Sunday, January 23, 2011

Only words?

A little over a year ago, at the not-so-young age of forty one I walked into a tattoo parlor in Portland, Maine and got my very first tattoo. I had always wanted a tattoo but two big fears kept me from sitting down and finally committing. First, my poor Catholic mother and her amazingly powerful 'I'm disappointed' face. She never made any secret of how she felt about indelibly marking your skin. She painted elaborate verbal pictures of a life in back alleys with lascivious men, of the shame the mother of someone like that would suffer. (I admit this was both a barrier and a draw at various times.) The second reason was the pain and the worry that what meant something to me at any given moment may not hold the same attraction years down the line. I am a restless soul, I change my mind frequently. I abandon hairstyles, shoes, cars. I admit I'm fickle with my favorites and so I wasn't convinced there was anything I felt strongly enough about to literally inscribe it into my skin.
In my late thirties that began to change. I had always loved writing. Truth be told I don't remember a time when I wasn't writing. As a child I rewrote nursery rhymes, in high school I wrote tortured teen love poems, and then as my life turned toward parenting I would still sneak off while my kids napped or sometimes late at night and wrote scraps of poetry because it made me feel whole. I knew the world was full of things I could not control but for those few moments I controlled language and I felt powerful. As I advanced through my thirties and into my forties I took myself more seriously as a writer and went back to college first for a Bachelor's in Literature and Creative Writing and then for an MFA in Poetry.
It was with one of my graduate school friends that I decided to walk into that tattoo parlor. By then I knew what I'd always want both on and below my skin, words.
On the inside of my right wrist I have a small tattoo of an inkwell and a quill and beneath the the Latin phrase 'vis in verbis' which, roughly translated, means 'power/strength in words'. I decided on this for purely personal reasons. I have always found my power in the written word, in my worst moments I have been able to keep myself afloat by writing. I have been consoled and injured by the words of others. I have retreated into the safety of novels, poems, and prose crafted by the minds and hands of others who understood the power that resides in words. There is unquestionably, at least for me, power there.
In the past few weeks exactly how much power words have has become the topic of national debate. With the shootings in Arizona of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords and several of her constituents the conversation has turned quickly to the vitriolic rhetoric which has characterized our political environment for the past few years. As is our nature we have begun to seek to assign blame and through the assignment of blame to regain control over something too frightening to admit we cannot control. I suppose we can never really know what led Jared Lee Loughner to load his gun and head off to hunt innocent people but we can, and should, know that words matter. When television pundits compare politicians to Nazis, when they use the rhetoric of violence, we all suffer, not from the crazed, solitary shooter but from the corrosive effect on culture. Increasingly, over the past few years we have devolved into a culture of us vs. them. Of course the 'us' and 'them' change, sometimes it's liberals vs. conservatives, sometimes citizens vs. illegal immigrants, sometimes black vs. white. Somewhere along the line we've forsaken the language of cooperation almost completely in favor of that of warfare and division.
So what of the old schoolyard wisdom we all chanted as children, 'sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me'? Anyone who's lived long enough to have a secret betrayed, watched it spread to rumor, and then learned the awful truth about misplaced trust, anyone who's had a teacher or parent belittle them, anyone honest cannot say that words can never hurt them.
This week I sat in a room full of educated people and heard someone assert that those who live in subsidized housing don't care about what's right and wrong and so the only way to get them to turn in a cop killer is to offer a reward. It was painful to hear this kind of divisive rhetoric in a room of 'educated' people but the room was loaded with emotion because in the backdrop was the funeral of Officer Christopher Matlosz who had been shot execution style by a suspected gang member. I have also seen the families of the accused blame his behavior on persecution rather than expressing concern for the slain officer and his loved ones. It's a tragic truth that in times of great stress and uncertainty people retreat into generalizations, embrace the language of division and exclusion
and just when they need nothing more than to empathize and understand they allow their fear to isolate them. We had a moment in the wake of the Arizona shootings to take a step back and ask ourselves if we needed to change the tone, with Sarah Palin's recent appearances blaming liberals for villifying her while simultaneously doing the same to them and Congressman Steve Cohen's evoking the name of Joseph Goebbels while discussing conservatives, I fear our leaders have missed the moment. I hope, however, that we can turn off all the voices clamoring for a division that empowers them by weakening us and find our way back to sane exchanges and respectful dissention, and who knows even stake out some common ground.
In a culture saturated in talk, one that seeks not only rumor and innuendo but also sermon and edification, it can be difficult to distinguish how words matter. Words are sneaky little things that seem, initially, to slide over the skin and off into the unknown but the truth is they seep in unrecognized and implant just below the surface. As human beings we need to acknowledge their power and the fact that they can blossom into beauty or they can fester into division and destruction.


  1. So well put. Although many people don't, you DO have a way with words! xo

  2. And once again we see that the pen truly is mightier than the sword.


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