We had salmon for dinner last night, which reminded me of puking when I was pregnant the first time, which reminded me of our apartment in South Pasadena, which reminded me of the light rail station a few blocks away, which reminded me of taking the train into Chinatown when Luke was a baby and being asked if I was the nanny, which reminded me of getting a boba in Chinatown in San Francisco, which reminded me of my brother who goes to San Fran for work all the time, which reminded me of Portland, Oregon, where he lives, which reminded me of Josh Garrels, a musician who lives there and makes beautiful music, which reminded me that words can change the world.
I recently saw a clip from Dead Poet’s Society (one of my favorite movies ever) – the scene where Mr. Keating tells his class to rip out the pages of the lame introduction to poetry in their textbook. “Now in my class you will learn to think for yourselves again. You will learn to savor words and language. No matter what anybody tells you, words and ideas can change the world.” Amen. As a lover of language, I know that I’m biased toward this idea. But I also know that words have changed my world, and they have altered human existence, for better or worse. Hitler used language as a weapon, and it worked. His vocabulary of hate and fear was powerfully convincing to those who wanted to agree, and acted as a veritable dagger against those he attacked. Martin Luther King Jr. used his speeches to give a voice to those without one, to break down walls between cultures, to promote peace. In each case, a single man created a movement that changed the direction of human kind. With words.
On a smaller scale, my dad told me he loved me every day as a child. He called me “Pumpkin” and “Princess,” said I was smart, beautiful and worth loving. From the beginning of my life he made me feel safe and valued with his words to me; he helped me know I deserved a good man someday. My mom wrote poems and essays about my brother and me, and I learned to express myself that way, too. I got my love for the rhythm of language from her. Received from her pen and her books the gift of poetry. Learned that you could invent vocabulary from E. E. Cummings, because his book was on our shelf, because my mom’s life was changed by words when she was young. The language of my childhood mattered. It made me who I am.
And then of course there are those who have introduced beauty into the world, simply for beauty’s sake. Professor Keating describes the importance of what may seem insignificant to some.
We don’t read and write poetry because it’s cute. We read and write poetry because we are
members of the human race. And the human race is filled with passion. And medicine, law,
business, engineering, these are noble pursuits and necessary to sustain life. But poetry, beauty,
romance, love, these are what we stay alive for.
When I need a reminder of love’s steadfast power, I read Shakespeare’s 116th Sonnet. When I look at the clouds or the stars in the sky, I think of Psalm 119 and my heart agrees. When I want to feel – just feel – deeply, I listen to a Greg Laswell song and let out a sigh of relief. And when I want to explain my own thoughts and feelings to myself and others, I write. I gather words, put together phrases, think of synonyms and metaphors and mix them up to make something new in the world. It’s my small contribution to the human race. I may not make the dent of Shakespeare or King David, but I’ll continue to “contribute a verse” and let the words speak for themselves.