Considering Charleston

Words usually come easily to me. I can be longwinded when I speak, and my writing is rarely brief. I blame the latter on my small handwriting. For the majority of my high school years, papers were handwritten, and I had to fill the page requirements like everyone else. Since my words took up less space, I got used to using more of them.

Words usually come easily to me, but then I watch the news. I see that the country I live in has some festering wounds. Slavery has left a legacy of disparity that is proving difficult to dismantle. I feel as though I’ve been tricked, or asleep, or in denial. When I was younger, I was certain that racism was endangered. I assumed it would die with the old-timers—becoming extinct in a matter of decades. But then the news of an event like the slaughter in Charleston hits me with a sucker punch. It’s 2015, and the assailant is young.

As a writer, I feel I should write something, but my reaction is one I find difficult to articulate. And whatever I could say in response to Charleston seems like a paltry offering when compared to what better minds than mine have written already—or even just stacked against the severe magnitude of the violence that took place.

I understand the history; it’s the present I’m struggling to grasp. Current events are making it clear: racism is a currency that is still in circulation here. When the conversation turns to Charleston, I’m ill equipped to make a response. What can I say other than I’m sickened and shocked? What will my words add? I have no solutions—no pithy rallying cries or hashtags.

Quite honestly, words leave me when I’m confronted with such atrocities. Considering Charleston, words fail me. All I’m left with is a confusing mélange of feelings: pity, sadness, despair, frustration, fear, anger. All my life I’ve been told (and believed) I can do and be anything I dream—that this is a land of equal opportunity. But hearing the news, I begin to wonder if we’ve irreparably ruined this world (or perhaps just this country).

In response to Charleston, the only words I can muster form questions: How can our country have come so far and still have so far to go? Have our methods of measurement been wrong? There’s a lot that can be said and even more that can be thought, but if we hope to make this world a better place, what can actually be done?

Racism isn’t new, but it’s modernized. I expected it would linger a bit, but I’m still caught off guard by its scope and size. Has it grown, or has it just been hiding behind political correctness and false smiles? How much of our progress is an illusion? How much of equality is a lie?

It’s not that all my hope is gone. I’m just realizing how much more I have to hope for.

Writing Is Work

Sometimes writing feels effortless—neither my fingers nor my mind grow fatigued. Instead of being painfully aware of each minute—each second—time passes without my noticing or counting. I’m somewhere else. I’m fully absorbed and reside in the process. Sometimes (rarely) I’m so engaged I forget to remember to eat. When I finally stop, it’s like waking up from a dream.

Sometimes writing is work; it’s an onerous chore. Instead of a stream of thoughts, words come in a lethargic crawl. Finding a phrase or sentence to add is like coaxing a suspicious and timid animal into eating out of my hand. Adding another paragraph is like finding a contact lens at night on the beach in the windblown sand.

Sometimes I can sit at my computer and write without ceasing. My brain doesn’t self-censor. My mind doesn’t grow weary. Once in a while a topic moves me—sets my thoughts astir, and then those thoughts set my fingers to typing more and more. I find myself lost in an idea. I write without being self-conscious or self-aware. Words become the strong current of a river carrying me forward. Instead of feeling like a beast of burden, I feel like a productive conduit.

Some days writing is simple. I get consumed by an idea, and it feeds me. I can write for hours at a time without any barriers or shackles around my thinking.

Other days writing feels futile. The task is never truly done. It’s shoveling my car out only to be buried again by a passing plow. I feel like Sisyphus—except my boulder is words, and the blank page is my mountain. Finishing a work requires starting anew. Reaching the end is finding a bare beginning too.

Sometimes writing is like skating on ice—the slightest effort propels me forward and far. Other days it’s like slogging up a muddy hill wearing flip-flops—progress is clumsy and arduous.

Sometimes writing is sitting down to a banquet—a feast of ideas for me to choose from. I feel nourished. My head is full. Other days it’s like looking at a barren landscape or searching for water at the height of a drought. Coming up with a new idea is like harvesting a field during a famine. My mind is dry and empty. It’s a well with no water to offer up.

Some days writing draws me in—attracting me like a magnet—luring me closer like the Sirens’ call. Other days I feel repelled; writing is an opposing force.

But whether it’s an endeavor I savor or suffer, whether the words ease or are eked out of me, if I refuse to abandon the effort, my work will produce something . . . eventually.

Playing with Words

I like playing with words. I like stretching them out like Silly Putty, molding them like Play-Doh, and assembling them into new formations like Legos.

Words are literary toys to toy with. I can make them dance like marionettes, line them up like dominoes, or turn them for a surprise—not unlike a jack-in-the-box.

Words make amusing playthings. They are lock, key, and door—question, reason, and answer. Writing is like solving an evolving puzzle. The permutations are multifaceted and infinite. No piece is wrong.

Words are an engaging activity. Instead of paints and crayons, I craft images with text and punctuation. Writing can be a game, a daydream, an awakening, or a labor of love. Words can be sharp, translucent, succulent, or soft.

Some wear masks and costumes; I play dress up with words. They can be witty, tender, or severe. They can act on behalf of thought, love, hurt, or anger.

Some words are comforting companions. I hug them close and often like a favorite teddy bear. I played with Barbie dolls when I was younger, but I also wrote plays for them.

Words are the building blocks of my mind—helping me construct and deconstruct life. Bridging the gap between my reality and my dreams. Drawing a line between the intuited and the seen.

Playing with words is serious work, but not so serious that it ceases to be fun. Words can create a character, a family, a landscape, or a universe. Writing is the vehicle (batteries included) that drives my imagination forward.

To Be Heard

I have two buttons that, when pushed, elicit a strong emotional response. I hate being interrupted (or talked over) and I detest being shushed. At the base of these pet peeves (or emotional allergies) is a common root: I have a need to be heard. When I’m speaking, I want to feel listened to.

Being shushed brings me back to my childhood. As a kid who loved and respected her parents like they were celebrities or gurus, feeling as though I’d disappointed either of them crushed me. I didn’t require spankings or time in a “time out.” A look of displeasure or disappointment from my parents (or a teacher) left me in a tailspin of remorse and shame (albeit a temporary one). In the moment, I wasn’t always able to separate their distaste for my actions from an aversion to me. In the moment, I became convinced that I’d lost their affection and would need to re-earn it.

Much like my mother was, I am an exuberant speaker. As my passion for whatever I’m talking about increases, so does my voice’s volume. The school I attended trained me to speak up to be heard—to make certain I got credit for my thoughts and words.

My father, on the other hand, is a soft-spoken man. I’ve heard him be stern, but in thirty-five years I’ve never (never!) heard him yell—not in pain, not in celebration, not in anger, not even for a taxi. His name, Clement, does mean temperate. I suppose in naming him his parents were a bit prophetic. I don’t know how he manages it or where his anger goes, but his temper is uniformly clement. He’s always in control.

Perhaps he doesn’t have to raise his voice because he grew to be so tall. Perhaps he can speak softly because he’s too big to be ignored.

I’m short. I have to try to be heard. And every now and again, when I was a child, my father would shush me. Now while I imagine he was simply trying to teach me to act in consideration of my surroundings (and to stop me from disturbing him or others) a “shush from him was a devastating blow—emotionally, it hit me hard.

Being shushed by my father made me feel as though he’d caught me doing something wrong—found me wild, uncivilized, and out of control. I felt sure I’d disappointed him by being too raucous to be his good little girl. His shush saddened me because I thought it carried his disapproval. It stung like a slap. It reeked like rejection. I felt emotionally disowned or abandoned—as though the sound of the “shush” stood for the distance he wanted to put between us.

As I got older, I learned that a parent’s love is more indelible than that—it’s permanent, in fact. I’ve learned that anyone who truly loves me will continue to love me even if they dislike some of my actions. But, to this day, my first response to being shushed is a regurgitation of the shame my childhood reprimands brought up. It’s an emotional smack that gives my sensibilities a jolt. It causes a number of my old insecurities to resurface.

When puberty developed my body, it also made me insecure. Already an introvert by nature, I got quieter. But that could only last so long. Athletics and academics wouldn’t let me stay silent. I wanted to be a good sport (and team captain). That meant cheering on my teammates and being vocal when I was playing. I was a perfectionist as a student, and class participation mattered. If I wanted the A, I needed to speak up. So I rediscovered my voice in the classroom and on the volleyball court.

While it doesn’t affect me as deeply as being shushed, I also have a strong aversion to being cut off. I assume you’re not listening when you ignore or interrupt. For me, being heard is akin to being seen. When I don’t feel listened to, I feel invisible—or like I’m being erased. All I hear in your interruption is, “Your words and thoughts don’t matter as much as this.” It’s as though you see me as small or you’re trying to shrink me down. I feel like a lost child going against the current of commuters at rush hour.

Here’s the thing though: I’m such a hypocrite. Even though I hate when it’s done to me, I interrupt others relentlessly. One of the academic survival skills I developed was how to cut someone off like an assassin. Whether consciously or not, I’ll identify points of verbal weakness in my target (be it classmate, teacher, or companion). That pause to collect his or her thoughts, or that beat to take a breath—stop speaking for just a moment, and I’ll start shooting my words in. I occupy conversations and stake my claim on every silence. And I rarely retreat until my words are acknowledged. And if someone tries to cut me off, I’ll raise my voice until I’ve silenced him or her.

I’m working on it (really), but I’ll cut you off verbally in a heartbeat. Say something that excites me or inspires an idea or memory and, more times than not, words will come spilling out of me. I also have this horrible habit of finishing other people’s sentences. In my excitement (or impatience) I’ll jump in and try to predict your thoughts like I’m a Wheel of Fortune contestant. And I’m a complete jerk about it too. So much so that I once found myself interrupting a girl with a stutter. I was mortified, but I still couldn’t (or didn’t) stop myself. (My belated and heartfelt apologies to her.)

Given how much I like to talk and my deep desire to be heard, it puzzles me when I don’t speak up—when I hold my tongue. On more than one occasion, I have been a silent victim. I have been pressed body to body with strangers on a crowded subway train and then felt something hard pressing into me. (What is that? Why is it moving?) Silence. (Is that someone’s penis!?) Silence. (No, it can’t be.) Silence. (Quit your denial and say something!) Silence. (Yell! Scream!). Silence.

I felt trapped and muzzled in my violation. I couldn’t move. I couldn’t run. I couldn’t see who it was. I could barely turn around. (Should I turn around? Or will that only make it worse?)

I still don’t fully understand why, but the few times this form of sexual harassment happened to me, I held my tongue and suffered silently. I’d slide my bag down to create a barrier, but not once did I say anything to the offender.

Why didn’t I scream? Why didn’t I speak up? Or, better yet, why didn’t I take “matters” into my own hands (with a forceful twist or pull)? Instead of suffering in silence, I should have made those perverts yell.