When I think of words, I imagine a terrain and see myself as an amateur geologist of sorts. The words are stones, shaped by the passage of time, by the elements. I pick one up and examine it to get a feel for its weight, shape, edges, size and proportion to others. I hold it up to the light to get a sense of its tint and hue, trying to decide what new dimension it will add to my collection. I recognize it as a weapon, a fragment of a puzzle, as evidence. As building material.
I celebrated my fortieth birthday a few weeks ago, and received a gift, the very best gift: Words. They came in the form of short, personal notes from several of my students (I teach at a small college in northern Indiana). They wished me a happy day and encouraged me by explaining their experiences in my classrooms. I don’t know who organized such a thing. I didn’t tell anyone beforehand that it was my birthday (though, on the day, it splashed across Facebook). Someone anonymously delivered the notes to my office. It was hush-hush, a surprise. By the time I finished reading, I was in tears.
This got me thinking about the clichéd notion of “empty words,” and how untrue that phrase really is. I understand, in a certain context, that phrase is an admonishment or an ointment for wounds inflicted by words, as in, “sticks and stones may break my bones” or “actions, not words, show how a person really feels.” Of course we all know that people sometimes speak without thinking, or say things they don’t truly mean. But deep down we all know words are never empty. Even when we recite empty words and use them in ways that are less than honoring of other human beings, they carry meaning—cruel and kind and everything in between. Because I spend so much time with words, because I enjoy them and use them to create and communicate, I take comfort in them. I suspect that rings true for other writers.
I recently copied a quote from Catholic writer and mystic Thomas Merton, a Trappist monk at that Abbey of Gethsemani in Kentucky: “God utters me like a word containing a partial thought of himself.” Because I am a person of faith, that quote has religious connotations, but it also has implications for the writer, perhaps for all of us. Words create—a picture, a feeling, an idea, a perception, a mystery. If I were to tell someone she’s stupid, the words would create a perception of me but also weasel its way into the other person’s perception of herself. Words are never empty in that when they’re uttered, written, even thought, they build in us an understanding of each other, who we are separately and together. It’s not just about creating art. It’s about creating ourselves, one stone at a time.
Jennifer Ochstein is a writer and teacher who has published book reviews with Brevity and the River Teeth blog, and essays with Hippocampus Magazine, The Lindenwood Review, Evening Street Review, and Connotation Press. She has an essay forthcoming in The Cresset. Follow her at jenniferochstein.com