It’s been an awful couple of years. For me and a lot of other people. I’ve been dealing with a lot of grief myself. There’s plenty of it to go around atmospherically (without the reality that I lost my father, not to COVID but to multiple myeloma).
And I think the hardest part of it all is how powerless I feel. I love words. Always have. According to the family legend, I emerged from the womb after having a long conversation with myself, eager to finally be able to include other people in it.
It’s an exaggeration of course. But I did start talking very young and spoke well beyond my age. It wasn’t until I was about 8 years old that I really started writing — after my teacher Mrs. Bagley loved the stories I wrote and encouraged me.
I didn’t come from a literary home. True, I’ve since gone to college, obtained a very well-rounded education, and worked as a researcher. I’ve read Middle English. Penned analyses on Lucretius in a classics program. Have strong opinions on which statistical tests to use on which data sets. Sometimes I get way too excited talking about kurtosis and skewness. I have my pedigree papers, so to speak.
But I wasn’t born into intelligentsia. My mother was a housewife who’d grown up in poverty. My father had grown up in poverty, too. True, he became very successful throughout his life managing, teaching, and innovating in a blue collar field– but he started his career as a construction laborer. I grew up in a mill town in the Maine woods. But there was a university nearby, which helped. I was able to find a lot of cultural opportunities by visiting campus — usually via my friends’ parents, who were professors there, having moved to the area from away.
I was constantly amazed by the differences between my nuclear family and my friends’ families. It wasn’t just a matter of money. My family was much more religious (a long line of French-Canadian Roman Catholics, French-Canadian except for my spectacularly Irish grandma, but she was also Catholic). And my friends’ families read for pleasure. Limited television time. Routinely sent their kids off to boarding school-style study programs over the summers, where they would meet important professional connections. It was like being on an alien planet visiting these homes.
Anyway, I journaled through it all. Wrote and published strange poems and stories in literary magazines, racking my brain for ways to write good cover letters that wouldn’t give away my young age to the editors considering my work. In the meanwhile, I chatted and socialized in the homes where I was a visitor, trying to soak up every bit of the experience that I could.
And it was all possible via words.
Once Upon a Time, I Thought Words Were Limitless
The truth is that once upon a time, I thought words were limitless. And that I could be limitless, too — if only I could get good enough at expressing myself. That if I could simply string together the correct combination of words that I could unlock the doors that I watched my friends walk effortlessly through. The ones that were opened via the elite summer boarding programs that their parents wrote the big checks for.
It wasn’t my circumstances. I didn’t believe that. It was me. If only I were better with words, I would get plucked from the sky, discovered. My entire life would change. I would finally be equal to my peers. And I would have all the same privileges.
Looking back, I’m amazed at just how long I believed it. It wasn’t a passing thought. It was an inner compass for decades. Something I deeply believed. That if I could just put words in the right order that I could set everything right. I could have everything I ever wanted.
But of course this never happened.
Words Have Failed Me A Lot These Past Few Years
Quite frankly, words have failed me a lot these past few years. I always found them. There were times that it was harder to find them than others. There were times when I didn’t want to speak — and I certainly didn’t know what to say.
But I dug into that stubborn place deep within me (thank goodness for my stubbornness), and I found something to say. Over and over again. Something to say when people I loved were dying. Something to say when people I loved were hurting. And something to say when people I loved had lost faith in the goodness of others.
I’m told I did a good job. But it never felt like enough. The order of those words was allegedly perfect (or close enough to perfect), but no magic happened. Yes, other people felt a little better — momentarily at least — but the dark realities still persisted. People suffered. Words didn’t save the world. They didn’t even save the day.
And at that moment, I felt like words were utterly useless. I still do on the bad days — like I’m good at the one thing that doesn’t matter. Like it’s all chatter. Random combinations of sounds and symbols. It’s not alchemy or transformation. And it’s certainly not going to save us.
“I think if my dad hadn’t told me to never quit writing, I might have,” I told a friend.
Surprising me, she reminded me that what I do matters to a lot of people. That many people share what I write. That my work has personally helped her. She tells me she suspects that my writing has helped people neither of us know find the strength to leave bad relationships, maybe even abusive ones. She tells me it’s important.
And it’s at that moment that even though I still wish words did more — and I think part of me always will — that if there’s any magic in what I do, it’s not something that I get to personally experience. If there’s any magic here, it’s magic that leaves me and goes other places. And just because I don’t see that impact of that magic firsthand, it doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist.