I see this tree in all its splendor, it makes me wonder how often we miss out on something spectacular because we look first for the shades of life that we already know we like–the colors that are comfortably pleasing to us.
It occurs to me that human beings come in all sorts of intriguing colors–not skin colors–though those, too, can come in all sorts of interesting shades.  But what if I looked for the spectacular “colors” in the personalities of the people I meet–the people who don’t necessarily fit the rainbow spectrum I love at first sight?
It’s an interesting question.  And I suspect I’ll never like olive drab or lime or fifty shades of gray, but I think I’ll commit to looking more closely at the shades of orange.
What’s your favorite color?