In the beginning are words, and Paris

In a writing class I’ve been teaching, almost thirty people have come for the past five weeks to take the brave step of writing down stories of their lives. Some of these mostly elderly writers have been urged by their families to tell the stories of their past. Others realize that life was different in their childhood than it is today, and they want to tell about the way things were. A few have a vague sense that what they witnessed or experienced years ago was noteworthy.

Very few knew how to start.   The task was daunting.

So we told them to write down one story. Because getting one story down is important. And then, we said, “You can get two stories down, or three. But just for now, write one.

“Perhaps you could write about a first job,” we said. So Art wrote about being ten years old and running out in a bowling lane to reset pins before the next drunk ironworker flung his second heavy bowling ball Art’s way.

“Or write about a holiday,” we prompted, so Phyllis wrote of the time she went in to a jail to bring “Christmas cheer” but instead, the inmates started crying, thinking of home.

We told them to think about just one summer afternoon as a child, and we heard stories of rowboats on farm ponds and fishing in the canal. Larry remembered when the pool was closed because of polio, but all he wanted to do was swim.

In the first weeks they were reticent, unsure. But when they started sharing their stories, they delighted us. The accounts were powerful. We laughed. We agonized, relating to the frustration or the sorrow or the disappointment of their experience. We nodded our heads because we, too, have also felt that way. In this society that says that our young are more valuable than our old, we came together to say that, no, your stories have value. You have value.

Writing down their stories helped them.

 And all of this because of words.

On Thursday, in a poetry project in in a local middle school, seventh graders showed me their poems about bullying and acceptance.   Ryan’s poem started with vague, non-descript lines, so I asked him if there were mean people in his school. “Well, if you’re good at something, people call you names. If you’re not good at something, people call you different names. So you can’t win.”

“That’s deep,” I said, and watched him as he wrote down new lines for a much better poem. I don’t think Ryan was used to being told that his thoughts are deep, and I caught a flicker of a smile. I told him his voice was worth hearing, and that was transformative.

The transformation that occurs anywhere and everywhere when people find and use their voice is why I loved my years as a high school writing teacher, and why, in my retirement, I have seemingly found ways to keep encouraging people to write. This week, as we’re hearing the news of the dark pain in Paris, I’m pondering the power of words in a new light.

There is nothing in me that understands why people become radicalized enough to slaughter their neighbors who are eating pasta at a cafe or listening to music inside a vibrant concert hall, but I know that the actions of these men are inexorably linked to the human desire to belong to something and believe that our lives matter. Did these men join a violent cause to express what they never could express with words?

Is it too naïve to believe that those young men who strapped themselves with bombs in Paris might have been different if they had learned that words also have power to affect people, to bring about change? Did they never sit in a classroom and hear that their opinions had value? What might have happened if someone had listened to their stories or affirmed and applauded what they had written down?

A few years back, I read that suicide bombers never come from families whose mothers have gone to school. If people read and write, they cannot help but see what others think and feel. They form opinions; they think; they empathize. They are changed by words, and they come to understand that words can change others, too.

In the beginning was the word, John’s gospel says. And the word was the life…. and the life was the light of all men.

 These words are hopelessly out of context, of course. They refer to God, not us. But words are the starting place. I saw it this week in the people that were old and in the people that were young; they were better because they spoke, because they wrote down words.

So, please, today, listen to the words of your friends, of your neighbors, of your enemies. Listen to what they say; read what they’ve written, and tell them: your words have value. You have value.

Perhaps it won’t prevent them from taking up guns. But perhaps it will.


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