In a recent post, I wrote about developing aphasia and labouring to re-build my vocabulary. I am an editor and an independent scholar; both my work and my vocation depend on my ability to deploy words with attention to nuance and connotation. This post is a note of gratitude to Jaynie Royal, the person who helped me to revive my inner thesaurus.
Before I “met” Jaynie in LinkedIn’s Literary Endeavor discussion group (which Jaynie established), I had been playing “brain training” games and looking up words, writing down their definitions in tiny journals (I’ve long given up on the games, but I still keep the vocabulary journals). I read read read with a kind of desperation that alloyed almost out of existence any pleasure I might have taken in the activity. I also consumed articles and comments in on-line groups, and I did find some support and validation there, but no solutions.
And then, a little more than three years into my struggle, I started to get to know Jaynie, thanks to the magic of the Internet.* We became friends, and then, when she invited me to join her publishing house, colleagues. To keep our work and our personal relationships (slightly) separated, we started consigning our communications about editing and publishing to e-mails and using letters — the kind written by hand, on paper, with a fountain pen — to share news and thoughts about family, the weather, politics, recently read books, and recipes. (Well, it’s mostly Jaynie sharing recipes because she is a superb cook.)
Beyond the exchange of chat and epiphanies, Jaynie and I discovered just how much we share an enjoyment of playing with language, of indulging in what we think of as elegant prose and others might call florid ramblings. Since this is my blog, let’s go with elegant prose. (Jaynie’s style absolutely sparkles.)
Here was someone who laid out the riches of her vocabulary for me to delight in and who was willing to revel in the gems of verbiage I was able to unearth from the buried treasures of my verbal trove. Corresponding with Jaynie over these last four-plus years has helped me unlock rooms in my head that I forgotten were there. Letter therapy — unintentional, accidental therapy — has been what has brought me back some sense of who I am and what I used to be able to do.
I doubt that I’ll ever completely recover from the effects of the Prednisone (I am on the far side of middle age and I’m not sure of how much plasticity my ossifying brain is still capable), nor is there any compensatory silver lining nor new philosophical outlook that will make me a better person because of my aphasia. I will always resent the loss; I will always be frustrated when the right word refuses to trip off my tongue or slide down my nib. But I am relieved to have learned that I can get better. And I am tremendously grateful to my friend Jaynie for giving me the means to do so.
(I think I’m going to need a bigger box — or another one.)
*Jaynie and I have met in real life too. You know those movies where people find themselves living inside their favourite novels? Meeting Jaynie was like that, only I felt as if I had walked inside one of her letters.
A few days ago, Lydia Schoch put up a post on her blog, “What I Would Do with a Million Dollars.” Her plans are eminently sensible and I applaud her foresight. After all, one never knows: someone might just hand her a fortune someday, so it is important to plan ahead.
But lately, I’ve found myself wondering what I would do if I happened to have 5.7 billion dollars to spend. I’m pretty sure some of it would end up at our local bookstore. I’d probably buy that cool fountain pen I’ve been eyeing. In a moment of unbridled reasonableness, I might even set up retirement funds for myself and my family.
But what to do with the other 5.6 billion? Would I build a border wall that could be easily breached, one that would have an enormous, deleterious effect on the environment, that would divide towns, deprive people of their homes, augment the crisis at the border, and be an eye-sore to boot?
No, I don’t think I would.
I think I’d be inclined to spend it on children, on the generations coming after me.* Maybe I’d give kids books and fountain pens. Or better schools with reasonable class sizes and teachers who are paid so well that our best and brightest would vie to spend their days with boisterous kindergartners and surly, adolescent, high-school students.
Maybe I’d find a way to help social services around the country staff their offices with social workers who would have only a few cases apiece so that children in desperate situations wouldn’t get lost in and abused by the system. And maybe, like teachers, I could pay these workers well enough that bright and caring people would be eager to be hired for these positions, especially if there were money left over to provide them with the training and support they would need to deal with heart-breaking family situations.
I might spend the money on research to reverse global warming so that our children will have a planet on which they can live or donate the funds to NASA in hopes that they’ll find new worlds for new generations — and ways for them to live on these planets without destroying them. (See WALL-E.)
Truly, I can think of so very many ways to spend 5.6 (or even 5.7) billion dollars, and none of them include a border wall. Anybody have some other suggestions? What would you do if you had 5.7 billion dollars burning a hole in your pocket?
Here is a relic of my childhood: Mazel and Schlimazel, or The Milk of a Lioness by Isaac Bashevis Singer. Singer tells us a story of two spirits, Mazel (good luck) and Schlimazel (bad luck) and the wager they make one day after Mazel has been boasting how happy he makes people and that everyone loves him, but no one loves Schlimazel. (And I have to say, even though Mazel is basically a good character, he is pretty obnoxious right at the start. But he quickly gets better.) Schlimazel gets understandably riled. He claims that whatever Mazel can do in a year, he, Schlimazel, can undo in a second. And the bet is on.
Mazel seeks out the poorest hut in a poor village and finds Tam, a young man beset by bad luck. And here’s where I start to love Mazel. He sits down next to Tam in his shack with toadstools growing from the walls and gets to know Tam. Even though Tam isn’t really aware of him, Mazel asks Tam questions about himself and while Tam talks — to himself, he thinks, but really prompted by Mazel — Mazel pays attention. Mazel and Schlimazel is a children’s book, a short story — a fairy tale, really — but at this moment in the story the words and illustration depict a moment of genuine companionship.
From here, of course, Tam’s life promptly improves. His luck changes. He is brought to the attention of the king and the princess.
After a good bath and a change of clothes, Tam quickly rises from the court smithy to the court proper.
And while Mazel helps every step of the way, the story makes it clear that Tam is doing the work. Mazel’s presence might have prompted the king to give the young man a job, but Tam labors to do well. And Singer reminds us that “When the humble achieve success, they often become haughty and forget those among whom they grew up. But Tam always found time to help the peasants and the poor.” Tam’s kindness is all his own and not a veneer imposed by Mazel. Tam’s rise becomes a joint effort. Mazel provides opportunities and Tam earns the next chance that Mazel makes possible. Mazel and Tam build on another’s efforts. That’s teamwork, people.
Tam and Nesika, as we would expect in a heteronormative story such as this one, are in love. The king (who never gets a name and has class issues), much as he likes and values Tam, continues to hold onto hope that Nesika will find a prince she can tolerate sufficiently to marry. Nesika (and here is another aspect of the story I love), however, is no mere passive prize. In fact, when we first meet her, she has been driving her father up the wall for refusing suitors for eminently sensible reasons. One laughed too much, another would only discuss fox-hunting, a third beat his dog. The latest suitor (number seven) Nesika rejects “because his boots were foolish.”
“‘How can boots be foolish?” her father asked.
“‘If the feet are foolish, the boots are foolish,’ Nesika replied.
“‘How can feet be foolish?’ her father insisted.
“‘If the head is foolish, the feet are foolish!’ Nesika retorted.”
Nesika is one smart cookie.
But, naturally, a day comes when an impossible task must be accomplished. Tam volunteers to get the necessary milk of a lioness, and the king is so touched he says that when Tam returns, he may marry Nesika.
So off Tam goes, Mazel riding unseen on his own horse right behind him. A lioness with cubs is conveniently hanging around right outside the city, and Tam, thanks to Mazel, strolls right up, milks her, and pops back on his horse. (There is an amusing moment, one that I find a little poignant, when Tam and Mazel leave, in which the lioness comes out of her luck-induced haze and realizes what was done to her and is terribly embarrassed and angry. I don’t blame her for feeling pretty violated.)
Tam returns with the bottle of milk and presents it to the king just as the year is over. Schlimazel steps up and, in the single second that he’d said he would require, causes Tam to mis-speak a single word and the whole house of cards that Mazel and Tam had built so carefully over the course of the preceding year comes crashing down and Tam is sentenced to hang.
And this moment in the narrative is the one that has been on my mind lately. If you want to know how the story ends, you’ll have to read it yourself, which you should do anyway, because it’s a really good story.
The Personal and the Political
This pivotal moment in Mazel and Schlimazel has come back to me often as I have been struggling with both personal and political issues about speech (and yeah, yeah — I know: the personal is the political, but bear with me. I offer my distinction as point on a continuum, not as a dichotomy).
We have all seen, over and over, the harm done by words carelessly or viciously deployed, seen the way these words are making our cultural landscape into something twisted and bleak. Tam’s verbal mis-step and the consequences of a words rose to mind last month when Judge Reed O’Connor of the Federal District Court in Fort Worth declared the entire Affordable Healthcare Act (ACA) to be unconstitutional. With a word (well, OK, a set of words, but ones that amounted to No), Judge O’Connor may have swept aside all the good that the ACA has wrought: coverage for young people through their parents, the slowly stabilizing cost of insurance, coverage for those of us (and we are legion) who have pre-existing conditions. The ACA is far from perfect; we need a Congress willing to pitch in and work together in good faith to argue and compromise and give a damn about the citizens of this country for that to happen.
The rescission of the ACA might not condemn any to hang, but it will cause deaths — slower deaths from illness, injury, despair and poverty from exorbitant medical costs rather than from the rope, but deaths nevertheless. The word of one man can take away essential care from so many — our friends, our families, our neighbors, ourselves — care that can save lives, save minds, and save souls.
And this kind of sudden reversal is not affecting health care only. We are seeing the accelerated destruction of the environment, of foreign relations, of civility, of children’s lives — brought on by ill-chosen words and inexcusable silences. We are seeing years of work and progress undone in moments.
My memory of Tam’s reversal and the degradation of political discourse and practice also connected with me in a more personal way. The personal aspect again has to do with health, my health. Several years ago, I was on high doses of Prednisone for some months. The drug messed with my mood and memory; I recall very little of those months, nothing of what was happening in my son’s life, fragmented scraps of my daughter’s college graduation. For most of that time, I had to sequester myself because I never knew what was going to come out of my mouth. I felt terribly isolated from the people who were important to me and from myself. (Let us give thanks for good therapists.) I usually call my mother a few times a week. It was unsettling to go for more than three months without talking to her.
While I still don’t remember the months I was on the Prednisone, most of my memory is back. The deficit remaining lies in my ability to retrieve my words. I often struggle to get the word I want, the word I can feel in my mind, to come out my mouth. Instead, I hear myself say something that starts with the same letter but is otherwise completely unrelated or a word that has some relation to the word I know is in my head. The link might be somewhat similar in meaning to or the complete opposite of the word I want, but there will some kind of connection that makes sense to me. The result is that, often, I, like Tam, spout out the wrong word at important moments. So far, as far as I know at least, no one has died, though I often feel terribly awkward. No one warned me how drastically the drug was likely to affect me, and no one told me that the effects might be lasting. (Again, my situation is not strictly analogous to Tam’s. No one has tried to put an actual noose around my throat. It just feels like that.)
I have been living with aphasia ever since.
Aphasia. A beautiful name for the implosion of the bridge that connected me to the rest of the world.
That’s how Meghan Beaudry describes the bewildering, frightening experience of losing her words. Amy Roost, author, host of the podcast Fury, multi-talented and -accomplished wonder woman (Check out her web site. Go ahead. I’ll wait) sent me a link to Beaudry’s article, “A Brain Infection Destroyed My Marriage, But Made Me a Writer.”* Beaudry’s aphasia was inflicted by cerebritis, not medication, but like her, I had to “claw back” (exactly the phrase I hold in my mind) my ability to find my words. It’s still a struggle, almost eight years later. And her relationship to language is much like my own. Beaudry “balked at learning to navigate a new computer or phone, but cherished language, treating my words like pets and people: each with their own personalities and preferences….” Losing my words was like being unmoored. snatching at frayed threads instead of have a solid rope to secure me to my life.
Again like Beaudry, I continue to replenish my word hoard, but it is frustrating for me and for those with whom I try to communicate to wait around while I fish for words, needing the right ones with the right shades of meaning for my verbal palette. Poor Tam had a single moment of mis-speaking and was condemned for it. I live with the fear of condemnation, of being judged inadequate or unintelligent, of having people impatiently fill in my pauses and thereby let me know that I am taking up too much of their time.
Returning to the more overtly political, I wonder how many of those who claim to govern for us understand the power of their words, they way they are creating a world of flourishing hatred, selfishness, vituperation, viewed through a lenses so narrow that no light seems to get through. I think most of them are aware; I suspect few of them care. Tam (though he didn’t know it) had the excuse of being momentarily beset by some really bad luck; others of us have conditions that make it difficult to find the words we need. But Tam and most of us struggling with impediments work to correct our errors, though we may not always succeed. I don’t think many of our politicians and lawmakers can say the same.
I’m not much of a fashion maven, but I suspect that if we check the footwear of many —too many — of the people in power, we will see that they are wearing dangerously foolish boots.
*Beaudry’s story is headed by a photo of a snail slinking along the page of a book. It’s an apt image: finding words now can be a slow process, one that doesn’t necessarily stay on track, though at least it’s not usually slimy.
OK, OK: I’ll tell you how the story ends, but not how it is resolved, so you still have to read the book. Tam avoids hanging, he and Nesika get married, and Tam and Mazel remain friends (even if Tam doesn’t know it). And here’s another great aspect of the story: when the king dies a timely, totally non-suspicious death, it is Nesika who ascends the throne. Tam happily inhabits his role as consort, providing advice to Nesika when she requests it. But it is Nesika who rules the kingdom.
I like to say that, just as Scrooge carried Christmas in his heart all year long, so I carry Hallowe’en in mine.
So even though Hallowe’en was over weeks ago, I want to tell you a story — a true story! — about the kindness that allowed me to put out a Jack-O’Lantern to welcome trick-or-treaters this year.
I had a busy October and didn’t get out to acquire a pumpkin until just before Hallowe’en. (OK: I am typically a last-minute kind of person, as I was unhelpfully reminded by the unnamed person who was with me). But the stores usually carry some pumpkins into November for Thanksgiving, so I thought I would at least be able to pick up a couple small ones. However, when we got to the King Soopers, the outdoor bins were nowhere to be seen.
There was not one pumpkin in sight.
Not any of those tiny decorative ones.
Not even one of those white ghost-pumpkins.
Not even one with a mushy spot.
However, it was a drizzly, cold evening, so I thought perhaps the pumpkins had been moved inside to keep them from freezing. With hope in my heart, I entered the store and went to the produce section. Alas! Here, too, all presence of pumpkins had been abolished. I resigned myself to a pumpkin-less All-Hallows and set about doing the rest of the grocery shopping.
When I had finished at the deli counter, the young man behind the counter asked if there were anything else I needed. So I said, “I don’t suppose there any pumpkins hiding somewhere in the store.” He said he didn’t think so, but offered to check.
He disappeared for a few minutes, then came back with the produce manager — Joseph I think his name was. Joseph explained that there weren’t any more pumpkins out, but that he did have one in the back he had been planning to take home. We did the “Are you sure?” exchange a couple times, but Joseph explained he already had seven Jack-O’-Lanterns at home, so I accepted his offer with profuse thanks and profound gratitude.
Joseph disappeared into the back for a moment, then came out carrying one of the biggest, most perfect pumpkins I have ever seen. That pumpkin glowed.
It was a truly magnificent pumpkin, and an equally magnificent act of generosity.
Well, I was sure that something awful would happen to that glorious squash on the way home, that my husband would drop it (even though he almost never drops things, especially when he’s being careful), that I would trip over a particularly strong up-swelling of gravity (all too likely; gravity has an unfortunately tendency to accumulate under my feet), that aliens would see my perfect pumpkin and beam it up to carve themselves (we keep hoping for something to get abducted because how X-Files would that be? — but not that pumpkin). But we got that orange orb into the house in one piece, so of course I proceeded to cut it up.
I wish I had had more time to do us to do justice to that pumpkin. I wish I had been able to carve an intricate visage with painstaking details, a well-thought-out face with tremendous expression. I wish I had been able to make a Jack-O’-Lantern that would have been entered into the annals of the Great Pumpkins of All Time.
But I didn’t. Because we have small children in our neighborhood, I wanted a lantern that would be rather welcoming, but also spooky enough to add to the atmosphere of the evening. I envisioned a sort of banshee, one with a wailing aspect and hair blown about her face. I’m not sure that my intentions came through entirely, but it was all right. Not what that pumpkin deserved, but I hope it was not too embarrassed by the countenance I carved.
I salvaged the seeds for roasting and used the sections I cut out for a light pumpkin soup.
The post-Hallowe’en weather was cool and the pumpkin-lantern held its shape for a solid week. No squirrel nibbled on it; no neighborhood hooligans laid a hand on it. It stayed on our front step until it suddenly collapsed on itself and had to be resigned to the compost bin. But with me I still carry the glow of that pumpkin, of the candle the lit it, and of the kindness of Joseph, king of the produce aisle.
We’ve all seen them, those click-bait ads that promise if we do just ONE simple or weird thing, we can transform ourselves for the better. Well, here’s one thing we can do to help change our world:
If you live in a state like North Dakota or Georgia or Kansas, voting might not be simple. It might be weird or even difficult. But please vote. Remember if anyone tells you that can’t vote, you are still entitled to a provisional ballot. Demand one and a receipt for it and vote. Democracy only works when we, the people, are willing to rule and to remind our representatives that we will take the lead.