The Beauty & Power of Words

Some equate being a good reader with being a fast reader.  I am a good reader – I comprehend and retain (to use educational terminology).  I am not, however, a fast reader.  I used to wish that I could read faster, but I don’t any longer.

As a student, reading slowly is not exactly a desired skill.  Back when I was in school and the teacher allowed a certain amount of time to read a passage, I was never finished and trying to rush meant I didn’t comprehend either.  It was stressful.

Once past schooling, you would think that reading slowly isn’t a problem.  It certainly won’t make anyone fail.  But if your job entails a lot of reading, it makes for longer hours.  It might mean not finishing the book selected for book club.  And if you are like me, a person who should never be allowed to enter a bookstore unsupervised, it can lead to towering TBR piles on your bookshelves, nightstands, tables, and any other flat surface in the house.  All of these things were true for me, but none of them mattered to me in my adult life.  

I love to read for many reasons – none of them being finishing as the first one done!  I am a proud life-long learner who enjoys gleaning new knowledge.  I appreciate reading on new subjects, deepening my knowledge on a familiar topic, or traveling in someone else’s shoes in a well-written memoir.  I can get completely engrossed in a story, forgetting that the characters aren’t real, and lose all track of time in an absorbing novel.  Often I select a book that inspires me, helps me to better understand myself and the world, or deepens my faith.  My life is enriched by learning or being entertained through every genre I have chosen to read.  But there is an added dimension to reading slowly that I prize.

I am a lover of words.  I savor a well-turned phrase.  I revel in the perfect word choice.  I thrill at a description that takes me in and leaves me with a feeling of having been there.  I sit in awe of the talent to make a phrase that stops me in my tracks.  I shout “YES” when I read a truth that seems so obvious and right but comes as an AHA! moment, a finely turned phrase that you knew somewhere deep in your core but now have in words right in front of you.

While I was reading Marilyn McEntyre’s book Caring for Words in a Culture of Lies recently, I came across a name for the way I often read.  Lectio Divina.  As she describes it, this is an ancient Benedictine practice that emphasizes slow, contemplative reading where you focus on a word or a phrase that speaks to you.  While it a discipline in reading scripture, I agree with McEntyre that it “need not be reserved only for the reading of sacred text.  Poems, stories, personal memoirs, even news analysis and feature articles…with an eye and ear out for words, images, scenes, sentences and rhythms that evoke a felt response” (McEntyre, 70).

Often as I am reading, I will be totally captivated by a delightful phrase, the just right word, or the evocation of memory that words bring on.  

Read the following passage that opens the book Liturgy of the Ordinary by Tish Harrison Warren:

     “I wake slowly.  Even when the day demands I rally quickly – when my kids leap on top of me with sharp elbows or my alarm blares – I lie still for the first few seconds of the day, stunned, orienting, thoughts dulled.  Then comes, slowly, the dawning of plans to make and goals for the day.  But in those first delicate seconds, the bleary-eyed pause of waking, before the tasks begin, before I get on my game, I’m greeted again with the truth of who I am in my most basic self.
      “Whether we’re children or heads of state, we sit in our pajamas for a moment, yawning, with messy hair and bad breath, unproductive, groping toward the day.  Soon we’ll get buttoned up into our identities: mothers, people, students, friends, citizens.  We’ll spend our day conservative or liberal, rich or poor, earnest or cynical, fun-loving or serious.  But as we first emerge from sleep, we are nothing but human, unimpressive, vulnerable, newly born into the day, blinking as our pupils adjust to light and our brains emerge into consciousness.
      “I always try to stay in bed longer. My body is greedy for sleep – ‘Just a few more minutes!’
      “But it’s not just sleep I’m greedy for – it’s that in-between place, liminal consciousness, where I’m cozy, not quite alert to the demands that await me.  I don’t want to face the warring, big and small, that lies ahead of me today.  I don’t want to don an identity yet.  I want to stay in the womb of my covers a little longer” (Warren, 15).

Last night while reading Luci Shaw’s poetry collection called The Generosity, I was enthralled by the words in one poem after another.  I stopped and reread.  I closed my eyes to revel in the words – seeing and hearing, remembering, wishing I had the talent to put together the words I just read.

Listen.  Have you heard
the sound of a wave
retreating down the angled stretch
of just-swept sand, edged
with foam that shrinks
with the sound of lace?
Does it tell of regret at
having failed to conquer
the great beach?  or is it
gathering itself for the next
onslaught?

When you read the lines above from her poem “Wave Action,” are you walking the beach?  Does the image of the “foam that shrinks” having the “sound of lace” thrill you with its unexpected image that captures it perfectly?  I see that foam retreating and the bubbled texture looking like lace and somehow, yes, sounding like it too.  

Reading slowly allows me to savor the words and images.  I appreciate the writer’s craft in storytelling on a level beyond just the plot.  I image that those who don’t take the time to acknowledge what the author is doing are often feeling the effect of the talent, but I love noticing it because I love words.  

I appreciate your reading this far especially if all of this is foreign to you.  Thanks for coming this far and hope to chat with you again soon.  

If, however, you too love words the way I do, let me share some of my joys of words with you.  I have a file on my laptop with quotes that moved me, that made me laugh, think, smile, cry, sigh, or had me just sit with them for awhile. I’ll share a few here just because I think they are worth the time.  If you have some, please share with me too.

Mitch Albom – Tuesdays With Morrie

      “Wherever I went in my life, I met people wanting to gobble up something new.  Gobble up a new car.  Gobble up a new piece of property.  Gobble up the latest toy. And then they wanted to tell you about it. ‘Guess what I got? Guess what I got?
      “You know how I always interpreted that? These people were so hungry for love that they were accepting substitutes.  They were embracing material things and expecting a sort of hug back. But it never works. You can’t substitute material things for love or for gentleness or for tenderness or for a sense of comradeship.
      “Money is not a substitute for tenderness, and power is not a substitute for tenderness here dying, when you most need it, neither money nor power will give you the feeling you're looking for, no matter how much of them you have.”
      “When Morrie was with you, he was really with you.  He looked you straight in the eye, and he listened as if you were the only person in the world. How much better would people get along if their first encounter each day were like this – instead of a grumble from a waitress or a bus driver or a boss?
      “‘I believe in being fully present,’ Morrie said. ‘That means you should be with the person you’re with.’”

Laurie Halse Anderson – Speak

“Cold and silence. Nothing quieter than snow. The sky screams to deliver it, a hundred banshees flying on the edge of the blizzard. But once the snow covers the ground, it hushes as still as my heart.” 

Maya Angelou – anything she wrote

“Without courage you cannot practice any of the other virtues.”

“Words mean more than what is set down on paper. It takes the human voice to infuse them with shades of deeper meaning.”

Pretty women wonder where my secret lies.
 I’m not cute or built to suit a fashion model’s size   
 But when I start to tell them,
 They think I’m telling lies.
 I say,
 It’s in the reach of my arms,
 The span of my hips,   
 The stride of my step,   
 The curl of my lips.   
 I’m a woman
 Phenomenally.
 Phenomenal woman,   
 That’s me…

Wendell Berry – poetry

The Peace of Wild Things
 
 When despair for the word grows in me
 and I wake in the night at the least sound
 in fear of what my life and my children’t lives may be,
 I go and lie down where the wood drake
 rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds
 I come into the peace of wild things
 who do not tax their lives with forethought 
 of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
 And I feel above me the day-blind stars
 waiting with their light. For a time
 I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.

Sandra Cisneros – The House on Mango Street

“She looked out the window her whole life, the way so many women sit their sadness on an elbow.”

“I would baptize myself under a new name, a name more like the real me, the one nobody sees.”

      “I am an ugly daughter. I am the one nobody comes for…
      “My mother says when I get older my dusty hair will settle and my blouse will learn to stay clean, but I have decided not to grow up tame like the others who lay their necks on the threshold waiting for the ball and chain.
      “In the movies there is always one with red red lips who is beautiful and cruel.  She is the one who drives the men crazy and laughs them all away. Her power is her own. She will not give it away.”

Pat Conroy – Everything he ever wrote

“…Ledare passed out tomato sandwiches, made with tomatoes from her mother’s garden, lettuce, mayonnaise, and Vidalia onions.  I moaned with pleasure as I bit into the sandwich and the rich juice spilled out of the sandwich and down my face and arms.  I opened the sandwich to inspect the slice of tomato I had just tasted.  It was large and fire-engine red and glistened with juice and health. I remembered long ago, when I had gone out into a field with my grandfather, who had leaned down and cut a ripe tomato from a vine heavy with fruit.  Silas had peeled the tomato with his pocketknife, then salted slices and handed them to me.  I could not imagine that nectar in Paradise could’ve tasted any better than that freshly picked tomato.  And for me that taste has always been and will be the tase of Waterford and summer.”  (Beach Music)

“I was trying to unravel the complicated trigonometry of the radical thought that silence could make up the greatest lie ever told.”  (South of Broad)

My wound is geography. It is also my anchorage, my port of call.” (Prince of Tides)

“The wing of a fly is proof enough of the existence of God for me.” (Beach Music)

Zora Neale Hurston – Their Eyes Were Watching God

    Ships at a distance have every man's wish on board. For some they come in with the tide. For others they sail forever on the same horizon, never out of sight, never landing until the Watcher turns his eyes away in resignation, his dreams mocked to death by Time. That is the life of men.
      "Now, women forget all those things they don't want to remember, and remember everything they don't want to forget. The dream is the truth. Then they act and do things accordingly.” 

“She knew now that marriage did not make love. Janie’s first dream was dead, so she became a woman.” 

“Look lak she been livin’ through uh hundred years in January without one day of spring.” 

Barbara Kingsolver – poems and novels

This House I Cannot Leave 
 
 My friend describes the burglar:
 how he touched her clothes, passed through rooms
 leaving himself there, 
  staining the space
 between walls, a thing she can see.
 
 She doesn’t care what he took, only
 that he has driven her out, she can’t 
 stay in this house
 she loved, scraped the colors of four families 
 from the walls and painted with her own
 and planted things.
 She is leaving fruit trees behind.
 
 She will sell, get out, maybe
 another neighborhood.
 
  People say
 Get over it.  The market isn’t good.  They advise
 that she think about cash to mortgage
 and the fruit trees
 
 but the trees have stopped growing for her.
 
 I can offer no advice.
 I tell her I know, she will leave.  I am thinking
 Of the man who broke and entered
 
 Me.
 
  Of the years it took to be home again
 in this house I cannot leave.

William Kent Kruger – Ordinary Grace

“It seemed to me a good day to be dead and by that I mean that if the dead cared no more about the worries they’d shouldered in life and could lie back and enjoy the best of what God had created it was a day for exactly such.”  

“We turn, three men bound by love, by history, by circumstance, and most certainly by the awful grace of God, and together walk a narrow lane where headstones press close all around, reminding me gently of Warren Redstone’s parting wisdom, which I understand now.  The dead are never far from us.  They’re in our hearts and on our minds and in the end all that separates us from them is a single breath, one final puff of air.”

Trevor Noah – Born a Crime

The genius of apartheid was convincing people who were the overwhelming majority to turn on each other.  Apart hate, is what it was.  You separate people into groups and make them hate one another so you can run them all.”

Ali Standish – The Ethan I Was Before

“Why does Suzanne dislike you so much?” I ask.
 Coralee seems to get along fine with everyone besides Suzanne’s gang.  We sit with lots of other kids at lunch, and she can find something to talk about with anyone, even Herman.
 She thinks about the question for a minute.  “Suzanne wants everyone to be afraid of her.  That way she has more power.  That’s what being popular is all about.  But I’m not afraid of her.  Maybe she worries that if people see that, they won’t be afraid of her either, and she won’t be popular anymore.”  

“Trying to destroy hope is like trying to clean sand out of your beach bag,” she says.  “There’s always going to be a grain or two left.”

Carlos Ruiz Zafon – The Shadow of the Wind

Once, in my father’s bookshop, I heard a regular customer say that few things leave a deeper mark on a reader than the first book that finds its way into his heart.  Those first images, the echo of words we think we have left behind, accompany us throughout our lives and sculpt a palace in our memory to which, sooner or later—no matter how many books we read, how many worlds we discover, or how much we learn of forget— we will return.” 

Markus Zusak – The Book Thief

“Usually we walk around constantly believing ourselves.  ‘I’m okay’ we say. “I’m alright”. But sometimes the truth arrives on you and you can’t get it off. That’s when you realize that sometimes it isn’t even an answer–it’s a question. Even now, I wonder how much of my life is convinced.”

BOOKS USED IN THIS PIECE:

  • Albom, Mitch.  Tuesdays With Morrie.  New York: Doubleday, 1997.
  • Anderson, Laurie Halse.  Speak.  New York: Puffin, 2001.
  • Angelou, Maya.  The Complete Collected Poems of Maya Angelou. New York: Random House, 1994.
  • Berry, Wendell.  New Collected Poems.  Berkeley, CA: Publishers Group West, 2012.
  • Cisneros, Sandra. The House on Mango Street. New York: Vintage Books, 1991.
  • Conroy, Pat.  Beach Music.  New York: Doubleday, 1995.
  • __________.  The Prince of Tides.  Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1986.
  • __________.  South of Broad.  New York: Nan A. Talese, 2009.
  • Hurston, Zora Neale.  Their Eyes Were Watching God. New York: Harper Perennial Modern Classics, 2006.
  • Kingsolver, Barbara.  Another America/Otra América. New York: Seal Press, 1998.
  • Krueger, William Kent.  Ordinary Grace.  New York: Atria Books, 2013.
  • McEntyre, Marilyn.  Caring for Words in a Culture of Lies. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2009.
  • Noah, Trevor.  Born a Crime: Stories From a South African Childhood.  Toronto, ON: Penguin Canada, 2016.
  • Ruiz Zafon, Carlos.  The Shadow of the Wind. New York: Penguin Press, 2004.
  • Shaw, Luci.  The Generosity: Poems. Brewster, MA: Paraclete Press, 2020.
  • Standish, Ali.  The Ethan I Was Before. New York: Harper, 2017.
  • Warren, Tish Harrison. Liturgy of the Ordinary. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2016.
  • Zusak, Markus. The Book Thief. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2006.

One thought

  1. Beautiful may I share on m

    On Thu, Mar 4, 2021, 12:18 AM A Word Aptly Spoken wrote:

    > Lynne Vanderveen Smith posted: ” Some equate being a good reader with > being a fast reader. I am a good reader – I comprehend and retain (to use > educational terminology). I am not, however, a fast reader. I used to > wish that I could read faster, but I don’t any longer. As a student” >

    Like

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