I've been thinking a lot about words lately. Words in business writing, words in everyday discourse, words in literature. I've been thinking about the thrill of learning words and the tragedy of losing them.
This morning my sister in Cincinnati sent me some words in an e-mail message telling me that our mother, who is suffering from Alzheimer's, may be "actively dying," in the words of her attending nurse.
As soon as I finish writing these words to you, I'll book a flight from here to there, from a world I've made for myself and my family here in Minneapolis to my mother's world in Cincinnati -- from a world of words I write and teach to make a living and words I read to help me understand the joys and grief and mystery of life, to a world where words are locked somewhere deep inside, shunted away from where they might surface to tell us what she is thinking and feeling.
Over the years I've written a number of columns about the importance of learning words. I've suggested a variety of ways to expand one's vocabulary, from owning and using a dictionary to taking part in one of the great pleasures in life: reading. A word learned is a personal victory. For every new word, I've pontificated, a new synapse is created. Without the right words, certain thoughts cannot be thought or communicated.
But it's more than knowing words. It's also owning them and possessing them. It's keeping them alive and well and handy for when they're needed. It's standing behind them and using them genuinely.
After 38 years of teaching writing, I'm treating myself to a novel-writing class taught by Mary Gardner at the Loft Literary Center. One student in that class described a helpful writing exercise: Make a list of objects you might associate with a character you are developing.
In my novel, the objects are an accordion, a black stallion (named Dangling Participle) and a baby boy. For Henry David Thoreau, they were a hound, a bay horse and a turtledove.
What are they for you?
More to the point, what words would you associate with your identity, values and character? Do your words do justice to the story of your life? If your grasp of language is rudimentary and awkward, what are you doing to improve it? Do you have the knowledge but lack the patience to find the right word, the word that captures your precise meaning, the one that points out a problem to a colleague without causing offense?
There's one word my mother has not lost. My sister told me she heard it yesterday. As she was leaving her room, Mom said, "I love ...." She didn't complete the sentence, but my sister was thrilled. It has been a while since Mom has done anything but stammer.
If "love" is the last word she says, I'll count my blessings. I'll accept her gift, and I'll try to pass it on.