I believe in the power of words. Ever since I can remember I have been surrounded by words. On a gigantic, aluminum board that my father had installed in our kitchen, he would build quotations out of small rainbow-colored magnetic letters by his favorite authors. The words of Saul Bellow, Phillip Roth, and Noam Chompsky would hang high over our heads in brilliant lines, that my brother and I never fully understood. What we did understand was that words were powerful. They could plant seeds of thought into another person’s head that may one day grow into a new idea, an interesting story, or an act of kindness.
My mother and father fell in love with words early in life and then decided to go through years of formal training to learn just how beautiful they were. They both became English professors and taught as a team in Chicago. Then, as life became more complicated, my mother fell into alcoholism and Bipolar disorder. My parents separated and divorced. Still, they found words. As a new single-father, my dad surrounded himself deeper into books, trying to understand what had happened to him. He awoke early in the morning to read for hours. Then he decided to take his own words and throw them into the world. He began to get published in our local newspaper on a weekly basis. Then he was broadcast on our local radio station. He told those who were listening to: Keep a small town small! Stop big development! Put away your car and ride your bicycle! For ten years we did not own a car. He wanted the rest of the world to follow our brave, two-wheeled path.
My mother, down the rabbit hole of mental illness, would also grasp onto words. Through hitchhiking from northern Michigan to the Tempeh, Arizona she always found books. She used the public library and read book after book. Rachel Carson or Edward Albee or William Faulkner. During the times she was in jail, she would consume the small jail library, taking anything she could get, reading as a means of escape from her tiny cell.
These words, so many of my words, come back and echo with my mother and father. My mom used to send me Shel Silverstein poems with wild notes scrawled in the margins, showing me that even in the depths of madness, love always shines through words. Or my kind, ever-patient dad woke up with me at 5:30 in the morning in my high school days to help me write that English paper that was due in second hour. We would labor over each word until my thoughts were somehow intelligible.
Now, thirty-some years later, I, too, have embraced words. I wonder what I can possibly give my parents in return for their gift. So, today, I sit in the spring sun in my backyard and string letters together into words of love and gratitude, hoping they just might hear my words and smile.
If you enjoyed this essay, please consider making a tax-deductible contribution to This I Believe, Inc.