I love words. I truly do. I love finding just the right word with just the right meaning, splicing it into a sentence to communicate just the right perspective and nuance. We are addicted to words, I think, from the time we learn to speak them, when we realize shouting “Yes!” or “No!” gets a reaction from those around us. We call out names and people come. We declare our favorite things for others to note for birthdays and Christmas presents. We pick and choose and scrabble and scramble to find the words to best define ourselves.
Every time a new face appears before us, a dictionary opens in those complex language centers of our brains. How can I communicate to this new person who and what I am? What words can I use? These days, such statements wax poetic like some new form of haiku on our social media profiles. Feminist. Artist. Loves cats and birds. Let me tell you who I am and what is important to me in the best words I know right now.
The old saying – five words in itself – lingers in the background: Actions speak louder than words. Most of the time, it’s a condescending piece of advice or a criticism of someone whose proverbial bark is worse than their proverbial bite. Don’t talk the talk if you can’t walk the walk. But underneath it is a greater truth, one too often shied away from in favor of words. Words have certainty. Words have a kind of familiar comfort we can cling to. Action – experience – is always so variable, surprising, undefinable, indescribable.
Sometimes we need surprises.
A little background: I live with my mother. I’ve lived with my mother, well, all my life, really. But after a certain age you have to use those words differently: I am an adult living with a parent. Since my father and brother moved out of the family home when I was sixteen, my mom and I have made our way through the various phases of being here together. Until my mid-twenties it was understandable, and then I started getting the question, “Do you still live at home?” To which I always wanted to answer, “Yes, don’t most people live at home? Don’t you?”
By thirty everyone deemed me a failure at life and my mother dependent on me because that was their interpretation of the words “Yes, I still live at home.” Let me tell you this: not everyone has the opportunity to live in a large two-story family home with just one other person on two acres of semi-rural woodland with a nice town down the road and major highway access five minutes away. Yes, there have been compromises and knots to work out – and we still have our moments – but I’ve been able to live in a beautiful, comfortable place where I can afford to concentrate on creative work, and my mother has not had to live on her own. Now that she’s into her 70’s, friends and family are finally beginning to tell her, “It’s a blessing you live with your daughter!” How interpretations of words change over time and circumstance!
It’s a blessing for people – especially family members – to be able to share their lives, care about each other, and have a mutually beneficial relationship. That’s probably the least sentimental way I can put it.
Anyway, three weeks ago, on a cold, icy morning, my mom went out to get the newspaper, making the trek across our snowy yard and long driveway. I thought she was taking an awfully long time, and even went to the window to look for her. As soon as I did, I heard the door open, and she stumbled in with terrible slowness and dropped into one of the dining room chairs: she’d taken a bad fall on the slick icy snow.
For years now she’s told her doctor she doesn’t want to treat her osteoporosis with anything except calcium supplements, because she’s tough as nails and rather proud to boot. Tough as nails, she denied breaking anything – certainly not a hip! – but at the same time couldn’t walk without support. She took to her usual healing methods of intense resting (she does everything rather intensely) and I took to taking care of everything that needed taking care of.
This kind of thing shakes you up. Drop everything; we have a health concern in the house. Nothing is ever more important than easing pain and healing injury. I immediately took over the morning chores of getting up at 7AM to feed the cats and so forth. And this action, undertaken out of necessity, swept all the words away.
The second morning after her fall I woke up to the cats crying for breakfast, fed them, cleaned the kitchen, then as it was garbage day I went about gathering up trash – all the trash – to take outside. The morning was crisply cold, down in the teens, white with a fresh fall of snow and blue with a clear sunny sky. Long gold sunbeams beams struck through the trees, little crystalline flakes sparked in the wind. I put on my barn coat and boots, trudged out with trash to burn and compost for the pile and a bag to put out by the road. It was so cold my legs grew numb through my jeans; it was so beautiful I couldn’t close my eyes. I checked on my little oak sapling, covered with netting to keep the deer away. I stood and stirred the burning trash, soaking up the heat and the smell of the smoke. I poured out seed on the deck railings for the chattering chickadees who came to land on my fingers. And I hadn’t felt so happy and alive in ages.
Words get in the way. “I’m not a morning person,” I’ve said since my teenage years. “I’m a night owl.” I had a reputation attached to those words and I clung to them, long after I’d grown out of staying up until two or three and lingering in bed past ten. I let my mom do the morning chores and would linger in bed looking at the Internet. “I have a hard time getting up,” I’d tell her. “I’m not like you.”
And maybe I’m not the dynamo she has always been, bouncing out of bed at 6:30 AM for as long as I can remember. Or at least, as long as she’s had to, as a wife and mother taking care of a family and getting to work. It’s taken her until now to ease back from that definition of herself, to stay in bed past seven, past eight. And it’s taken me until now to reconcile my love of mornings with an old, rebellious definition of myself. Now, even as she’s back on her feet, I’m still getting up at 7 to feed the cats and do the morning chores. And I love it. I love feeling alive.
It’s made me wonder how often our words keep us from fully experiencing our selves, our lives. Every word, every sentence, has limitations built in to every syllable, compounded by every individual’s unique interpretation. How can you love mornings if you’re a night owl? Are you butch or are you femme? Masculine or feminine? The word queer is reclaimed with its history of insult covered over by the hipness of the Huffington Post, and everyone is grasping at identities that will somehow communicate who and what they are, who and what they love, when what is their experience? What are the actions behind the words? What is the truth of existence that in the end, can’t be served by being strictly defined?
How many words could I use to describe the rightness of being pulsing through me like a heartbeat as I stood in my boots and my barn coat in two inches of fresh snow, staring at the sun through the trees? Saying everything is right, everything is just as it needs to be, but damn why did I cut my hair so short six months ago to be a “lesbian” again, why did I buy all that men’s clothing believing I was “trans”, why did I immerse myself in words and definitions and what could I be and how could I say it when everything I ever was lay right here at the tips of my fingers? We are vast and unique and undefinable, indescribable. We could use all the words in all the books ever written and still only begin to explain our experience.
I still love words. I still love trying to use them the best I can, and I still love the words others write that I can relate to, that describe experiences near to my own so I don’t feel quite so alone. We have to use words, especially here where our actions and experiences go unseen. But always, always, it must be remembered: the words on the surface are just a fraction of the whole. The words are a mere humble attempt. They are a beacon, a flash in the night, but the light itself is blinding.
Sometimes we need to be blinded, to go back and sense and feel, listen, touch life without trying to explain it. Truth lies there, without language, between our thoughts and our selves, between each other. The definitions drop away and suddenly we just are what we are, in freedom and relief, simple and silent and more real than anything we could ever say.
But oh, if we could say it. And so we keep trying. 1,605 more words.