We Have Words

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What separates each one of us
from all the beasts and bugs and birds?
Well they have feathers, fur and wings
but we have words,
and words,
and words.
Karla Kuskin, children’s poet

“I don’t know…I’m just not feeling like myself today,” I said. “I feel slightly out of sorts.”

“You are Moooomm…you are myyyy moooommmm,” my eight-year-old daughter said slowly to me, articulating each syllable, one evening while I stood at the stove making dinner.

“Um…OK, what are you doing?” I asked, puzzled.

“I’m Naming you,” she answered enthusiastically. In “A Wind in the Door” Naming someone helps them to be more fully the thing that they are.”

“Oh.”

Audrey’s making her way through Madeline L’engle’s lovely science fiction quintet beginning with “A Wrinkle in Time.” In the second book, “A Wind in the Door,” Naming (it is always capitalized) plays a significant role in the journey of the recurring characters. Meg, one of the main characters, asks Proginoskes, a cherubim who is there to help the children restore balance to the universe, what Namers do:

“Well, then, if I’m a Namer, what does that mean? What does a Namer do?”

The wings drew together, the eyes closed, singly, and in groups, until all were shut. Small puffs of mist-like smoke rose, swirled about him. “When I was memorizing the names of the stars, part of the purpose was to help them each to be more particularly the particular star each one was supposed to be. That’s basically a Namer’s job. Maybe you’re supposed to make earthlings feel more human.”

As a writer, I’ve always seen naming, giving words to things, thoughts, and experiences, as a crucial part of being human. As a person of faith, I’ve always thought of it as the very first job we were given in Genesis, whether you interpret it literally or figuratively: the job of naming things. Yet, the older I get and the more important words have become to me, the more hazy the line has become between the cause/effect relationship in linguistics. I usually subscribe to the philosophy that words have been chosen based on the object that they are naming, and therefore when you don’t know what a word means, you can often still guess if given multiple choice answers based on how the word sounds. Certain words sound angry, or lethargic, or joyful. But can the opposite also be true? Can things or people “become” based on their given name.

The Sapir–Whorf hypothesis, a principle of linguistic relativity, suggests that yes, the structure of different languages and the words that they have, actually affect the reality that the speakers of that language experience. While there is some controversy over this theory, I believe there is some truth to it. I love, for example, reading compilations of words that have no translation in English, but exist in other languages. Is the reality in that culture different enough that they had to come up with a word for that feeling or sensation? Or has the introduction of that word changed their reality or the filter through which they see it?

What about when you’re shopping: does the name of that lipstick influence your purchase? What about the name of that car, cup of coffee, or “skinny boyfriend jeans?” Undoubtedly, we are influenced consciously and unconsciously by names. Companies spend millions of dollars on marketing and advertising based on this truth.

Or how about this? Have you ever met someone who didn’t “look like” their name? Sometimes Audrey and I imagine what other name each of us could look like. We give suggestions, to which the other often replies something like, “Oh no, you definitely don’t look like a Mary Ellen!”  Well, a recent study by the APA suggests that there is some real truth to this. When they were given random names and faces of strangers, most people are able to match up the names with success greater than chance. The study suggests that people might alter there appearances subconsciously to match the cultural ideas about their name.

“For instance, people are more likely to imagine a person named Bob to have a rounder face than a person named Tim. We believe these stereotypes can, over time, affect people’s facial appearance.”

The question that the article doesn’t address is why do people even imagine Bob having a rounder face in the first place? Is it the shape of the B’s and the roundness of the O? Or have there been a lot of round people named Bob? Which is it?

Words have creative power, and that’s part of what makes them mysterious. I think maybe this is why people have superstitions tied around the spoken word, particularly with regards to the future. Some people knock on wood. A friend’s mother used to say “Bind that in Jesus’ name,” if someone said something negative about the future. While I don’t wish to enslave myself to a theory that says every word I speak leads me irrevocably in one direction or another, I do imagine that words have other dimensions to them that we don’t see, and are therefore powerful in ways that we’re not yet aware of.

I’ll leave you with a final example that you can try applying in your life on a small scale. In the fall, I was listening to a free download of an audio book called “Get it Done: From Procrastination to Genius in 15 Minutes a Day” by an author named Sam Bennett. I admit, I was skeptical, but I listened to it now and then and tried out the exercises because I was feeling rather stuck. One of her ideas was to rename some of the larger projects on your to-do list to essentially make them more appealing.  The idea is that it’s pretty draining to see something like, “Clean giant mess” on your to-do list, so what if you phrased it differently? I rewrote the names of the five larger projects on my to-do list, and I have felt a fairly large shift. Redoing my bedroom went from “Clean messy room” to “My soft sanctuary.” Eventually, I was able to let go of the pillows my husband had slept on and bought myself all new fluffy pillows, luxurious sheets, a soft linen duvet, and even a fake sheepskin rug to step on when I get out of bed. My room really did become my soft sanctuary.  Writing a book became, “My beautiful baby.” Yes, it means the hard work of labor and the messiness of a birthing room, but thinking of writing as a process more like birthing has given me a sense of mothering and partnership rather than one of tugging or forcing.

As part of the bedroom makeover, I had printed out a small sign from a children’s book that caught my eye with the word “Onward” and put it in my bathroom resting on the molding. On my bedroom door, Audrey recently taped up a small sign that said “Hope” because one of the things she wanted to do for Lent rather than give something up (her original attempt to do this with candy failed after a day or so), was to do kind and uplifting things for people each day, and for her this often means leaving little notes around for me to find. Seeing each of these words in my personal space speaks life to me. In the Old Testament, in a chapter that became the foundation for the Jewish morning and evening prayer, Israel is commanded to write the words of God on their doorposts and gates of their house. I think a similar yearning for this kind of word power is happening today. Have you ever noticed how many words are on consumables in the last few years? Everywhere I go, I see catchy phrases on knick knacks, clothes, and art. For me, they’ve become overwhelming and commercial and often lose their meaning. But I think the abundance of this kind of decor points to the impact that just having a word displayed in or on your presence can have.

In Romeo and Juliet, Shakespeare asked what was in a name. He suggested “that which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” (I remember this passage because I had to memorize the scene for my 8th grade English class. Hi, CJ! Yes, my English teacher has become a friend after all these years and reads this blog!) But I’m not sure that statement is true. Would a rose smell as sweet if it was called…a “pewdunkle?” I made that up- but really, would it? It turned out the names Capulet and Montague also meant enough to lead to the double suicide of its main characters. There is so much in a name. When you are feeling out of sorts, like I was a few weeks ago, speak the names outloud (when no one else is around preferably!) that let you “be more particularly the particular [person you’re] supposed to be.” Writer, daughter, mother, and my favorite after reading Henri Nowen’s beautiful book: Beloved.

“I Name you Echthroi. I Name you Meg.
I Name you Calvin.
I Name you Mr. Jenkins.
I Name you Proginoskes.
I fill you with Naming.
Be!
Be, butterfly and behemoth,
be galaxy and grasshopper,
star and sparrow,
you matter,
you are,
be!
Be caterpillar and comet,
Be porcupine and planet,
sea sand and solar system,
sing with us,
dance with us,
rejoice with us,
for the glory of creation,
seagulls and seraphim
angle worms and angel host,
chrysanthemum and cherubim.
(O cherubim.)
Be!
Sing for the glory
of the living and the loving
the flaming of creation
sing with us
dance with us
be with us.
Be!”
– Madeleine L’Engle, A Wind in the Door”

Acts of Hope

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Hope inspires the good to reveal itself.  Attributed to Emily Dickinson

The theme of smallness keeps presenting itself to me lately. The Tiny Habits course I wrote about here started out with just the smallest steps towards the creation of a habit along with a small, or tiny celebration. Months later, I am still doing my “tiny” habits and they’ve grown. In another book I’ve just finished called “Designing Your Life,” designers introduce the concept of prototypes suggesting that we make small prototypes of our lives before we make big decisions. Sometimes a small, but subversive choice is also an act of hope. I think maybe the more stuck you are, the smaller the act can be and the more impact and ripples it will have. You can get out of bed when it’s hard and make yourself a cup of tea. Someone once told me when I was making a to-do list as a new widow that planning is a form of hope so yes, you can make plans for something in the future or even make a to-do list for today. You can take a photograph of something beautiful but imperfect—a broken snowflake or bare tree branches. You can buy fresh flowers for your house, take a walk at your own pace, or send someone a handwritten card to brighten their day. Don’t discount their power just because they’re small acts.

I admit, by the snowstorm this past Tuesday I was feeling winter-weary. The combo of Daylight Saving Time disrupting our sleep schedule and another long day at home made the impending snow day feel a little less fun than the previous one. The snow wasn’t great for sledding and listening to the sound of the wind and the ice against my windows, I couldn’t bring myself to even venture out. But something we’d done the night before made Audrey and I smile. We have at least two resident chipmunks—one has a hole by our driveway and another has a hole right outside Audrey’s bedroom window that he often peeks out of. Knowing they were about to be blanketed with inches of snow, we took some of our birdseed to each hole and dropped it in. Now, I really don’t know if the chipmunk slept through the whole storm or had plenty of food stored away, but we imagined him finding it with surprise and it brightened our day.

As I’ve mentioned before, Audrey loves to make tiny, encouraging notes and leave them around the house for me. The picture I’ve used here is a larger sign she made one day when she was bored that now hangs in our kitchen. Making these signs and notes is one of her acts of hope. Some days, especially on the particularly overwhelming ones, I’ll go set up my daughter’s dolls so it looks like they’re having a snack or playing spa so she’ll find them when she comes home. By the time she discovers them I’ve forgotten about it, and her delight lifts my own spirits. On weekends which are sometimes lonely for me I throw out birdseed in the morning and watch the little black eyed juncos with their bright beaks and dark eyes that make them look always slightly befuddled—gather around our steps. For me, writing words is also a slightly subversive act of hope, especially when I’m too busy and it seems like a waste of time, or when I feel generally terrified to put my words out into the world.

Lent is a good season for these acts of hope because in my mind, these acts go along with the Ignatian principle I’ve also mentioned before, here and here: Agere contra- to act against. It’s not about puppies and rainbows and hearts (though it is about chipmunks!); it’s really about flexing your hope muscles against a backdrop of dull despair, boredom, loneliness, or overwhelm. An action going “against” your inclination to hide under your covers all day will be much more powerful than if it’s done on a day that you feel like singing about how great life is.

I always think of March as a fight since a Lithuanian friend told me years ago that’s what it means in her language. I think a month like March (not to mention the times that we’re living in) needs a few more of these small but subversive acts of hope. I’d love to hear some of yours.

Signs of Spring

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“Hope . . . is a gift. Like life, it is a gift from God, total, unexpected, incomprehensible, undeserved. It springs out of nothingness, completely free. But to meet it, we have to descend into nothingness. And there we meet hope most perfectly, when we are stripped of our own confidence, our own strength, when we almost no longer exist.” —THOMAS MERTON, “THE NEW MAN”

While the world tells us we must work hard for our security, that we must make ourselves bigger, and more visible, hope comes, as Thomas Merton says, as a gift. It comes when we are small and unseen because that is when we need it most.

Last week, Audrey and I read a story from her Easter compilation which I mentioned last year in my post called “Small Steps Towards Incarnation.” Like “The White Lily,” the story I paraphrased last year, this one, called “The Golden Egg” is rich with symbolism and full of hope. The story is about a poor little girl in London whose father is in debtor’s prison. He had borrowed money when her mother was sick and was all ready to pay it back when it was stolen. One of the wealthy landowners is having an egg hunt and one special golden egg will be worth a large sum of money for whoever finds it. Winifred, the little girl, goes into a church and prays that she might find the egg, but a friend of hers actually overhears the landowner saying where it will be hidden and tells her. At first, she thinks God has answered her prayer, but then she realizes it would not be honorable to find the egg since she has this inside information. Still, she does not lose hope. She goes back to the chapel where she prayed and says, “Dear Lord, I am giving it up. I cannot ask you for the golden egg now, but oh Lord, please help me somehow.” Later, when she takes her little brother to the egg hunt just for fun, the wealthy landowner sees her and asks her why she’s not hunting for eggs. In tears, she tells him the whole story, and in the end, he frees her father from prison and sends her entire family to the “New World” where he has land.

It was well-written and Audrey started to sob at the end. We talked about how the little girl didn’t lose hope despite the fact that what she thought was her hope, disappeared. “We will go on hoping,” says the girl’s mother, who never knew anything about the egg. “And I will go on hoping too,” Winifred had replied. In the end, even what she hoped to receive is different- new. She had been hoping to leave the debtor’s prison housing and go back to the green fields she remembered when she was a baby. Instead, the landowner sends her to the “New World.” He does more than fix what was broken, or return her to her old life. He gives her a completely new one.

In any kind of loss or struggle, we often have to “descend into nothingness” as Thomas Merton calls it. We cannot go back to our previous life; we are unsure of what life lies ahead. But at the end of ourselves: our resources, our knowledge, our network of friends, our talents and our plans, there it is: true hope. I think this is what Jesus means when he says those who lose their lives, will find it. Anne Lamott, in her book “Help, Thanks, Wow,” puts it this way: “There’s freedom in hitting bottom, in seeing that you won’t be able to save or rescue your daughter, her spouse, his parents, or your career, relief in admitting you’ve reached the place of great unknowing. This is where restoration can begin…”

Like Winifred, we “go on hoping,” and we act out that hope. In her case, she goes back to the same church and prays again, “please help me somehow.” As we approach Lent, it seems like a great time to surrender, to be “stripped of our confidence,” as we await Easter hope.

Click. Send.

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Now we’re e-mailing and tweeting and texting so much, a phone call comes as a fresh surprise. I get text messages on my cell phone all day long, and it warbles to alert me that someone has sent me a message on Facebook or a reply or direct message on Twitter, but it rarely ever rings. Susan Orlean

“Mom?”

“Are you still there?”

Audrey asks me this when she’s trying to fall asleep and I’m sitting in the kitchen near her room doing work and drinking a cup of tea each night. She’s afraid of the dark and gets an “uneasy” feeling at night. She thinks about things- serious things, and she feels generally lonely lying there in the dark, well, alone. I confess I’ve sat in her room for years waiting for her to fall asleep because it was so difficult to get her to sleep, so it’s possible that I’ve enabled her. So in the last year I’ve at least moved outside her room into the kitchen. Small steps.

“Yup, I’m still here.”

“OK…just checking,” she says.

Our brief conversation resonates more deeply though on this particular night.

I admit, I’ve been following daily the murder trial of my dear friend, fellow widow, and writer, Helen, who I wrote about here. I think about her every day, and I want to see justice done on her behalf. Reading the court notes from an ocean away doesn’t accomplish very much, but it feels sacred and important to me.

What I often get stuck on when I’m thinking of her, is how I thought she was still alive for so long when she wasn’t. I assumed she was there drinking her PG Tips as I was, (and am right now) writing her book, and ready to offer me encouragement and advice when I got to mine. Only she wasn’t.

“Are you still there?”

One of the last emails she had sent me had the subject of simply: “Just checking.”

There are people in our lives that we take for granted because they are too close, our immediate families, spouses, children. Then there are the people who are far off, the minor characters in our lives I often call them, but no less important. We might rarely see them, but we are comforted just knowing that they’re there.

Helen was one of those people for me, but when I went to reach out to her, she was no longer there. And hadn’t been for some time.

“Are you still there?”

Just checking.”

There is a lot I haven’t fleshed out yet in words about how the online world and technology plays into all of these relationships. I met Helen via the Internet and our blogs. She lived in another country, but was only a click away. Facebook and social media have made it easy to have a network of people from your entire life in one place—your first grade crush, your high school teacher, your college friends, parents’ friends, friends’ friends, PTA moms,  and on and on. We watch their lives play out online and feel as if we are with them, as if we see them and know them when in reality we haven’t spoken in years.

Perhaps that’s why when they leave us, we try to connect with them in a similar fashion. After my husband died and I was dutifully checking his email and Facebook accounts, I read the messages from close friends and from strangers too who’d read about his death—trying to reach him and connect, saying the final words they didn’t get to say in real life—these strange, phantom messages that are never read by the intended recipient. I did the same and still do every now and again—shoot him a quick email, tell him we miss him and I love him. And I’ve written Helen at least three emails since I found out about her, just to let her know that I’m sad and that I’m praying for justice. In writing, sometimes without our bumbling bodies, our clearest, truest soul-voice speaks. So, I write. But also because there is no other option.

“My dear friend, the world is so different now- just knowing you’re no longer there…I keep thinking about it daily. I know we hadn’t corresponded in some time, but in my mind- you were there…”

“All my love- my witty and wonderful friend…I cannot believe it’s true and I am tearful as I write…what would you say of all of this- I keep thinking that…what would Helen say? You always had the words…”

“thinking of you always- drinking pg tips and eating my digestives…but always. your friend until we meet again.”

Click. Send.

Are you still there?”

I came across a shattering but beautiful piece on This American Life this past fall. It describes how after the tsunami in Japan, people who had lost loved ones who were never found, started coming to an old, non-working phone booth that wound up standing outside someone’s home. They go in the phone booth, pick up the receiver, and speak to their lost loved ones, mostly about very everyday things, “Have you been well?” “Are you eating?” “I’m taking care of the house.” They break down often. If you can take a few moments, and listen to it, you will cry, but you will also hopefully pick up a real telephone and contact someone you love, or someone you just love knowing is there and tell them so.

How about you? Have you ever left a voicemail, or sent an email or message to someone you’ve lost? 

Things We Remember

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“Saruman believes it is only great power that can hold evil in check, but that is not what I have found. I have found it is the small everyday deeds of ordinary folk that keep the darkness at bay… simple acts of kindness and love.”  Gandalf, Lord of the Rings

A month or so ago, I was in New York attending a workshop for artists on one of those pouring rainy days where an umbrella doesn’t even help much. As I was walking the 10 or 15 blocks north of Penn station, I thought of a kind East Asian man that I met about 17 years ago on the streets of New York City. I don’t know his name or anything about him, and I don’t really remember at all what he looked like.

I was commuting back and forth between my parents’ home in NJ and Times Square every day working at Random House at that time. It was at that job that I would realize I’m not really cut out for the more corporate world- even book publishing. I was the assistant to a woman who had quite a reputation in our department for being difficult. Her presence back and forth from the file cabinet near my cubicle made it hard for me to breathe. She yelled at me numerous times as I tried to navigate the world of book production: purchase orders to printers, creating bar codes, checking book covers for color. Every morning as my bus went through the Lincoln Tunnel and I drifted in and out of sleep, I would in my mind cry out desperate prayers, mostly just “help me God!” because I was so afraid of this woman.

Once at Port Authority, I would walk to the old RH office building on 45th and Broadway through the densest pockets of Times Square. I would cut through Schubert’s Alley, between 44th and 45th, which I also named “The Wind Tunnel” because on windy days that’s what it felt like. Between the rigors of the daily commute and the tension I had in the office all day, those were difficult years for me. They took a toll on my physical health until I eventually quit to go back to graduate school for my MFA in Creative Nonfiction, but mostly just to leave that job. On one of those morning commutes, it was pouring, a really windy, bone-chilling kind of rain. Crammed into the moving crowd of umbrellas, I was making my way along 8th Avenue when I stepped on one of those big metal grates and suddenly found my feet out from under me until I landed on the ground, quite hard, stunned. It was so slippery on that grate that it was hard to even get up from my position, but a middle-aged East Asian man stopped in the crowd, put out his hand, and helped me up. He added in a fatherly tone, “Those metal parts get very slippery when it rains; try to stay away from those.”

Now, I don’t know if the same thing had happened to him, or if he was just trying to ease my embarrassment, but 17 years later, I think of him every time I’m in the city and it’s raining, and I’m stepping around those metal grates. I’m thankful for the gentle way in which he stopped amidst the huge moving crowd, none of whom even seemed to notice my fall, and helped me though he must have no recollection of this day.

As January nears its close, I’m thinking not about the grand resolutions and goals we set for ourselves, but about the small ways that we can effect change, in ourselves and in others. Since Christmas, my daughter’s been leaving me tiny little notes hidden around the house. They are small, but they bring me so much joy. I think it’s hard as a child to always be on the receiving end of things, and she longs to give in our relationship. This is one way she’s discovered to do it.

In the realm of tiny, I also want to mention a free one week course I took online two weeks ago based on the research of a Stanford psychologist. It’s called “Tiny Habits.” The idea behind the course is to attach tiny habits to anchors, or established habits you already have. The key is to keep them very small at first, less than 30 seconds in fact. So, for example, I added 1 push-up after brushing my teeth at night. Two weeks later, I’m up to five and haven’t missed a night. In the morning, when my feet hit the floor, I added a sun salutation to the “Our Father” prayer. What surprised me most about these “tiny habits” is that you don’t have to have everything else together to start them. As you start, they begin to carry over into other areas of your life and the tiny really builds into something substantial and long-lasting, and it doesn’t even feel like work!

If you’re running out of steam for your new years’ goals and sweeping declarations, maybe you were thinking too big. Small and simple acts are powerful, and sometimes remembered long afterwards: just one push-up, tiny little notes reminding me to be joyful, and on rainy city days, I will always step around the metal grates thanks to the kindness of a stranger in a difficult period of my life.

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