This I Believe

Daniel - Orinda, California
Entered on November 30, 2007
Age Group: 30 - 50
Themes: creativity
  • Podcasts

    Sign up for our free, weekly podcast of featured essays. You can download recent episodes individually, or subscribe to automatically receive each podcast. Learn more.

  • FAQ

    Frequently asked questions about the This I Believe project, educational opportunities and more...

  • Top Essays USB Drive

    This USB drive contains 100 of the top This I Believe audio broadcasts of the last ten years, plus some favorites from Edward R. Murrow's radio series of the 1950s. It's perfect for personal or classroom use! Click here to learn more.

Believe this I. It’s not what you say, but how you say it. We are talking—literally—language, communication, the passage of an idea from one to another. Diction is disingenuous; syntax is secondary—tone resides on the throne with you and I. Come walk with me through half-deserted streets of half-meaning and trip as they deconstruct before your very eyes. Sorry, the eyes don’t have it. Like an allusion, the white rabbit has abandoned the black hat. The written word, the original phony, the flimflam huckster, pales before the voice. This essay must be spoken, with liberty and justice for language.

When my eldest daughter was eight, her intensity about life worried me—the obsessive-compulsive demon lurked in her being. Though profanity often echoed through our house, she made her personal pact never to swear–ever. I offered her $20.00 to blurt an expletive, any expletive. Silence. A saint, you pronounce. Not quite. A stubborn, type-A boundary builder? Partly. To this day, not a profane peep has slipped from her lips. But when driven by anger, when emotionally cornered, with escape remote, she has no issue with making the most incendiary statements to those she loves–her mother, her younger sister, yes, me—a fire not measured in four-letter words, but in the cutting verbal edge, the tone—the sound in the fury.

Robert Frost in his ageless poetic wisdom heard this: “I say you can’t read a single good sentence with the salt in it unless you have previously heard it spoken.” Translated (I have heard his voice), language is tone. I defer to Frost once more: “Words exist in the mouth, not books.” Real communication requires speech, and even then, with language lit up, echoing in the halls of mixed metaphor, the message misses.

So where does this linguistic quandary leave me? Despairing? No. Rather, content with the possibilities of speech—the beauty in the beast. Every time I open my mouth, a symphony of nonsense is clamoring for release, for ears to assail, and my vocal chords shape words into amorphous meaning, to gently strangle and untangle, rolling in the mud with irony, vibrating to sound not sight. Do you not hear America singing? Do not look for her under your boot soles: Listen for her.

So I say to you, you can go to hell, or not, just an option, or not, just a blasphemy or not, just an imperative, no. What does hell sound like? If you is not a person, but a thing, nay, not a thing, a concept—language, for god’s sake—then the wordplay’s the thing wherein I’ll slay the conscience of your king. But what if I provide the hand basket for my words? What if I carry them over to your cottage through the pathless woods and whisper in your ear? Will you listen? Please, don’t shoot me. I am only the messenger. I play the piano with words. I write for fun, to be heard.