I bear witness to many things that have changed in some of our largest institutions — newspapers, the Church, book publishing — and not just in the lives of persons but also in the sense of rules, permissions, and latitudes concerning language.
Others have responded to such Bay of Fundy tides of change with anger or anguish at the smacking around that our language (and institutions) must endure. Let us stipulate that persons are more important than words but that words still need an advocate, for words cannot tell their own story.
Without persons who speak and write, and observe, words — our words — would be dead and gone. I care more about self and other persons, but I also prize words in themselves, like I love my three cats — less than my wife, certainly, but more than many other persons, or things.
Without words, how could I say, I love you?
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On balance, when I think of changes that I have seen, I feel happy, hopeful, and curious about what is coming next, more than I feel sad or angry or scared about what might come or has come already.
The words we speak and that many of us cherish as beautiful things in themselves are not the real thing nor do words come in for blame or praise. Words stand in for the realities that we wish to speak of in order to be more fully human, and especially in regard to community.
Words witness to human emotion as well as sometimes causing strong human emotion.
She walks in beauty like the night … .
April is the cruelest month … .
In the beginning God created heaven and earth … .
Words can make us tall and handsome. Words can dress up our thoughts and feelings so that, no longer naked, we can go out of the house and meet other persons on the way to anywhere we are going. Words, as a vehicle for who we are, deserve to be valued, celebrated, respected, and played with, like children.
Like children of God.
And just like cats are people too, so too are words.
Just like people.
Words form the perfect metaphor. Words get us as close to shared meaning as we can get. And that is huge, that alone.
Some say that God is most powerful instead of all powerful, that God is, like a person such as you or me, moving closer and closer to who God wants God to be. This theological construct is meant to get at an answer to questions of why there is evil in the Creation that God made good.
What can be said of God can also be said of persons. Words get us ever closer to the meaning of who we are, together. And words, which form us, also inform us, when we tell our stories to one another, out loud or in print for all to see. Words thus can seem godlike in their power and utility.
The only thing missing is love. We supply that.
To words, and through words.
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I have been reading at Eats, Shoots and Leaves, that bestselling usage book by Lynn Truss. How did we get from the thin but bracing air of The Elements of Style to an endless rant about the abuses of punctuation in public places? I am not going to rant about those who rant about language and its bling of commas, periods, apostrophes, and the rest. I recoil from the pick-sniffy air of Truss’s book, and I have no desire to be known as a stickler. I am so much more than a rant-prone sticker, and I believe that you are, too. And Lynn Truss.
The challenge that sticklers take up is both personal and political. And important. Dangerous.
And just what, you ask, is the challenge?
My answer is this.
The challenge for those who love words the way that that little boy loved the Velveteen Rabbit is to learn how to hold our words lightly but well, like my father held the steering wheel of his logging truck with a firmness that he could sustain for the long haul — with love, too, and civility.
Lightly and well, which came naturally to my father, who could lead what was attached to his cab while following the road. One who wields tons of logs in motion must be civil. As they say, somewhere in Africa, When the elephants fight the grass suffers.
Words, like children, demand and deserve special treatment. We want to hold words, and let go of words, in good time, to good effect. If words had no meaning or use, any cry or grunt would do, but you know what would happen. We would sort and discuss with sign language and file away the cries and grunts that we and others would utter.
If we had no language, we would build a sound one.
My brother-in-law, Tom, tells me that there are four ways to vocalize words in Mandarin Chinese and that each way delivers its own category of meaning. Not only the words but also their delivery become precious and necessary to those who speak and to those who hear.
It is not that we do not do this in English but that hearing how others communicate helps us understand them, and us, better. We can see how others, in different ways, hold words lightly and well.
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I love this image of holding words, like babies and steering wheels, lightly and well. Others, however, might say that I am a foolish old man of empty words about words – all words and no action. Our times, in the opinion of sticklers, strike a loutish blow against language that must be countered with blows of our own.
How quickly words can lead us to violence.
Those who use words the way male chauvinist pigs use women will laugh at my description of my gentle truck-driving father holding his steering wheel lightly and well. Does that erase my words, or empty my words of their power? No. Does that make me sad or mad, that my poetic and precise evocation of my father’s memory could attract scornful snickering? Yes.
Do I therefore take up arms and counterattack?
O woe is me, so full of the woe of words.
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Who, then, am I speaking to?
The choir, of course. The ones who sing from the same page as I do, making sweet sounds, at least in our own ears.
The challenge lies in being true to myself while encountering others as we swing like pendulums prone to collision.
The challenge is to give writers tools to live with in community, so they might sing for others songs of deep meaning and joy, as the occasion deserves and demands.
That you might be heard and understood.
I will write about the container, and the things contained, by us and in us. Lightly, I hope, and well.