On words and silence

I’ve got rather practiced, this last week, at removing words from things. I submitted a couple of pieces of writing to the Pilgrim Hill Arts Festival, which had a maximum word count requirement of only 500 words per piece, meaning I needed to lose some 300 words from one piece, and almost 700 from another—and still keep the original integrity. And then I helped my husband cut down words from one of his university assignments to get it under the required word count.

Just. Of. That. Really.

You don’t realise when you write a first draft, the everything-goes-in, write-it-as-you-speak-it without a single care about numbers or saying things “right”, that half the words you use are really, really just…unnecessary!

It reminded me of my favourite joke from childhood…the man walking past the fish shop:

A man walking down the road stopped when he saw the fishmonger admiring his new sign outside his shop, saying “Fresh Fish Sold Here Today”.

“Why does the sign say ‘fresh’”, the man asked, “Would you be selling it if it wasn’t?”

“Good point,” said the fishmonger, as he grabbed a cloth and rubbed out the word ‘fresh’, then stepped back to look.

“Also, ‘Here’?” the man asked him. “Where else would you be selling the fish but in your shop?”

After thinking about this for a minute, the fishmonger said, “That makes perfect sense!” So he altered the sign again to read “Fish Sold Today.”

No sooner had he finished this the man spoke up again. “You really don’t need ‘Sold?’ either. You weren’t planning on giving it away!”

“Right again,” said the fishmonger, and crossed out ‘sold’.

The sign now read “Fish Today”, which puzzled both the man and the fishmonger. They stood staring at it for a moment, until the man said, “You don’t really need to say ‘today’, do you? I mean, you won’t be selling it yesterday…isn’t that bit obvious?”

“You’re right!” said the fishmonger, as he rubbed out the offending word, leaving one word on his sign: ‘Fish’. “Thank you so much for your help, sir. I’m so thankful you stopped by.”

“No problems at all”, the man smiled as he turned to leave. “Oh, and by the way, you don’t need to say ‘fish’, either. You can smell it a mile off!”

I loved this story as a child. It took me years, though, to realise how much I’d grown to resemble it. We cut out words all the time, and we think it justified, consider ourselves stronger, somehow, for our verbal leanness.

Somehow, slowly, I’d cut out unnecessary words from my communication, until all that was left was a silence filled with an expectation that other people knew what I was not saying.

I learned eventually one very powerful truth:

People don’t know what’s happening inside of you unless you tell them.

Speak up. It’s important that you do. Your words matter. All of them, even the little ones you’d deem unnecessary, they’re all part of the bigger story. Even just really. All of it matters.

If for no other reason than just because…

 

 

 

On the art of nothing to say

Earsick. Antibiotic sick. Headstuffed. Codeined. Did I boil the kettle? Am I awake or dreaming now?

“MUMMY HOW WILL KATIE BE ON HER BIRTHDAY?”

Her birthday is in six weeks. She’ll be nine. I tell him that.

“NOT HOW OLD WILL SHE BE; HOW WILL SHE BE?”

Head swims back from inside itself. I’m lost there on a dreamless ocean.

What?

This small person is reaching to me, looking for answers.

“CAN I HAVE A MILK NOT A GREEN CUP THOUGH BECAUSE I DON’T WANT A GREEN CUP CAN I HAVE A MILK IN A THOMAS CUP PLEASE BECAUSE THOMAS CUPS ARE MY FAVOURITE CUPS”

Thomas cup. Yes. Milk.

Steady thrum like a drone now. A rich red sea. Small light breaks in at the window.

“TOMORROW I WET MY PANTS WHEN I WAS ON THE COMPUTER BUT I DIDN’T MAKE A PUDDLE AND THEN I TOOK THEM OFF BECAUSE THEY WERE WET AND I PUT THEM ON THE DIRTY WASHING…MUUMMMYYY”

He wants me.

Someone remind me of this one day: this is what it must feel like to be dying. Not the pain, I could never cheapen such a hallowed experience with the momentary hassle of my ear infection, but the lostness. Or, perhaps, the centeredness.

Deep within myself, at times like this, is the only place to be. And all I want is the periphery – the milk and the birthdays and the Thomas cup and the dirty laundry – to disappear, and for the people around me to be here with nothing but themselves to clothe them.

In a few days when my small and temporary pain is gone I’m sure I will forget all this, and I will be the one again who bustles into someone’s pain with unsure words of birthdays and milk and dirty laundry because I don’t know again what not to say.

Pain, it seems, is nakedising. I hope that the act of writing will help me remember this.

The dangers of honesty

Books are dangerous. Well, words are dangerous, and that’s what books are full of: words.

I blogged here about the power of words, and I blogged here about the book I was reading, so I won’t repeat myself today, except to say that that book triggered things in me that I truly wasn’t expecting. I don’t imagine the author would be expecting that kind of response from her book either, because the pyrotechnics inside of me had virtually nothing to do with what was happening in the narrative.

Has that ever happened to you? Is it just me? I have to confess, sometimes when I’m watching movies or TV I pay more attention to the set design than the plot. I can get a bit tangential at times (oh hello, like, possibly, now Megan?) and halfway through The Mentalist when my husband turns to me and says “do you have any ideas?” the first thing I want to answer is “Yes. Our mantelpiece would look great in that colour”.

ANYWAY…and back to the point…

The point is, there’s something about the power of true and honest words sent forth that unlock the true and honest words inside the person who receives them. Honesty begets honesty, if you like. Saying the truth about what’s happening inside you actually frees up other people to say the truth about what’s happening inside them as well. And often the truths are different, the what’s-happening is different, but the honesty, the vulnerability, the shapes of our soul are the same. And so are the fake words that wallpaper over the truth of who (and how) we really are. We buy the latest soul-covers from magazine lift-outs sometimes, and we change the language to reflect the trending décor, and all that is fine, it’s how we live and deal with the world on a daily basis. But there are times, like when some book is published without it’s hip-coloured, hot-textured soul-cover on and the sheer force of its nakedness blows off your own and you find yourself vulnerable and bare in the powerful face of true and honest words.

Words can be dangerous, and books can be dangerous because books are full of words. True words, honest words. Words that open us up on the inside, and words that heal the mess that’s lying dormant there. I’m going to do it again today – read a book, that is. I’m a wild risk-taker like that. What do you reckon, care to join me?

Words don’t go easy

This is also me.

I never considered myself anything of an oil painting, to borrow an old phrase. In fact, if I was a character in an Agatha Christie novel I’d be considered “homely” rather than “comely”. And that’s okay. That’s me.

My six year old son, however, believes differently. He says to me yesterday “Mummy you’re SO pretty. Every single day I see how pretty you are”. The child is six. He knows how to lie (“No, Mummy, it wasn’t me who spilled all that water out of the bath. I’m sure it was Daddy”) but he has no idea how to lie well, so I have no choice to believe that what he says is – at least in his mind – true.

My son knows well the value of words and how good they can make you feel. This is why he says these things to me. He sat on my knee at the dinner table the other night while I read his school report out loud. It was his first “proper” report, with all the details and everything. It was wonderful, he’s a wonderful kid. But oh how I could feel the pride surge through that little body as I read words like “excellent”, “very good skills”, “well above the expected level”. He wriggled with joy, his smile about to split his face fully in two. I thought to myself that the next time he feels down I’ll have to read his school report to him again 🙂

Made me remember though just how powerful words can be, for good as well as for bad. I wrote in Monday’s post about a parcel of criticism that was delivered to me when I was young, and over the past few days I’ve realised what a forest of mighty oak trees grew from the little acorns in that parcel, from the words that I had no choice but to believe about myself. It feels good to look at those trees and know they are not part of me, and bulldoze them down. It makes me hyper-aware, too, of the language I’m speaking over my kids, especially when I’m mad at them.

My hair isn’t as red as the “me” in the painting, but my cheeks are. And yes, I do wear as dippy a face as that when I’m sucking the life out of the smell of roses. I’ve been teased about both of those things over the years, and thrown words that would try to mold me into somebody else’s idea of who I should be. Words don’t go easily, but I can get rid of them, and the thing I find is that when those mighty oak trees finally fall the ground where they were is rich and fertile for the me that I was all along underneath to grow.

 

You’ve Got Mail

Once upon a time, a very long time ago when my first bras were still quite new and my teeth were newly straightened, I was given a big parcel of words. Most of them were quite nasty, in a neatly clipped, ordered kind of way, and the words “ungrateful” and “selfish” appeared quite a few times. They were (for me at the time, because I was probably very selfish and quite ungrateful) completely out of the blue. I had no idea such a parcel of words existed, and I had no idea that they applied to me.

These words were delivered, one by one, on a drive that took a little longer than an hour, and finished in an angry silence and the last, dreaded words “So you should be crying.”

I had no idea I was that bad a person. Nobody had ever told me before. I’d thought I was okay. After the drive the parcel-deliverer delivered me to my mother, and while I sat crying on the bus he unpacked the parcel again for her in the same, neatly clipped, ordered way, and I sat watching her face turn from warm to cold and angry as she took the parcel from him and unpacked those words over me again, one by one in the hour it took for the bus to get us home.

Well Megan, So You Should Be Crying.

By the time the bus got to our stop and we walked home I was exhausted and all cried out, and, at my mother’s behest, I called the parcel-deliverer, apologized, and was forgiven. I never really forgot those words though. I kept them close to my chest, because the one thing that I knew was that I never ever wanted to do that again, or have words plastered to me like that again. I used the parcel as a shield, if you like, to filter my interactions with people, to ensure that I never did anything again that would cause people to say So You Should Be Crying, or plaster me again with words like Selfish or Ungrateful.

I realized, as I grew up, the huge amount of stress that the parcel-deliverer must have been under at that time, exacerbated by the presence of an extra, talkative thirteen year old in the house, and magnified again by a bus that didn’t come and having to make a two-hour round trip to deliver said child back to her mother. It can’t have been easy for him. Every time I pictured that car ride, or the waiting at the bus stop, I forgave him again, or tried to, anyway.

Some things don’t go though, no matter how hard you forgive people. Some memories not only linger, but come up with alarming frequency sometimes. This one has been. I’ve learned a lesson now that I’ll hopefully remember for the future: when memories are thrown into your face unbidden and against your will like that one has been for me, maybe it’s because it’s trying to teach you something. Maybe it’s time to take out the parcel and unpack it and see what it says.

I did that. Last night. I opened the parcel I’ve been carrying around for all these years and looked at those words as an adult for the first time. I saw the tired, stressed-out-of-his-brain man who delivered them, and I realized for the first time that that parcel that I’ve been clutching so close to my chest for all these years wasn’t really mine to begin with. I didn’t need those words. Maybe half a dozen, perhaps, but not a whole hour’s worth in a parcel. They were his words, his feelings of the time that got dumped on me. I didn’t need to carry them forever.

I just got someone else’s mail.