I believe in the weight of words. The effect words have in this world are palpable. In the form of suggestions, opinions, oaths, or orders, words weigh upon everything from personalities to perceptions and actions.
I came to this belief, about the corporeality of words, gradually. I had a notion of it as a child. Often I preferred to listen to others; and because I was sometimes reticent, I could feel the weight of words as I mulled them over in my mind. I felt the fullness of words as they formed in my mouth. Especially in spring, my mother would drive my brothers and I into the countryside around Dallas. She would point out some plant in full bloom and give it a name: “Paintbrush,” “redbud,” “jonquil.” In the fall, on our drives, I heard “live oak,” “sumac,” “pecan.” By turns, the words tasted sweet, fragile, green, or ripe.
Growing up in the South in the 1950s and 1960s, I couldn’t help but overhear white people call out racial epithets—not all the time, but sometimes. Those words felt like brickbats, heavy with hate and prejudice, words intending to cause hurt, bruising, and worse. Those words made whole groups of people hide behind their doors, until finally they refused to do that. Then they began to visit places where the words still warned No and Don’t. Most of us were awed, and are still awed, by their actions in spite of the words. Many of us are still awed by the words that encouraged them: “I have a dream today” and “justice will roll down like waters.”
About this time, I was also deeply affected by the lyrics of popular music. Some of these lyrics presented themselves as real as anything from a big yellow taxi to a ribbon of highway to flowers growing on soldier’s graves. These images impressed upon me the weight of first love, first disappointment, first to die. I learned that all is not fair in love or war or life. But sometimes the particulars are exquisite: “answers in the wind”; “try and catch the wind”; “moons and Junes and ferris wheels”; “wear your love like heaven”; “red, red wine”; “knights in white satin”. And sometimes there is fairness; or love lasts; or the soldiers come home.
Now I am in my early fifties, and I still believe in the tangibility, weightiness, and shapeliness of words: “In sickness and in health”; “it’s a boy”; “it’s a girl”; “it’s a girl”; “divorce”; “cancer”; “tests are negative”; “I confer upon you”; “I’m leaving in a month”; “I’m coming home”; “I love you.” I’ve been shaped by words, and I’ve been a shaper of words. They have served me well and poorly, and I’ve seen the world go forward and fall back on the words of leaders. Words, words, words. Sculptures we design and create or tear down and rebuild. Words, corporeal and incarnate. Words that bring order to chaos. Words that go beyond the sum-total of their meaning.
If you enjoyed this essay, please consider making a tax-deductible contribution to This I Believe, Inc.