“Without the truths that are lodged in every life’s telling, the old narratives thin, become brittle, and shatter, and we are left in chaos, no trail to follow home.” —Kim Barnes
The scratch and tap of pencils filled the room, punctuated by miniature drum beats pattering through a set of headphones. I was substitute teaching in a high school classroom. When I’d arrived that morning, the teacher’s scrawled instructions were waiting on my desk: Have them write a response—“If you were to create a self-portrait, how would you reveal yourself and what materials would you use?” After a collective groan, my students set about their task. I drifted between desks, answering questions along a trail of pencils poked into the air. With a distraught sigh, Sarah raised her hand. When I reached her desk, she looked at the floor and shuffled her feet. “I dunno what to write,” she whispered, fighting tears. “Besides, nobody’s gonna read this shit.”
In a culture requiring little more of our stories than a 140-character “tweet,” areas of language easily fall into misappropriation and disuse; our abilities to think critically and exercise imagination suffer. Stories are a primary means of establishing identity and forming relationships. But as I read through the pile of essays left on my desk that day, I realized that the limited capacity for language that so restricted the expression of my students’ stories was only a microcosm. I could see traces of the same limitation in my own use of language and hesitance to see my story as a thing that others needed to hear.
We are immersed in a constant stream of language. The words never stop. As I write this, in a busy coffee shop in Santa Fe, there is a sea of words on the magazine stand to my left. Another body of words is stacked in neat rows on the menu board to my right. There are even words on the paper napkin beneath my (wordless) mug of green tea.
Words are being spoken all around me—the table of police officers enjoying an early lunch, the manager interviewing a prospective employee, the older couple muttering a word to each other every now and then. There are words passing between the two deaf women who just walked by, signing vigorously to each other.
There are words in orbit, invisible and silent, mulling about in my head and then clacking out—fingers to keyboard, keyboard to screen. There are words in the mind of the man sitting across from me with a stack of loose papers and a collection of highlighters, iced coffee within reach.
We understand life in the context of the language that we speak. We think in words and images that are attached to words. We even have words for the wordless emotions that enrich and complicate our human existence. We live in an economy that capitalizes on words—slogans and jingles, an endless stream of marketing enticing me to buy that, go here, be this. The words never stop. Yet we lack adequate language to tell our own stories in deep truth. This is true of the most articulate among us—language will always have its limitations. It was true of Sarah as it is true of anyone who is unable to see the beauty of the story that is their own life.
Without the truths that are lodged in every life’s telling…
To articulate and share our own stories, to encourage and receive the stories of others—this is vital to our sense of self, of community, and of belonging. Simply and emphatically put: Your story matters. Our capacity for language is something that needs to be cultivated, and that is a quiet process that unfolds over time—time in silence, time with a good novel, time in poetry, time in conversation.
Sarah refused to write the essay. Her peers gawked at her obstinance and I wondered if I should report it to the school office. But there was something behind her resistance. It was something similar to my own balking instinct when I sit down in front of a blank page, but it was more than that. Sarah’s resistance to finding words for her story was reinforced by her sincere belief that she had nothing worth telling. In an attempt to invite her to see that her story mattered, to show her now much I wanted this small glimpse of her life, I offered to complete the assignment myself. “I’ll write it if you will.”
So I did. And then she did.
Occasionally, I repeat the exercise as I find it helpful to notice the little things (and sometimes the big things) that are changing in my life. Sometimes I wind up with several pages and other times with a sentence or two. Sometimes I give up on the words and take to doodling instead.
If I were to create a self-portrait, it would be made of things I can find in the trash—things that don’t matter to anyone, but that can still be beautiful. I would appear to be sad, but I would also be smiling. My eyes would be very large, because I like to notice things. My mouth would be small on one side and large on the other, because I am gradually finding my voice. My hands would be open and reaching out, and over my heart there would be an empty space meant for a name. If I were to create a self-portrait, it would look just like me for a year or two, probably less, then it would look nothing like me.