Life is generally a spectator sport.
The bleachers are wide and the field narrow.
Sit, and watch.
Or run downfield with wild, goofy abandon.
Even if no one else runs with you.
The bleachers will be always occupied and opinionated.
Life is generally a spectator sport.
The bleachers are wide and the field narrow.
Sit, and watch.
Or run downfield with wild, goofy abandon.
Even if no one else runs with you.
The bleachers will be always occupied and opinionated.
The light summer evening rain faded after a couple of minutes. I walked for quite a while along the edge of a long ridge as I admired the vista that was unfolding in front of me.
The air pressure seemed to plummet.
The horizon’s colors evaporated and the air slowed. The lazy blue sky darkened as the lighter clouds coalesced into ribbons of black. Insects ceased their instinctive chatter. For a brief moment, I could hear the faint murmur of what sounded like thousands of voices. Though I could see no one, something on the horizon was watching me.
Whatever it might be sensed that I was observing it and the voices immediately ceased. I could feel it shift to make its approach. My hair didn’t stand on end but I felt like falling to the damp ground. My stomach gurgled and my neck constricted like it often does at that moment immediately prior to nausea. “It” slowed as it crossed the flat valley, stopping near a large solitary tree. As it hovered, the tree lost form and its living leaves began to swirl and shimmer as if they had become thousands of imperceptible insects. The nothingness of the ‘it’ enveloped the tree and began to coalesce along the fertile ground.
Oddly, I stood my ground, my curiosity in defiance to self-preservation. After decades of walking the earth, it seemed as if the worst truth would still be a comfort to me.
“Not today,” a quiet voice whispered, literally in the air.
My chest compressed as ‘it’ passed over me and through me. I could feel the interminable nature of it as it passed.
After it went, I stood motionless, watching the sky infuse with sapphire hues again.
As I stepped toward the place where the tree once stood, the insects began to chirp and hum again.
My pace quickened. I knew that all my steps were now counted and measured.
On the way back home from Texas, I turned off the discolored and uneven blacktop highway and drove through a small farming town in Arkansas. It was almost 7 p.m. on a windless Sunday evening. My windshield was a graveyard of hundreds of insects. The richness of the delta has its gifts.
I had lost all sense of urgency and time. Because I knew I wouldn’t drive all the way home that evening, I chose the blue highways to take me across part of my journey. These highways were once the only way to traverse the country and each one of them pierced rural communities, loosely connecting them to the outside world. As interstates rose to meet the demands of speed and commerce, the blue highways remained, like half-forgotten pictures tucked away in the top drawer of a dresser in one’s extra bedroom.
Downtown was a disintegrating and deceitful testament to the past. The solitary water tower still stood, rusting, and even the town’s name, once proudly emblazoned there, was long erased. The youthful graffiti always found on such a tower was illegible. The few young people who might live nearby attended school in another town, their own hometown mascot supplanted with another. Each of them quietly reminded themselves that they’d leave as soon as graduation came.
The jolt of crossing a desolate set of railroad tracks caused me to reach over and turn off the radio. A town’s railroad crossing conveys a clear message: a smooth transition indicates a thriving economy and nicer vehicles, while an uneven and poorly maintained one usually means that people live lives filled with less. People with money and separated from their agricultural roots clamor for better roads, ones devoid of historical reminders of commerce and transport.
History accompanied me as I made my way slowly across the brick-paved street. Without any evidence, I knew that several years ago, some well-meaning resident with a little money had vainly attempted to rejuvenate the corpse of this place, one founded on the backs of farmers. With his passing, the enthusiasm for saving the heritage of the place no longer loomed large on the psyche of the town. His tombstone, larger than those surrounding his resting place, is easily found in the cemetery not too far from the train tracks. In a generation, most of the cemeteries would be overgrown and many of these buildings would fall in on themselves, a gradual shattering and splintering of history. If I were to look, somewhere in the juncture of the small side streets would be a shuttered museum; its existence once contained within but with time, opened to spread out and include the entire town. My own hometown shares a similar and degenerative trajectory; the fiercely loyal will stay until nothing remains. They are the geographical observations points for entropy. Death need not make haste in these places.
Somewhere within the 4 blocks traversing west to east, I noticed a particular vacant storefront, displaying a single white rocking chair perched haphazardly up front, undoubtedly home to the bones of a once-thriving furniture store. The setting sun illuminated the faces of a hundred stacked cardboard boxes near the front windows. As carefully as the boxes were stacked, I couldn’t shake the feeling that they had been packed in haste and then abandoned, much like the store and probably like the town in general. I was certain that human hands hadn’t touched the boxes in years and that no one had relaxed in the rocking chair since its placement there. People were choosing to leave with as small a burden as possible.
Something about this store spoke to me. I pulled unevenly toward the broken curb and hesitated as I shut off the engine. The brick pavers had ended with the last block, probably as fund-raising dried up and people chose to leave instead. Every few feet a clump of grass was triumphantly sprouting from the untarred cracks in the road. I sat there, hands on the wheel, watching. Nothing moved around me. Maybe nothing had moved in the last hour, day, or week. A block ahead, the only traffic light in town blinked a dull red, casting a strange pall on an approaching evening. The light wasn’t blinking to any certain tempo and its arrhythmia went unheeded.
Looking at the sun reflected in the terrible facade of that building, I felt a creeping sadness wash over me. It seemed like I could feel the glances of the thousands of inhabitants who had passed here, reluctant to leave their hometown, but certain that they must. Brake lights always yield to a foot on the gas as nostalgia loses inevitably to hope. The fondness we so often feel for the places in our rearview mirrors softens our doubts about leaving yet rarely detains us.
The sun gave me its warmth as I sat in my car. Though the air was still and uncomfortable, I couldn’t break the silence by starting my car. The heat seemed to stir the ghosts of this place. I could hear their whispered names: Robert, Henry, Thomas, Samuel, Maggie and Jane Elvira. It was both melodious and cacophonous, like a choir warming up to an unspecified crescendo that would never quite arrive.
I could picture a shotgun house not too far from here, its ancient inhabitant eating cold cereal or buttermilk-soaked bread from a chipped white bowl. The metal fan nearby would be loudly alternating air through the cramped room. Around the person would be dozens of pictures, spanning generations, each of them revealing the face of someone long departed or of one who visits with less frequency. Next to the stubborn resident was a small wooden table. It was adorned with dozens of pill bottles, knick-knacks, and an older telephone, one wired to the world. In the rare event of a call, I could hear the fizzled and tired ring and recite almost every word that would ensue in the phone call, one measured by regret, loss, and small details.
I imagined the smell of cornbread, mustard greens, and fish quickly fried under the shade of any available tree. This place, once dominated by the sounds of screen doors casually slammed, pitchers of iced tea, and enthusiastic summer baseball games, was losing its voice. It seemed that even the echoes of lives once lived were fading now, departing with their particular smells and customs.
Before leaving town, I turned on the radio again. I pressed the ‘next station’ button and to my surprise, Merle Travis was singing “No Vacancy.” I smiled, pressed the gas pedal with enthusiasm, and took one last glance in the driver side mirror.
As I passed over the railroad tracks, I didn’t even notice the jolt.
I would wake up in another town tomorrow morning and this haunted place would fade to become an uncertain memory. All who had departed this place would unknowingly share this in common with me.
I, too, am from such a town. It is with me, always, in my quiet moments.
Barbara closed her book with resolve, knowing that Pat Conroy’s love of the land which defined him would welcome her once again as soon as she opened the pages. She leaned over to kiss her husband David, even as he paused to remove himself from the world of John Irving. “I’ll be back in a minute, my Lowenstein,” she whispered. He nodded and peered at her over the rim of his ridiculous reading glasses.
She cast aside the bedspread and climbed from the bed. Though the room was a historical catalog of the shared lives of her, her husband, and daughter Elizabeth, Barbara no longer needed to cast a glance at the myriad collection of photos to remember each individual memory. Most of her days filled with recollections of the life they shared before Elizabeth departed. Nineteen eighty-five might as well have been another life. In many ways, it was.
She walked barefoot from the room and turned left, heading toward the darkened room which comprised the epicenter of her life and once belonged to her daughter. She counted the eight paces to the window and pulled it open. The warm breeze enveloped her as she exited to the roof. Tonight, she could smell the honeysuckle floating on the air. A night like tonight was the last one Elizabeth had enjoyed, slightly more than one-third of a century ago.
Barbara knew that on so many previous nights, her daughter Elizabeth had emerged from the same window to smoke. Unlike her daughter, though, Barbara limited herself to a solitary cigarette. She hadn’t smoked a puff in her life until her daughter had died. Since that night, she hadn’t missed a single night without smoking. Rituals demand adherents.
In the event of rain, Barbara would smoke under the overhang of the utility shed, just like Elizabeth. As the drops fell, they reminded her of the minutes her daughter failed to enjoy. Thousands of droplets, accumulating at her feet. At times, she imagined that she could feel each one as it fell.
David knew better than to question his wife. Contemplation requires tranquility, if not silence. Although he would never admit it, he loved his wife more for her dedication to the ritual of remembrance than almost any other thing. He couldn’t bring himself to join her on the roof, even as his absence sometimes drove a wedge between them. 33 years had failed to convince him otherwise.
Barbara measured her inhalations as she watched her quiet neighbors. If anyone now saw the glowing tip of her lit cigarette high on the roof, he or she no longer questioned it. Barbara’s loss was intensely private. When she finished the cigarette, she flicked it out into the yard. David didn’t mind. Collecting the butts was part of his ritual, one he did without comment. In his heart, he knew that one day he would give anything to have the chance to pick up after the people who were no longer with him.
Barbara paused on the other side of the roof, one leg draped over the windowsill. Elizabeth was somewhere out there, in a place of unknowing. Barbara sighed and headed back to her Lowenstein, even as her heart called into the blanket of night.
Charlotte once resided in a modest house on the corner of Lilly Street and Shumer Way, nestled inside one of the many decaying towns in the delta area of Arkansas. While she hadn’t stepped foot inside the family home in decades, it was still an infrequent and lingering beacon, a place that once defined her. Her mom had departed this world unexpectedly just as Charlotte hit her stride as an adult. Though her own life was full, a little air exited her soul with her mother’s passing. She not only had buried her mother but a sliver of her own life as well. It remained in her hometown, cloistered and protected from the world.
The promise of life blossomed before her, of course, but the loss of the person closest to her heart would always be one characterized by that uneasy and painful feeling one experiences after swallowing too big of a bite. In Charlotte’s case, the bubble of discomfort failed to fade completely. Each new experience, every shared story, and all moments of clarity occurred with an invisible and almost indiscernible hand on her shoulder. As time marched forward, the hand would feel lighter even as the bruise on her soul deepened. If a kind soul such as her mother could find herself so ingloriously subjected to the injustice of unearned disease, it could writhe toward anyone, despite nobility, intention, or merit. It was a hard lesson to accept but her mother taught it with unimaginable and sublime beauty.
She’d find herself in her hometown, often without remembering the interstate or the quaint highways that brought her there, the same byways once traveled by her mother. The engine of her car would be thunderously ticking, even as the beads of sweat rolled down her forehead. After untold minutes, she’d lower the driver window. Her eyes would devour the familiar details of the small covered rear porch and door, the one almost everyone used. The front door was almost ornamental; someone announcing himself there invariably identified as strangers. She knew without looking that there were 18 rows of white clapboard ascending the side of the house, culminating in exposed painted soffits. Some nights she would slowly emerge from a dream and could still feel the rough sensation of those painted boards as she leaned against the house of her youth. In the summer, one could feel the heat from several feet away.
The cacophony of the summer insects would reach her ears, the hum of mosquitoes would play its summertime melody, and she would cry. In her hometown, most memories anchored in the perennial summertime of her youth. Her mother was so close and the echo of her voice was a lingering presence in the humid air. Whispers, languid syllables of laughter and love, all these intertwined and coalesced in the way that only occurs in Southern towns infected by the paradoxical need to move away.
The peeling paint of the place she once called home still called her name. The four side windows once adorned with light and familiar faces now blankly stared outward without regard. The lawn now screamed for someone to show it the attention it once took for granted. No children would dance in its hidden garden again and it was likely that no family would claim it as an anchor before the structure yielded to the inevitable neglect and gravity. This town and all other places like it are the observable results of entropy; all slide toward darkness and disorder without a guiding force to sustain them. She felt sometimes that her mother was the same dynamic demonstration of physics and that her growing absence was slowly accumulating in her own body as a void with a widening precipice.
The apparition of her mom walked the streets next to the house, idly chiding an unseen canine companion as it wandered in exploration. That her mother might indeed be slightly beyond the unseen membrane between this place of the here and now and the unknown seemed plausible. It was a spell without resolution, though. Hours of fondly wishing it to be so proved the fruitlessness of the endeavor.
“Claire,” Charlotte would cautiously whisper, her mother’s name a secret she dared not say aloud, all these years later. The name, once fallen from her lips, would unleash something primal inside her.
The expectation of her mother’s return was the closest thing to an afterlife that Charlotte could anticipate. Perhaps tomorrow, perhaps in a decade, she would also yield to this world’s demands and sleep one last time, to awaken in the place wherein her mother now resided. It was promise enough for her, beyond even the lofty covenants given to her in church.
Mother and daughter would join one another in raucous laughter, undoubtedly in the unassuming kitchen of her youth. Love would be on the menu, forever, accompanied by the foods with which her mother had so gracefully adorned the family dinner table.
For now, though, Charlotte experienced the heat, the buzz of insects, and the observance of the disintegration of the cradle and crucible of her innermost heart. She could feel the fingers of time furtively clawing their way up her spine, just as they were doing to the integrity of the house she once called home. Both she and the house would inevitably succumb.
As a bead of sweat coalesced against her neck, those same fateful fingers chilled her and she smiled the most secret and indecipherable of smiles that puzzled everyone who knew her.
Not everyone holds onto life with desperation. For some, hope lies beyond, away, and in lingering embraces.
Meanwhile, some of us, like her, sit in the gathering dark in our versions of curious little hometowns and wait. All of this, each detail, is temporary on a sufficiently long enough timeline.
Memories abide and love resists the void.
If someone says, “I should be so lucky!” it implies that they know they’ll never be that lucky. Everyone except those recently hit on the head with a Wile E. Coyote anvil easily recognize the words spoken and the intended meaning. The word for such a phrase is ‘idiom,’ which can be loosely defined as ‘words which have incorporated a meaning not easily evident in the words themselves.’ In other words, an idiom can take on any meaning we ascribe to it, regardless of how divorced it is from logic, lexicon, and lippitude. The more vibrant and involved a culture is, the more likely that the language used has evolved in an infinite trajectory, one more often determined by confused and seemingly incoherent words.
Those most invested in the idea of a stagnant and static language usually tend to be those who incorrectly think they’ve arrived at the imaginary train station marked as “Correct.” They tend to look at a painting and see that the proportion is slightly off rather than observe that a great work of art sees them as well, in part precisely due to its defect. While language’s mechanics might be best understood in the mind of a master, it is on the lips of the young and those dancing around the fringes of normal usage who see to it that it undergoes the transformation which grants our words magic.
Usage, collectively or popularly applied, constantly creates idioms that defy their own origins. Entire books have been written on the subject and a million doctoral candidates have expounded on the folly and futility of language. The well of this subject will never run dry, as most of its underpinnings sit on opinion rather than science. The rules can be any we choose. Regardless of our choices, none of us will ever learn ‘Standard English’ as a means toward poetry or as a dialect born in our infancy.
For me, it is sport to watch educated and well-intentioned people gnash their teeth at one another for esoteric perceptions of correctness. Almost all who do battle on the field of language do so at their own peril. At feud’s end, the language has already expatriated itself to foreign terrain, evolving even in the midst of disagreement. For those who’ve not noticed, I root for the team advocating a dose of anarchy.
Another peculiarity of our language is that we can juxtapose both negative and positive connotations of the same words and phrases, yet mean exactly the same thing. Our language is stuffed with examples, ones which remind us that language is not math and the roadmap toward language in no way follows a logical course. If I shout, “I can’t hardly wait!” you know that I’m full of enthusiasm. On the other hand, if I shout, “I can hardly wait!” I mean exactly the same thing. Both listener and speaker understand the context and content of the contradictory utterances. You can artfully quibble with this specific example but be warned that our language is an arsenal of similarly-defective pairings.
When you snarl your lip and smugly make your assertions, you are not presenting the scholarly front that you anticipate; you’re demonstrating an unwillingness to bend to reality. Language is not math and it certainly isn’t logic. Its consistency lies only in the recognition that it cannot be learned like a finite subject.
We use the word ‘awesome’ without stopping to consider that ‘awful’ also derived from the same root. Usage redefined the intention of the words. I could literally write a list a mile long, one filled with words which have drifted away from their linguistic docks, often to mean the opposite of its cousins.
Having written all the above, I move to one of my most cherished phrases: “I couldn’t care less.” An idiom which reveals the flawed understanding of its detractors more efficiently would be impossible to find. Many an argument has been waged by those using the word in the presence of those who’ve made up their mind about an idiom that means exactly what it is supposed to.
There is no real controversy here, not really. Before this phrase appeared in popular usage, even before its counterpart of “could care less,” people always said, “No one could care less than I.” If said aloud, this phrase sounds as if it had been born in the stilted and feverish imagination of a terrible English writer. It died precisely because of its ridiculousness.
Saying, “I couldn’t care less” in no way conveys confusion, except in the mind of the person who doesn’t understand language, idioms, or the dynamic and evolving presence of our language. If you persist in your insistence that “I couldn’t care less” isn’t correct, you are doing so in contradiction to all evidence to the contrary. You have become contrary yourself.
Language is whatever we decide it is to be.
The sacrosanct of today will soon lie dormant on our lips, replaced by what is to come.
I couldn’t care less.
My latest 11×14 wood panel/picture, which Snapfish custom-made for me. Just in time for Season 2 of “The Handmaid’s Tale,” this picture will remind me of not only the perils of an authoritarian government but also the dangers of letting me have photo editing tools at my disposal. I must admit that I totally rock the dystopian red outfit, though.
When asked how my wife Dawn sees the future with me in it, she replies, “…with eyes closed.”
May you never…
I wrote this for a friend, who like so many of us, struggles with those who voluntarily and contrarily reside in a harsher world than we do. My apologies for the tone. I wrote it in one sitting, with my mind wide open.
1) Never tell someone that they weren’t bullied or that they are blowing it out of proportion. Fear sits in an invisible nest and those who inflict it often hide behind a smile and perfect teeth. Failure to protect those who need it is a hallmark of pathology.
2) Never tell someone that they weren’t sexually harassed or that most of the cases are blown out of proportion. It is incredible how many people have been abused or harassed and have never spoken of it.
3) Never tell a person sitting in a wheelchair or dealing with a disability that he or she has ignorant ideas about disability or how society can make their lives easier. We can endure a little discomfort if it makes another person’s life more manageable and dignified. In a rich society, we can also certainly afford a few dollars to magnify everyone’s ability to live a fuller life. Most of us sit in confusion as we hear people argue against such a fundamental idea.
4) Never attempt to tell a black person that slavery had its benefits, about the ‘real’ reasons the Civil War was fought – or that there are no lingering, pervasive effects of discrimination in modern society.
5) Never forget that many people endure hardship, suffering, and loss through no fault of their own. If you’re sitting in a house with granite countertops and most of the people surrounding you are similar to you in demographics, take a moment to give thanks rather than drag out the clichéd argument of merit or hard work. Many people do everything right and still suffer. If you are reading these words and think that just because you have granite countertops, that I’m referring to you, you are missing the point entirely. If you worked hard to get where you are, all good people will be glad for you. Your success is not the issue.
6) Never insist that a person chooses their sexuality. I didn’t choose mine. Did you? If this kind of issue is important to you, attacking a person for being gay is exactly the same mentality that allowed blacks to be bought and sold, attacked, and vilified. The greater your reluctance to accept this as true is inversely proportional to how likely it is that you didn’t learn this prejudice – you acquired it.
7) Never make an argument that a woman can’t or shouldn’t hold any position, office or authority that a man can. All qualifications exist independently of the letter on a birth certificate and should be judged accordingly.
8) Never forget that being right will not make your life easier if you are shouting it with a snarled lip or with a repetitious and malignant tone. Preach through practice and let your life shine as an undeniable example.
9) Never overlook that all human beings burn with the certainty that they have the right interpretation of religion. Most have become adept at citations, justifications, and all manner of argument to buttress the beliefs they hold. Most good people know that “Be kind” and “Do as little harm as possible” are key components of any religion and yet we violate these basic ideas from fear and pride. Religion which demands that we attack that of another fails to see the seed of its own demise.
10) Never stop reminding yourself that although we may have perfected some small part of our lives or society as a whole, there will always be major roadblocks and setbacks. We are all going to encounter people who are fearful or looking back to the past as their anchor. We blind ourselves to our own ignorance and perpetuate the cycle by making decisions in society which veer us off course.
Be who you are and live a good life in the best way you can.
If you feel like you need to shout in the face of disagreement, stop and consider.
If you feel the need to silence words which conflict with your own, pause.
Above religion, race, sex, creed or geography, fight for the side in which the lesser needs a hand.
Lady Bird, 1962
She had stood outside in the snow for several minutes, admiring the winter birds high above her. The Pennsylvania sky was as overcast and majestic as her secret mood. The alchemy inside her granted her both patience and anticipation, each uneasy with the other. The infrequent passersby would note her demure presence as she shifted her hands inside her coat pockets. Many would take a second lingering glance, as something in her eyes and face seemed exotically out of place in the slush and roadside snow.
I alone dared to pull over and shut off the engine to my car. Inside it, I remained for a long moment, momentarily unsure of myself and caught off guard by the uncertainty. I smashed my cigarette out in the console ashtray, reached for my camera and exited the vehicle. The wind ran up the legs of my pants, causing me to shiver and clutch one side of my coat hastily.
Without preamble, I swallowed my fear and I crossed the slushy street and asked, “Can I take your picture?” My voice came out like a high-pitched plea. She laughed.
“Of course, although I don’t know why you would want to.” She laughed again. She motioned for me to come closer.
Once I reached her side, she pointed up and I followed the arc of her arm as she raised it.
“Those birds, they only seem to come around for 2 or 3 days a year. If they land nearby, they’ll talk to us in their own way. And if you throw them bread, they will swoop past you close enough to touch, if you were so inclined.” Her voice took on a lilting cadence as she spoke as if she were reading her own diary in the late hours of the night.
I watched the birds as I stood beside her. From her pocket, she removed a carefully-folded paper sack. She opened it and reached inside, then scattered pieces of dark bread in the snow.
“Wait,” she whispered, her head still pointed toward the sky.
She threw another handful, higher in the air, and the pieces arced and fell.
The birds, high above us, had taken notice and began to point their bodies downward. Within seconds, a dozen birds were swirling around us, their wings making rhythmic noises as they approached. Each bird had a small swath of red on their necks as if to mark their squadron with a uniform insignia.
Almost in unison, the birds extended their talons and landed. They began poking rapidly at the rye bread pieces on the white snow. As the bread disappeared, the birds began clucking and squawking in staccato bursts. They sounded like old ladies, with voices ruined by clouds of cigarette smoke, each trying to shout down the others.
As the woman tossed more bread pieces on the ground, the birds would take turns grabbing a piece as the others continued their squawking. Their collective noises sounded like out of tune violins but I could discern the haunting melody of it nonetheless.
“Isn’t it beautiful?” She asked me.
I nodded yes as I listened and watched. I was hesitant to speak, lest the lingering magic of the moment notice me observing it.
With no more bread in her pockets, she put her hands back inside them and waited. The birds restlessly paced, their squawks becoming a disharmonious crescendo. They lifted off but instead of taking to the sky, they looped around us two or three times as they rose. After reaching 30 or 40 feet, their squawks ceased, leaving an exquisite absence of sound. The woman laughed again, a laugh tinged with delight, and it reminded me of a row of shattered icicles falling from an early morning roof.
I stepped away from the woman, raised my camera, and pointed it at her. She looked away from the sky for a moment and smiled at me. I pressed the shutter button and felt the moment already begin to fade away, like watching an old friend sitting in the back of his parent’s car, waving as he pulled away.
As I lowered the camera, something must have registered in my face, as she ran the few step between us and hugged me, one filled with warmth.
I got back into my car, once again inside the familiar and known. As I started the car, I looked back one last time, to see her there, faced turned upward in silent joy as she watched her birds flying high.
I’ve never shared this picture with anyone before today, all these years later.
I’ve witnessed the width and breadth of this fascinating world. Nothing, however, lingers in my heart like the stolen moment I shared with Lady Bird. I do not know who she is or anything particular to her story but I do know that sometimes if we dare, the most common thing can shatter itself to reveal the wondrous.
Those birds are still up there, flying high, waiting for us all, if we dare. Lady Bird might be just around the corner for you, too.
*Written as a response to someone who says it shouldn’t be done this way…
“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.