The Very Thing

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*Written as a response to someone who says it shouldn’t be done this way…
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“Very,” I whisper into the wind. I look up for a second, seeing a world devoid of words, yet never at a loss for perfect expression.

Around me, a gathering mist settled and the air moved with a tinge of chilliness. My coffee had long since turned cold, absently set aside and neglected.

Sitting on the park bench at the edge of the woods, I read the words which had cascaded from my mind, through my fingers, and onto the paper on my lap. I imagined the voice of a high school English teacher, almost deafening with assumed authority. In my head, I heard her lecture us all about using words lazily. Her principal argument was that our language was an ocean of possible variations and that we owed it to ourselves to avoid banality. “Treat the word ‘very’ like a curse,” she would say, and “Choose a word more powerfully suited to your audience.” Her age granted her solemnity in her own mind; to me, it was a reminder that she was the gatekeeper to the way things once were. She erred on the side of the thesaurus, confident that complexity equated to prose. I learned her dance and to use words like suffocating blankets.

Hearing her ghostly voice in my head, I reminded myself that sometimes language was a thing of comfort and better-suited toward a regression toward simplicity. For most of us, “mom” was our first word, and words such as “fireplace,” although unimaginative, evoke emotional memories. The basic words survive precisely because of their universal connections. Since then, I’ve heard and read a 1,000 admonitions regarding words of simplicity or substitution and ‘very’ inevitably sits on the list. I read them all in the shrill voice of an unimaginative authority. They are not wrong, I will admit. They are not right, either, not entirely, and certainly not to me.

For all the thousands of childhood hours spent inside books, most of the authors wrote and spoke to me as friends and none seemed to evoke the authoritarian spectacle of my teacher. Rules were made to be understood and then discarded as needed, or locked away inside a private box until they learned to bend and behave to the will of the person giving them new life. Magic forever resided in the outlying edges of words.

For much of my life, my amateurish efforts have helped me overcome the grip of perfectionism which seems to haunt people who earn their living sharing words with strangers. I look at words like I might an expanse of piano keys, each key assigned a note but when played as a whole, an infinite stream of beauty. “Very” was one of those piano keys, easily substituted, but placed there with reason. Today’s melody might be one of majestic and operatic symmetry; tomorrow’s might be suited for an intimate dinner. I would not presume to tell the man clearing my sidewalks of snow that the roads were perilous. He’d rather know that they are risky.

Even as I sat on the bench, quiet and unmoving, an entire universe was swirling in my thoughts. I thought of my past, of my youth, and of the slow pop of the logs in the wood stove of the shotgun house in a field of cotton. That thing was both heat and community, a thing beyond its confines.

“How very beautiful, this thing of memory,” I whisper.

The thing that belied my simplicity of language was also somehow responsible for juxtaposing creativity and expression.

May your ‘very’ be forever at your lips, even if you’re told it shouldn’t be.

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