Words, Words, Words

Earlier this week, someone I didn’t know, someone I’ve never met, just a woman in pain, mistakenly thought I had taken something of hers, or rather, someone of hers. In a fog of unstable hurt, she lashed out at me. The attack was virtual, a series of written messages pointing out my inadequacies, flaws, and physical imperfections, as evident to her in various pictures I’ve posted online, but my response was quite real, as though she had actually pushed me to the ground and stomped on my ribcage, then pulled my hair for good measure, after first telling me I was having a bad hair …year. 

I responded that she was obviously hurt and was trying to hurt me, and after she managed to get the rest of her newly stockpiled Erin insults out of her system, she wrote, ” I apologize for being hateful. I have daggers for words when I’m upset.”

An apt description of the things she had written to me, identical to the description Gertrude offers to her son Hamlet during his cruel fit of accusations and insults, also known as Act III, scene 4: “O, speak to me no more! These words like daggers enter in my ears.”

Words can be daggers. Our words have the power to wound.

The third chapter of the book of James observes the paradoxes of our tongues – though they are small, they hold enormous power, often destructive: “But the tongue can no man tame; it is an unruly evil, full of deadly poison. Therewith bless we God, even the Father; and therewith curse we men, which are made after the similitude of God. Out of the same mouth proceedeth blessing and cursing.”

Unfortunately, I know what it looks like when something I’ve said causes sharp pain to someone else. Last year, my daughter was goofing around during piano practice. Her piece sounded sloppy and unpolished, and she refused to focus on the task at hand. After multiple attempts to get her back on track, each less successful than the previous attempt, I rudely said something that was both illogical and cruel: “Do you even play the piano?” The comment did not make sense yet was perfectly understood by those eight year old ears. Her shoulders slumped over and she covered her face with two small hands rimmed as they were with ten chipped pink fingernails and a Hello, Kitty ring. In that moment, I was a monster with a tongue of poison. 

But as James notes, our tongues both curse … and bless. And one of the strange silver linings of this week’s confidence-crinkling attack was a reminder that my mind is filled with some of the loveliest phrases and images ever written in English, and those words and images offer consolation and comfort on demand. In fact, the first thing that came to my mind upon reading these messages – well, besides the three letters that form a most appropriate-to-that-moment acronym – was the delicate heartbreaking “Miss Brill” by Katherine Mansfield. Yes, my mind actually pointed out to me that my moment of pity was not unlike Miss Brill’s pain when some inconsiderate kids at the park threw word daggers at her. “I could call the story ‘Miss Hill’,” I thought to myself with a silly smile.

“That is part of the beauty of all literature. You discover that your longings are universal longings, that you’re not lonely and isolated from anyone. You belong,” wrote my homeboy, F. Scott Fitzgerald once upon a time. The power of words indeed. In stories, plays, poems, songs, and screenplays, we see ourselves, we find our pains, we relive our joys, we reach out our hands and intertwine fingers with characters made of nothing more than the alphabet and nothing less than truth. 

Words can also be friends. Our words have the power to mend.

When I slid next to my daughter on the piano bench and put my arms around her shaking  shoulders, words of consolation (for me) bubbled up into my brain, specifically the final lines of Robert Hayden’s exquisite poem “Those Winter Sundays”, which is the poignant conclusion of a young man who only years later realizes that his father, rough-edged, cold, undemonstrative, did, in fact, love his son, and just the kind of sentiment I was now afraid that my daughter’s future self might come up with after the cold slap of what I had just carelessly let slip off my tongue: “What did I know, what did I know / of love’s austere and lonely offices”? Those wouldn’t have meant anything to her, not yet, but the words “I’m so, so sorry, sweet girl” hugged her tight.

Full disclosure: when I get discouraged about my parenting, as often is the case, I think of Philip Larkin’s “This Be The Verse,” which is both unsuitable to print here, per the Doves & Serpents sensible profanity policy, and completely worth the time to read, and a poem which always cheers me up a bit. I’m not as bad as those folks at least, I whisper to myself.

When I was enduring a particularly virulent bout of heartbreak a few years ago, I was stunned out of my own bubble by the words of short story genius, Alice Munro: “There is a limit to the amount of misery and disarray you will put up with, for love, just as there is a limit to the amount of mess you can stand around a house. You can’t know the limit beforehand, but you will know when you’ve reached it. I believe this.” Alice Munro herself might well have walked into my bedroom, and surveyed the laundry piles and unmade bed, she so perfectly spoke the truth to me.

I threw myself a birthday party this summer in celebration of the big 4-0, and I asked friends to bring poems. In lieu of gifts, bring words, or something like that. And they did bring poems. I have really wonderful, obliging friends. Some wrote their own verse, some put together picture/word collages, others carefully selected their own favorites and offered them up. I love reading those words. They are not daggers, but gifts. In particular, two friends, a husband and wife, he a poet, she a deeply creative soul, hand printed and sewed, yes, sewed!, a book of poems called That Eternal Dance: Poems on Creation with entries selected for just for me.

In the midst of my dagger-attack recuperation this week, I turned to this birthday collection, and read “Landscape” by the Polish poet Wisława Szymborska. The speaker says, “I don’t know the games of the heart.” Oh me neither, I thought. Me neither! And then a few lines down, “What I want to say comes in ready-made phrases.” 

This made me grin, especially at the thought of having an archive of such brilliant ready-made phrases available to me. My own thoughts are ordinary and derivative. But no shame in that when the sources are so splendid.


So what phrases, what snippets of movie dialogue, what words from a long-ago memorized poems, what scripture verses, what clever retorts bring you comfort? Any go to literary gems that bless you when you need blessing?