Sticks and stones can break your bones. And words. Well. That’s why we invented them in the first place. Language was a splint we strapped tight against our shin, because sometimes you have to be hobbled before you can be fixed. And words. Well. They started outpouring once we induced vomiting with them. Talking tears in the eyes dry heaves and moaning. Language. Communication. Grammar. Literature. Exposition. Creation. We made up our own emotional placebo. Words. Like medicine. Evolved by means of so much misunderstanding, misguided, miscommunication. Medieval poets placing leeches on feverous people and selling them absolutions for their souls.
The language was basic. Primeval. To us, most times, looked evil. Everything absent context typically does. We just don’t see life clearly until we’re clinging to it dearly. And words let us do that. On our own time and not the world’s. We think. Plan ahead. Wrack our minds. Break our legs. So that when they come for us. Sticks and stones in hand. We’ll say your words can no longer hurt me. Anymore than I already have.
Nobody here was born ready. None of us came equipped,
or hit the ground running. Yet, you are here. I want to ask a question.
But I would like to invoke God first. Hey. You old God. Why is anybody afraid to die?
That’s why we all came here today. Isn’t it. The promise in baptism. Eternal life.
You don’t have to say it, I am too, so I’ll say it for you. I’m afraid.
Of what I feel. When I look at that child. I confess. I am terrified of true love.
That is how I know it is real. How I know to recognize it. Same as you. Old God.
Now that I think about it. Being in the presence of a higher power.
I know no greater terror.
And I just used a lot of words to say I am afraid of a baby.
That one. No teeth. No claws. Relatively small. Barely any hair.
Can’t move too well, or stand, or on his own, go anywhere.
He smells like purity. Right up until he doesn’t.
Only eats one thing, too much, and spits up.
And cries like a tomcat with a little juicy smile
sandwiched between his cheeks. You old God.
You did all this, I mean the miles that sit of great slippery glittery stepping stone
only eyes can step on, that big sopping wet lake, and the amount of land it takes
to call bodies of water like that lakes. And the scariest thing in the world
to me is that little precious lump right there?
Really buried the hook in that one, didn’t you.
It took every second of this much time for me to realize
just what we’re so afraid of losing to make us yearn this much for something
like making an eternal living. I see it, in his eyes.
How much it means, to us, to see our children baptized.
Wakes us up.
Like a splash of cold water.
Like becoming a father.
For the first time.
Nobody here was ready for it.
Not one of us came equipped to be a parent.
And yet, here we are.
My first journal was this little book with a green marbled-looking cardboard cover. I was in the fifth grade. I’m not sure why, but the school had a program where students who made honor roll received a five dollar gift certificate at this local store, called the Home Bazaar, or something of that sort. And without any real thought or intention, this boxy blank hardback book made its way into my big five dollar purchase. It was not a flimsy notebook or folder stuffed with stacks of lined paper. The cover didn’t have the glossy facial features of a magazine or the speckled fractured pattern of a good old fashioned composition notebook. Other than the fact that every page in this book was blank, it was like the other books in the library. Hardback. Gold-trimmed pages. Elegant little word trellises that didn’t dare invade a margin.
I treated it as a diary. I didn’t know what to write. But my favorite books always read like diaries. The format is simple. Linear. Organized under a little date and a Dear and a laundry list of little kid accomplishments that for some reason or other, I felt the need to write down. I was a fifth grader. Reading books about Yankee spies in the south during the Civil War and warrior mice who wield swords and shared extravagantly descriptive dinners with sparrows and badgers and rabbits alike. I was excited about school. Back then, English was a course called Language Arts, and I always liked that. Like these sentences and story structures and plot lines were the elemental, chemical equations behind what it meant to be human. The mathematics of meaning. And if I read every line well enough, I would gain some insight, some context, maybe even uncover a vital clue before my peers had the chance. Like a spy in enemy territory. Like a mouse handed a broadsword. Like my story depends on me staying one step ahead of my audience. Because that is how you discover the quip that gets a laugh from the entire class. Or ask a question that stumps the teacher. Stumps other teachers. Sits administrators in office chairs hand on their chin feeling tested for a change. I know now they thought I had a higher motivation, but I didn’t. I just wanted to see if I could paint rouge on grown up faces using their own favorite weapon. Words. And found out very quickly just how easily I could.
I learned an important lesson from that first journal. There are no great authors.
Every single one has a stack of books somewhere they will never show anyone. And if you read them you would probably feel betrayed. All the books in all the libraries in the world were once blank. Laid out in front of some restless person. They filled them up with dates and names and anxieties, and the secrets they found out by reading ahead, and questions they thought up to mystify their friends. It taught me that in at least some way, every single book functions as a diary. And the challenge for a writer is not always invention, but how to bend yourself and lend yourself to each situation. To balance the narrator, the I, in all of your work, with the goals and challenges inherent in any context.
Paying attention is the price of admission to becoming more to this world than merely its witness.
That little green and black faux marble looking book made it impossible for me to read. From that point on, there wasn’t a novel or short story or poem I experienced that I didn’t immediately imagine taking up space, chicken scratched, in some dissatisfied person’s diary. Someone unsettled. Who glossed over every section in the bookstore and bought a blank one. It was an invaluable lesson, especially so young.
Learning just how much good storytelling gets done
by people who don’t really need to be great authors.
So much as they must be bothered by clean paper.
I have taken this past decade for granted, granted I could not have known that until today. At this very moment, when every other word I read either fires me up or exhausts me. So I have decided to read my current news in historical fiction instead. All the characters are either imaginary or dead. And it makes watching the world fall down around them so much less stressful. Because here we are, still reading with our eyes open, seven kinds of Armageddon loom on the horizon. It is hard being current. Being alive. Living and breathing the organic diction of nonfiction. Here we are, buried heads in the sand between us and the glowing rectangle in our hands. Ten years ago I read a book of poetry by Raymond Carver. And I read a book on agriculture, written during those too few enlightened years back in the forties. When government subsidized farmers not to grow. Covering up cornfield graveyards with soybean blankets, and tree-lines along deep furrows and fields buried under weeds, no hand touched their seeds. Eight years ago I read a bunch of theology and philosophy and social criticism from a man, Kahlil Gibran, who was fancied enough to profit off prophet. One of the few. I worked through this point of view, and it seemed like if grass could open up its mouth and speak to us. It seemed like oceans had finally found a lawyer to make a case for their emotions. Or like if a voice had a voice. Or we met the grandparents of language. I read the gospels. I read the kings. I read the stress that hope brings.
It was amazingly not like this. Not like reading these hungry feeds. These headlines laced by opinions no one could get away with in person. Just in print. Like there really isn’t someone behind them at all. Just intent.